Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Merchants of Christ and the Sin of Planning

There are a number of artifacts of Medieval culture which discourage the formation of wealth.  One of these is the disdain for economic planning, the aversion to a merchant's life.

The Medieval world is typically parsed into three groups: those who work (peasants), those who pray (clergy), and those who fight (nobles).  What about the merchants?  They were a small group, but that is not the whole reason for their exclusion.  Merchants were thought to lead sinful lives.  Merchants were only tolerated because they were necessary.  What is sinful about a merchant's life?

Planning. Constant concern for profits.  Constant tinkering with numbers to plan for the future.  Making sure there was enough inventory.  Haggling over price to ensure a profit.  The fact that every transaction required them to project their entire future and make sure the current transaction resulted in a desirable outcome.  It was the merchant who valued arithmetic the most, and they valued it not for it revealed about god's order, but for the practical utility of running a business.  Everyone planned, of course, but not like the merchants.

But what about economic planning is sinful?  I'll let Jesus explain.
So do not worry, saying, 'What shall we eat?' or 'What shall we drink?' For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.  Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself.  Each day has enough trouble of its own (Matthew 6:31-33).

Do you see?  " not worry about tomorrow...".  In a world where it is sinful to plan, and where wealth requires planning, to follow Jesus is to become the pauper.  But that is exactly what St. Francis of Assisi preached: to be poor is to be heavenly!  Who followed Jesus more closely than the Franciscans?

It is worth noting that, although most of the Medieval world believe the merchant and town life to be sinful, no clergy gave the merchants more attention than the Franciscans.  Most monasteries were deliberately located in the country, in order to avoid the defiling nature of town life.  But it was the towns where the Franciscans headed, and for the first time a clergy was present to tend to the merchants spiritual needs.  It is even said that, in confession, merchants would haggle over the penance they must pay!

It was for these reasons that the Franciscans (and I think St. Francis himself) called themselves merchants of Christ.

Dr. Philip Daileader
Lecture 10: Francis of Assisi and the Franciscan Movement.
The High Middle Ages
The Teaching Company.

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