Angilbert (fl. ca. 840/50), On the Battle Which was Fought at Fontenoy

The Law of Christians is broken,
Blood by the hands of hell profusely shed like rain,
And the throat of Cerberus bellows songs of joy.

Angelbertus, Versus de Bella que fuit acta Fontaneto

Fracta est lex christianorum
Sanguinis proluvio, unde manus inferorum,
gaudet gula Cerberi.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Poverty and Wealth: The Old Testament Tradition

THE BIBLE HAS A NUANCED VIEW on riches and wealth. It recognizes the benefit of abundance, of a flourishing economic life, and it recognizes wealth as a blessing from God, often one tied to obedience to His commandments and fidelity to His covenant. On the other hand, it recognizes the dangers attendant to wealth, and warns the rich to guard their soul, and to be quick not to abuse their wealth and instead use it for the benefit of the poor. The Scriptures absolutely condemn wealth that is ill-gotten--through oppressions, through fraud, or through immoral means such as usury.

Similarly, the Scriptures have a nuanced view of poverty. On the one hand, the Bible often points to poverty as being the consequence of the vice of idleness or lack of industry. On the other hand, it recognizes that the poor are often poor not because of vice, but because of the viciousness of those of the rich and powerful. Some poverty, it seems, is neither the result of vice or oppression, but part of the inscrutable providence of God. Finally, the poor man is often a symbol of how man's soul ought to be seen before God, and, to that degree, the poor are symbols of us all.

In the Book of Proverbs we find a rich and multifarious understanding of poverty. Poverty can be the result of a lack of diligence, of irresponsible behavior, of a shirking of duty.
The slack hand impoverishes,
but the hand of the diligent enriches.
He who gathers crops in summer is a wise son,
but he who sleeps during harvest is a disgraceful son.
(Prov. 10:4-5)

Labor is the source of wealth, and poverty is caused by idleness. Indeed, the poverty that is the result of lack of diligence, or idleness, is excoriated in Scripture. It is seen as a form of social theft. The Scriptures have a strong understanding of contributive justice. "The man who is slack in his work," the Book of Proverbs says, "is own brother to the man who is destructive." (Prov. 18:9)

All have a duty to work, to be frugal, to use their talents and labor to assure the flourishing of their self, their family, and their tribe. Using very strong language, St. Paul tells the Thessalonians that "if any will not work, neither let him eat." (2 Thess. 3:10). And who can forget his words to Timothy which are harsh against those who fail in their duty of supporting those under their care: "And whoever does not provide for relatives [τῶν ἰδίων, one's own] and especially family members [οἰκείων = household] has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever." (1 Tim. 5:8)

Some Scriptures link obedience to God to material blessing, and disobedience to God with poverty. In Scripture, belief in God and fidelity to his covenants and laws, including His injunction to care for the poor, is followed by blessings. (Cf. Deut. 15:4-8; 28:1-38-39; Prov. 22:9).
Nay, more! since the LORD, your God, will bless you abundantly in the land he will give you to occupy as your heritage, there should be no one of you in need. If you but heed the voice of the LORD, your God, and carefully observe all these commandments which I enjoin on you today, you will lend to many nations, and borrow from none; you will rule over many nations, and none will rule over you, since the LORD, your God, will bless you as he promised. If one of your kinsmen in any community is in need in the land which the LORD, your God, is giving you, you shall not harden your heart nor close your hand to him in his need. Instead, you shall open your hand to him and freely lend him enough to meet his need.
(Deut. 15:4-8) Book of Proverbs links blessings with giving to the poor: "The kindly man will be blessed, for he gives of his sustenance to the poor." (Prov. 22:9)

It follows that disbelief in God and violation of God's moral commandments are often seen as calling forth a judgment from God that results in poverty. For example, in Haggai 1:4-6, the prophet suggests that the people's poverty is the result of their disregard of God's temple:
Is it time for you to dwell in your own paneled houses, while this house lies in ruins?
Now thus says the LORD of hosts: Consider your ways!
You have sown much, but have brought in little;
you have eaten, but have not been satisfied;
You have drunk, but have not been exhilarated;
have clothed yourselves, but not been warmed;
And he who earned wages earned them for a bag with holes in it.

Not all poverty is of this kind. One cannot simply assume that one who is poor is idle, lazy, and suffers the judgment of God because of sin. The Scriptures recognize that poverty is often the result of unfortunate circumstances whose ultimate reasons are known to God's providence alone. In this sense "Rich and poor have a common bond: the Lord is the maker of them all." (Prov. 22:2) One might here profitably turn to the Book of Job, where--through no fault of his own--the righteous Job loses his family, his health, and his wealth. The unflappable Job suffers through the loss of all his blessings: Dominus dedit, Dominus abstulit: sicut Domino placuit, ita factum est: sit nomen Domini benedictum. "The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD!" (Job 1:21)

There is a form of poverty that is neither caused by the lack of diligence, nor is the result of disobedience of God's commands and a life of sin, but is the result of oppression, of fraud, of injustice. "For there are among my people criminals," says God through his prophet Jeremiah," like fowlers they set traps, but it is men they catch."
Their houses are as full of treachery as a bird-cage is of birds; Therefore they grow powerful and rich, fat and sleek. They go their wicked way; justice they do not defend By advancing the claim of the fatherless or judging the cause of the poor. Shall I not punish these things? says the LORD; on a nation such as this shall I not take vengeance?
(Jer. 5: 26-29) The poor in these instances are the victims of injustice, and their oppressors are excoriated with very strong words.
Woe to those who plan iniquity, and work out evil on their couches; In the morning light they accomplish it when it lies within their power. They covet fields, and seize them; houses, and they take them; They cheat an owner of his house, a man of his inheritance. Therefore thus says the LORD: Behold, I am planning against this race an evil from which you shall not withdraw your necks; Nor shall you walk with head high, for it will be a time of evil.
(Micah 1:1-3)

The rich are constantly admonished to do justice to the poor and the afflicted. "Defend the weak and fatherless; maintain the rights of the poor and oppressed." (Ps. 82:3; cf. Isaiah 1:17; Deut. 24:17) They are admonished to gain their wealth justly.
If a man is virtuous - if he does what is right and just, if he does not eat on the mountains, nor raise his eyes to the idols of the house of Israel; if he does not defile his neighbor's wife, nor have relations with a woman in her menstrual period; if he oppresses no one, gives back the pledge received for a debt, commits no robbery; if he gives food to the hungry and clothes the naked; if he does not lend at interest nor exact usury; if he holds off from evildoing, judges fairly between a man and his opponent; if he lives by my statutes and is careful to observe my ordinances, that man is virtuous - he shall surely live, says the Lord GOD.
(Ez. 18:5-9) But the rich are called to go beyond mere justice, and be generous to the poor, the widow, the orphan, and the stranger among them.

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