Part 4 of the Embracing the Way series examines The Way of the Poor and its important role in the history of the Church as well as in the our personal Lenten journey.
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Image Credit: Eustache le Sueur, Christ Healing the Blind Man, circa. 1600. Oil on panel, Sanssouci Picture Gallery. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.
God’s concern for the poor is the most prevalent and deepest value in Christian tradition. The iconic representation of God’s concern for the poor is found in the Book of Exodus with God calling Moses to lead the people from slavery in Egypt to freedom. In establishing the covenant with the people God gave clear instructions on the care for the poor. Every seventh year all debts were to be canceled and slaves were to be set free. (Deuteronomy 15:2, 12–14) Restrictions on harvesting were to be put in place so that some of the harvest was to be left to the poor (Leviticus 19: 9–10). Finally, there is to be open handed sharing with the poor. (Deuteronomy 15:11)
Pope Francis reminds us that in the receiving the Eucharist, we are committing ourselves to the poor.
Prophets and the Poor
The failure of the rich to remember the covenant and its concerns for the poor led to the blistering criticism of the prophets towards the rich, beginning with Book of Amos and continuing through the prophetic tradition. Amos criticized the rich and their wives for taking and not giving back anything of value. In Amos he condemned worship without justice, speaking for God saying he despised their festival and solemn assemblies. Amos called to the people saying:
Take away from me the noise of your songs;
I will not listen to the melody of your harps.
But let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.
(Amos 5: 23–24)
Jesus and the Poor
Jesus explicitly states that he has come to speak in the name of the poor:
When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
(Luke 4: 16–19)
Luke’s presentation of the Beatitudes in Luke 6:19–26 is very clear that those who are poor are those who will inherit the Kingdom of God, while those who are rich in the world will reap the consequences of their actions in lapsing into hunger, mourning and weeping.
Fathers of the Church
The Fathers of the Church—the bishops and preachers in the first six centuries—spoke of the obligation of the wealthy to share with the poor. Since Christ identified himself with the poor, giving to the poor is giving to Christ himself. Early Christian communities were called to create a kind of “community chest” which would be part of the community’s efforts to meet the needs of the poor. As the later Roman Empire became more bureaucratic and demanding, it was the bishops who stood up to defend the poor against the ever-increasing demands of the government.
Saint Francis of Assisi
The life and ministry of St. Francis of Assisi (1181–1226) and the communities he inspired have had a lasting influence on highlighting God’s call to care for the poor. After he had walked away from his family’s riches, Francis found his vocation on the road out of town when he encountered a group of lepers. He immediately ran up to them, took them to the river, kissed and cleaned their wounds and sores. In their wounds he discovered the wounds of the living Christ and his life’s vocation.
St. Vincent de Paul Society
In nineteenth-century France, Francis Ozanam, a Catholic Layman, and a group of his fellow students were inspired to help a woman who was without fuel to keep her home warm in the middle of a brutal winter. They committed themselves to helping her every day. From their efforts grew the St. Vincent de Paul Society. In the United States, the Society's 160,000 trained volunteers provided 11.6 million hours of volunteer service in 2015, helping more than 14 million people through visits to homes, prisons, and hospitals at a value of nearly $1 billion dollars.
Following the teaching of the Catechism of the Catholic Church #1397, Pope Francis reminds us that in the receiving the Eucharist, we are committing ourselves to the poor.
The Insights of Pope Francis
The Last Supper represents the culmination of Christ’s entire life. It is not only the anticipation of his sacrifice which will be rendered on the Cross, but also the synthesis of a life offered for the salvation of the whole of humanity. Therefore, it is not enough to state that Jesus is present in the Eucharist, but one must see in it the presence of a life given and partake in it. When we take and eat that Bread, we are associated into the life of Jesus, we enter into communion with Him, we commit to achieve communion among ourselves, to transform our life into a gift, especially to the poorest.
Angelus, 7 June 2015
Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Catholic Edition, copyright © 1989, 1993 National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America.