When asked about fundamental concepts of the Catholic Faith or what it means to be a follower of Jesus or key biblical themes, how do we respond? Surely, there are many core concepts: relationship with God, the Triune God, Jesus the Son of God, loving God and being a good neighbor, showing charity to one another…all worthy answers. What about love for the poor?
One of our Seven Themes of Catholic Social Teaching (a convenient summary of a rich and cavernous tradition) is the “Option for the Poor and Vulnerable.” A basic moral test of a society, a people, is how our most vulnerable members are treated. This is not an arbitrary measure but reflects the very character of God who created us all in God’s image and who “is a refuge for the poor” (Isaiah 25:4-5). This theme is present throughout the Bible and Catholic tradition. A recent video from the USCCB and CRS highlights powerfully this core element of Catholic Social Teaching 101.
Precisely because it is so prevalent in scripture it can become easy to tune out this central theme. This Sunday’s readings return and indeed deepen this theme repeating the Gospel verse:
Though our Lord Jesus Christ was rich, he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich.
The poor and vulnerable are not at the center because we are nice people, or generous people, or liberal people, or conservative people, or because it is good or bad for business, or market economy, or a planned economy, or a Christian nation or any other such thing. These human persons are at the center because Jesus himself became poor and being family to the poor is being family to Jesus.
But, see, even this way of talking puts ‘we’ and ‘the poor’ in different places. And, for us as the church, it must not be so! “Remember,” Jesus said, “you will always have the poor with you.” That emphasis makes the difference. Are we in this together, or are ‘we’ out to do something for (or to!) “the poor”?
The Prophet Amos calls out “the complacent in Zion, lying upon beds of ivory, stretched comfortably on their couches.” In a not-so-subtle indictment of their rulers, he pictures the rich “improvising to the music of the harp, like David, they devise their own accompaniment”! And wine is drunk…from bowls. The rich man in the Gospel dressed in nothing but the best and “dined sumptuously each day” while “lying at his door was a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who would gladly have eaten his fill of the scraps that fell from the rich man’s table.”
In striking fashion the story opens up a window to reality: the poor man is welcomed to the bosom of Abraham and the rich man discovers that he has separated himself from God’s family. This is a surprise to him, which ought to give us pause. What about the middle class? That question has captured the imagination of our politics and our identity as Americans. The Gospel reorients our vision here, if we let it.
As Pope Francis writes in Evangelii Gaudium:
God’s heart has a special place for the poor, so much so that he himself “became poor” (2 Cor 8:9). The entire history of our redemption is marked by the presence of the poor. Salvation came to us from the “yes” uttered by a lowly maiden from a small town on the fringes of a great empire. The Saviour was born in a manger, in the midst of animals, like children of poor families; he was presented at the Temple along with two turtledoves, the offering made by those who could not afford a lamb (cf. Lk 2:24; Lev5:7); he was raised in a home of ordinary workers and worked with his own hands to earn his bread. When he began to preach the Kingdom, crowds of the dispossessed followed him, illustrating his words: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor” (Lk 4:18). He assured those burdened by sorrow and crushed by poverty that God has a special place for them in his heart: “Blessed are you poor, yours is the kingdom of God” (Lk 6:20); he made himself one of them: “I was hungry and you gave me food to eat”, and he taught them that mercy towards all of these is the key to heaven (cf.Mt 25:5ff.).
Peace and All Good,
Greg Walgenbach, Director, Office of Life, Justice and Peace