Concern for the Poor
One of the connecting threads that runs through the entirety of Sacred Scripture, from the Old Testament to the New Testament is the matter of justice toward the poor. It is a theme that remains consistent, revealing its importance in God’s economy of love and justice.
Psalm begins with these lines:
“Blessed is he who has concern for the poor;
On a day of misfortune, the Lord delivers him.”
There are a couple of very important insights in these seemingly simple words. First we see that, in having a genuine concern for the poor, we are blessed, not by the poor alone, but more importantly, by God. We see, too, that the blessing of God has a real and practical side to it. Those who show concern for the poor, not just in their thoughts, or their words, but in their actions toward them, will be preserved by God, protected and strengthened by God when they find themselves in times of trouble. It is really that important to God that the poor not only be recognized, but that they be cared for, supported, and encouraged. When we are truly concerned for the poor, we do not just care for them in some abstract, or paternalistic fashion, rather we walk with them, share our food, our treasure, our time, our knowledge, and our faith with them. We help them discover their own gifts and support them until they are able to make it on their own. We do not send a check, or pay our taxes to let someone else care for the poor, rather, we encounter them ourselves, we listen to them, we weep with them and, when they are empowered enough to carry on with the demands of life themselves, we celebrate with them. Instead of seeing them in the abstract, we make them our personal friends. This is the reason for God’s blessings on us and for his preserving us when we find ourselves suffering under misfortunes. Compassion, after all, means to ʺsuffer withʺ those who find themselves in unfortunate circumstances.
Jeremiah tells us in Jer. 17: 7-10, “Those who trust in the Lord are like a tree planted beside the waters that stretches out its roots to the stream: It does not fear heat when it comes, its leaves stay green; in the year of drought it shows no distress, but still produces fruit. More torturous than anything is the human heart, beyond remedy; who can understand it? I, the Lord, explore the mind and test the heart, giving to all according to their ways, according to the fruit of their deeds.” We trust in God because we have experienced his unconditional love and his magnanimous generosity of Spirit toward us. Because we know that he came to us in our poverty through his Son, Jesus, we can also see the wisdom of being genuinely concerned for the poverty of our neighbors. When we act out of genuine concern for the poor, we can trust that his grace will make our actions fruitful. Unlike the tree by the waters, the human heart is “tortuous.” Why? As human beings, we have something the tree does not possess, free will. Only the human heart can be tempted to go against its own nature. On the other hand, when we freely choose in our hearts to respond to the poor, God will nourish and strengthen our efforts. With this kind of faith, we are like that tree; even in times of drought, we will be fruitful, for God is the living water that will nourish our souls and our efforts.
How can we help the poor unless we recognize our own poverty? If we see ourselves as better than the poor, for any reason, how can we empathize with them? How can we develop any compassion for them? In order to truly serve the poor, we must come to love them. We cannot love them from a distance. We cannot love them if we see them only in the abstract. If we see the poor only in the abstract, they are only a poetic image to us. At best we might shed a tear, or have a warm thought about them, but nothing more. We may even feel good about ourselves for having shed that tear, or had that really nice thought. But our faith must be more than ideas and good thoughts. It must be made concrete through our real actions in real life. If all we do is send a check or argue for more taxes to take care of the needs of the poor, then, as the evidence shows, we will have little, or no effect on the real plight of the poor. The ʺWar on Poverty,ʺ noble as its intentions are, has been going on since 1964 without ending poverty. Statistically speaking, we have more poor and hungry among us today, than we had at that time, despite the fact that we have put trillions of dollars toward the effort. Neither government, nor charitable bureaucracies can have more than a bandage effect on poverty. We Christians know that Jesus came among us in person to live with us in our poverty, to be with us, to heal us, to forgive us. Though he is not with us now in person, he has left his Spirit with us and he asks us to be his hands and his feet in the world today. He wants us to be with the poor personally. And there are many kinds of poverty. There is more than economic poverty. But Jesus commands us to be really present to all of it, to be compassionate in person. It is only in our personal relationships with those who are poor that we will have the hope of making a difference. This is true even among the poor themselves. If we do not actually live our faith publicly and personally with the poor, and among ourselves, our faith will be nothing more than fine words, beautiful, but empty. In this there can be no fruitfulness.
Yes, it takes courage to do this, but our faith is the source of that courage. Could we as individual Christians be doing more? Yes. Could our Churches be doing more? Yes. Though the effort is daunting, we know that God is with us. As he said, “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine grower. He takes away every one that does not bear fruit, and every one that does he prunes so that it bears more fruit. You are already pruned because of the word that I spoke to you. Remain in me, as I remain in you. Just as a branch cannot bear fruit on its own unless it remains on the vine, so neither can you unless you remain in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Whoever remains in me and I in him will bear much fruit, because without me you can do nothing.” (John 15: 1-5)
Brothers and sisters, as Christians we have a duty to love one another as Jesus loved us. Let us pray on our knees, for the guidance and the courage to do this. And let us pray on our feet with living compassion for one another, especially for those who are the poorest and the most disenfranchised in our society, in our neighborhoods, in our churches, and in our families. God works best through our hands. Let us, then, give our hands over to him to be used for the good of those around us every day. Amen.