The moral to the story of an Italian banker’s offering

On a recent sabbatical, I saw firsthand the work of a master, considered the motivation of the benefactor, and reflected upon its meaning then and now.

At the beginning of the 14th century, the brilliant Italian painter, Giotto, was commissioned to fresco a new chapel in the city of Padua. A “banker” named Enrico Scrovegni had purchased a plot of land adjacent to his palace that had long ago been the site of a Roman arena. Scrovegni’s father, Reginaldo, also had been in the money lending business and had died without reckoning with his sins of usury. The son had followed in his father’s footsteps, but fear of eternal damnation moved him to build a chapel dedicated to the Virgin Mary as a sin offering to God in hopes of gaining mercy on his soul.

Giotto’s works are carefully preserved in this small but beautiful chapel. In themes typical of the day, the painter depicted the life of Christ, along with that of Mary and her parents. A scene of the Last Judgment depicts some souls being welcomed into heaven and others being consigned to hell. Scrovegni is pictured on the side of the blessed, rendering his chapel to the Blessed Mother. He hoped that this gift would compensate for the riches he gained by cheating poor people out of money through the charging of interest on loans. (At that time, charging any interest at all on loans to the poor was considered a sin.)

God is no sucker. Ill-gotten gains liberally given to salve one’s conscience never move the heart of God.
Did it never occur to him that the better way would be to stop oppressing the poor and to give back what he had taken from them? I mean, what good would a chapel do to correct the misery on others of wealth gained unjustly?

The prophet Micah said: “With what shall I come before the Lord? Shall I come with burnt offerings? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousand rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?” And then the answer: “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”

When Jesus spotted the crooked tax collector, Zacchaeus, up in the sycamore tree one day in Jericho, the man’s repentance led him to give half his possessions to the poor and to refund four times what he had defrauded anyone. Jesus said in response: “Today salvation has come to this house.”

Today we have predatory lenders (payday and auto title lenders) in our community who charge exorbitant interest (often more than 400 percent) to the most vulnerable people in our society. They are, by any reasonable definition, usurers. Yet some of them, and the politicians who defend their outrageous practices of legalized loan-sharking, go to church on Sundays, and some even make big charitable donations that curry human praise.

God is no sucker. Ill-gotten gains liberally given to salve one’s conscience never move the heart of God. Only simple acts of right dealing in the first place and repentance that leads to reparations when wrong is done bring God’s favor.

And now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go consider what ways I, too, have been fruitlessly engaged in spiritual bribery.