On Wednesday Pope Francis cautioned that unless wealth and power are put at the service of society, especially the poor, they risk becoming instruments of corruption, private interests and various forms of abuse.
“Wealth and power are realities which can be good and useful for the common good, if they are put at the service of the poor and of everyone, with justice and charity,” the Pope said Feb. 24.
However, when they are instead lived “as a privilege with egoism and power, as too often happens, they are transformed into instruments of corruption and death.”
Pope Francis spoke to pilgrims gathered in St. Peter’s Square for his Wednesday general audience, which he dedicated to his ongoing catechesis on mercy in scripture.
In his speech, the Pope noted that throughout scripture, stories are told about different prophets, kings and men who are at the top of the ladder, as well as the “arrogance and abuses” they frequently commit.
Turning to the story of Naboth in the First Book of Kings, who was killed for refusing to sell his vineyard to the king Ahab, Francis used the passage as the center of his reflections.
While the king’s initial offer to purchase the vineyard seemed legitimate and even generous, properties in Israel were considered inalienable, Francis noted, explaining that since Naboth’s land was considered a sacred gift from God to be guarded and preserved, he refused to sell it.
Ahab reacted with “bitterness and outrage” and was offended because “he is the king, he is powerful! He feels belittled in his sovereign authority, and frustrated in his ability to satisfy his desire for possession,” the Pope said.
He noted that as a result, Ahab’s wife Jezebel, who was involved with cults and had killed several prophets, writes letters in the king’s name to the nobles and elders asking them to accuse Naboth of cursing God and the king, and to stone him.
“This is how the story ends: Naboth dies and the king can take possession of his vineyard,” Francis observed, explaining that this isn’t just “a story of the past, it's a story of today.”
It’s the story, he said, “of the powerful who, in order to get more money, exploit the poor, exploit people; it's the story of the trafficking of persons, of slave labor, of poor people who work in black with the minimum, it's the story of corrupt politicians who always want more and more and more.”
This, Francis continued, where authority is exercised with no justice, mercy or respect for life. “And this is what brings the thirst for power: it becomes greed and wants to possess everything.”
Pope Francis pointed to Jesus’ declaration to the apostles in the Gospel of Matthew that “whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave.”
He cautioned that when the dimension of service is lost, “power becomes arrogance, domination and abuse. This is exactly what happens in the episode of the vineyard of Naboth.”
God, however, is greater than the evil and “dirty games” of humanity, he said, noting that in his mercy the Lord sends the prophet Elijah to help Ahab convert.
Although God saw the king’s crime, “he knocks at the heart of Ahab. And the king, placed in front of his sin, understands, humbles himself and asks forgiveness,” the Pope said, adding that it would be nice if the “the powerful exploiters of today” imitated the king’s gesture.
However, Francis cautioned that just because the Lord accepted Ahab’s penance, an innocent person was killed, which is an act that will continue to have “inevitable consequences.”
“The evil done in fact leaves its painful traces, and the story of mankind bears the wounds,” he said, but noted that God’s act of mercy shows us the main path that must be pursued.
Mercy can heal wounds and can change the course of history, the Pope said, and encouraged pilgrims to open their hearts to God’s mercy. He said that divine mercy “is stronger than man's sin,” and that the power of the true king, Jesus Christ, “is completely different” than that of the world.
“His throne is the Cross...His going to everyone, especially the weak, defeats the loneliness and fate of death which sin leads to.”