CNEWA Connections: Hearing the Cry of the Poor

Marking World Day of the Poor

Once again this year Pope Francis has opened a walk-in clinic in St. Peter’s Square to provide health care for the poor of Rome. The poor have been a constant theme for Francis’s preaching. In this he echoes Jesus, who not only preached about the poor, but also associated with them. This year 17 November is the World Day of the Poor for the Catholic Church.

The poor, the orphaned, the war torn, those driven from their homes are CNEWA’s constant companions. As we move across CNEWA’s world, cultures, languages, ways of dressing change like a kaleidoscope. Suffering and crushing poverty, however, remain a gray and ugly constant.

While the poor may be pushed to the peripheries of many societies in our world, they are central to both the Old and New Testaments. In the Old Testament alone there are over 150 references to the poor; it appears over 30 times in the New Testament. It is a constant theme of the prophets who thunder against those who oppress the poor or treat them unjustly. The prophet Amos, speaking in God’s name, condemns those who “trample on the needy” and “suppress the poor,” those who “lower the bushel, raise the shekel” and “swindle and tamper with the scales,” i.e. charging more and giving less to poor customers. In response, God states, “Never will I forget a single thing you have done!” (Amos 8:4 ff.) God is angered not only by physical abuse of the poor but also by the economic exploitation of the poor through dishonest and exploitive business practices.

Jesus sees his ministry as intimately related to the poor. In his “inaugural” sermon in Nazareth Jesus describes himself and his ministry in the words of the prophet Isaiah “[God] has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the poor… (and) to set the downtrodden free.” (Luke 4:18; Isaiah 61:1 ff). The first of the Beatitudes is “How blessed the poor in Spirit…” (Matt 5:3; note that Luke 6:20 has simply “how blessed the poor.”) Luke is disturbingly harsh in his contrast between the poor and the powerful. In the parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man (Luke 16:16-31), the only reason Abraham gives for the rich man to be in hell is that he was rich: “…remember, my son, that during your life good things came your way, just as bad things…to Lazarus. Now he is being comforted here while you are in torment.” (16:25) This is a very disturbing position but one we simply cannot ignore. Luke is quite clear: to ignore the poor—to say nothing of oppressing and exploiting them—is something we do at great spiritual risk.

It is interesting that care for the poor is central to Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Each realizes the seductive pull of wealth and power. Each realizes that it is easy to take one’s wealth as a sign not of only of God’s blessing but of God’s approval — and to move from there to a sense of entitlement.

For his part, Pope Francis speaks of “global indifference.” It is a truly frightening concept. It can arise from a sense of helplessness, vis-à-vis the seemingly overwhelming poverty, suffering and injustice in the world. For people experiencing this crippling sense of helplessness, the Gospel offers hope and courage: God is on the side of justice and goodness; grace and love will ultimately be victorious.

However, global indifference can also arise from a sense of entitlement — a sense that overwhelming poverty, suffering and injustice in the world is just not my concern. It is the attitude of: “I have enough to worry about without worrying about people I don’t know and really don’t care about.”

But for people suffering from an sense of entitlement and indifference, the Old and New Testament both offer a stark message: the prophets and Jesus warn us that indifference to the poor can put one’s very salvation in jeopardy (Matt 25:31-46).

The observance of the World Day of the Poor can provide us with a very important opportunity to examine what our attitude is to those for whom Jesus and the prophets were so concerned.

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