Pope Francis in his traditional Wednesday general audience continued his catechesis on forgiveness for the Jubilee Year of Mercy, using the story of Naboth’s vineyard, a tale of a wealthy and powerful person (Ahab) who oppresses (to the point of death) a less wealthy and powerful person (Naboth) to illustrate the extraordinary power of wealth.
Below is the complete text of the Pontiff’s catechesis:
Dear brothers and sisters,
Good morning. We continue the catechesis on mercy in Sacred Scripture. Various passages speak of the powerful, of kings, and of men who are “on top,” and of their arrogance and abuses. Wealth and power are realities that can be good and useful to the common good if placed at the service of the poor, and of everyone, with justice and charity. But when, as too often happens, they are experienced as privilege, with selfishness and arrogance, they are transformed into instruments of corruption and death. This is what happens in the episode of Naboth’s vineyard, described in the First Book of Kings, chapter 21, on which we reflect today.
In this text, it is said that the king of Israel, Ahab, wanted to buy the vineyard of a man named Naboth, for the vineyard adjoined the royal palace. The proposal seems legitimate, even generous, but in Israel land ownership was considered almost inalienable. In fact, the book of Leviticus prescribes: “The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is mine; for you are strangers and sojourners” (25:23). The land is sacred, because it is the Lord’s gift, and as such must be guarded and preserved as a sign of divine blessing that passes from generation to generation and guarantees of dignity for all. Naboth’s negative response to the king is understandable then: “The Lord forbid that I should give you the inheritance of my fathers” (1 Kings 21:3).
King Ahab reacts to this refusal with bitterness and anger. He feels offended — he is the king, the powerful one —, diminished in his authority as sovereign, and frustrated in his inability to satisfy his desire to possess. Seeing him so dejected, his wife Jezebel, a pagan queen who had increased idolatrous cults and was having the prophets of the Lord killed (cf. 1 Kings 18:4), — she wasn’t ugly, she was wicked — decides to take action. The words she addresses to the king are very significant. Listen to the wickedness behind this woman, “Do you now govern Israel? Arise, and eat bread, and let your heart be cheerful. I will give you the vineyard of Naboth the Jezreelite” (v. 7). She emphasizes the prestige and power of the king, which to her way of seeing, is being called into question by Naboth’s refusal. A power that she instead considers as absolute, such that every wish of the powerful king becomes an order. The great St. Ambrose wrote a small book on this episode. It is called “Naboth.” We would do well to read it during this season of Lent. It’s very beautiful; it’s very concrete.
Jesus, recalling these things, tells us: “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you; but whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave” (Mt 20:25-27). If the dimension of service is lost, power is transformed into arrogance and becomes domination and oppression. This is precisely what happens in the episode of Naboth’s vineyard.
Jezebel, the queen, unscrupulously decides to eliminate Naboth and implements her plan. She makes use of deceptive appearances of a perverse law: on behalf of the king, she sends letters to the elders and nobles of the city, ordering them, on false testimony, to accuse Naboth publicly of having cursed God and the king, a crime punishable by death. With Naboth dead, the king could take possession of his vineyard.
This is not a story of the past; it is also the history of today, of the powerful who exploit the poor, exploit the people, to have more money. It is the story of human trafficking, slave labor, the poor people who work off the books, and for a pittance, to enrich the powerful. It is the story of corrupt politicians who want more and more and more. That is why I said we would do well to read St. Ambrose’s book of Naboth, because it is a very relevant book.
This is where the exercise of authority without respect for life, without justice, and without mercy leads. And this is what the thirst for power leads to: It becomes greed that wants to possess everything. A text of the prophet Isaiah is especially illuminating in this regard. In it, the Lord warns against the greed of the wealthy landowners who want to possess more and more houses and land. The prophet Isaiah says:
“Woe to those who join house to house,
who add field to field,
until there is no more room,
and you are made to dwell alone
in the midst of the land (Is 5:8).
And the prophet Isaiah was not a communist!
God, however, is greater than the wickedness and dirty tricks carried out by human beings. In his mercy he sends the prophet Elijah to help Ahab convert. Now let’s turn the page. How does the story continue? God sees this crime and knocks at Ahab’s heart, and the king, placed before his sin, understands, humbles himself, and asks for forgiveness. How lovely it would be if today’s powerful exploiters would do the same. The Lord accepts his repentance. However, an innocent man was killed, and the fault committed will have inevitable consequences. The evil done leave its painful traces, and human history bears its wounds.
Also in this case, mercy reveals the royal road that must be taken. Mercy can heal wounds and change history. Open your heart to mercy! Divine mercy is stronger than the sins of men. It is stronger, this is what Ahab’s example shows us. We come to know its power when we remember the coming of the Innocent Son of God who became man to destroy evil through his forgiveness. Jesus Christ is the true king, but his power is completely different. His throne is the Cross. He is not a king who kills; on the contrary, he gives life. His going out to others, especially the weakest, defeats the loneliness and fate of death to which sin leads. Jesus Christ, through his closeness and tenderness, leads sinners into the space of grace and forgiveness. And this is God’s mercy.