Service to the Poor
Helping the poor is one of those things that is so ubiquitous, even in non-religious circles, that it’s easy to gloss over. It’s wonderful that, in addition to Christians ministering to the needy, so many secular organizations and philanthropists do the same. But I know for me, seeing so many emaciated faces of African children on TV, so many drives to help some disaster-stricken part of the world, and so many commercials asking for money for some new cause puts me on auto-pilot. I flip the channel. Or I watch it, but immediately get distracted by the next show or, if it’s Facebook, just keep scrolling down.
The same thing happens when reading Scripture. One simply cannot read the Old or New Testament without the message ringing loud and clear that the poor need to be taken care of. It was written into the Law given to Israel. It was one of the primary rebukes the prophets gave to the nation when telling them to turn back to God. Jesus, Himself, gave incredible dignity to the poor – first by being born poor, but then also by teaching that the rich would have a hard time getting into the kingdom of heaven, while the poor would be blessed with it. The early church, after Jesus had left this earth, was described in Acts as a community where “they would sell their property and possessions and divide them among all according to each one’s need.” (Acts 2:44) But after years of reading these same passages over and over (or perhaps by years of having the “American Dream” shoved down my throat), I essentially ignore them.
Pope Francis, when talking about God’s command for Christians to care for the poor said, “This message is so clear and direct, so simple and eloquent, that no ecclesial interpretation has the right to relativize it.” (Art. 194, E. G.)
Growing up an Evangelical Protestant, it’s not that I didn’t care about the poor. I did. But caring about the poor was not front and center. It wasn’t an essential part of being a Christian. You believed in Jesus, and, for all intents and purposes, that was it. I tried to live a holy life, but what was meant by “holy life” could mean anything from making sure I didn’t sleep around to making sure I went to church most of the time to making sure I read my Bible regularly. Feeding the hungry may or may not have factored into it.
But delve into what it means to be “Catholic” – delve into the history of the saints or the documents of the Catholic Church – and you find that it’s as though being the ideal Catholic means being poor and caring for the poor. How many of our saints took a vow of poverty? How many of them are known for having worked with the poor? Those two characteristics are practically pre-qualifiers.
But it goes deeper than that. Pope Francis doesn’t just end with, “Help the poor and you’re doing all right.” He encourages us to really know the poor, learn from the poor, and basically be all about the poor.
“…I want a Church which is poor and for the poor. They have much to teach us…. in their difficulties they know the suffering Christ. We need to let ourselves be evangelized by them. The new evangelization is an invitation to acknowledge the saving power at work in their lives and to put them at the centre of the Church’s pilgrim way. We are called to find Christ in them, to lend our voice to their causes, but also to be their friends, to listen to them, to speak for them and to embrace the mysterious wisdom which God wishes to share with us through them.” (Art. 198, E. G)
I’m wrestling right now in my life with what this means for me and my family. We are in between homes, paying off debts and getting our lives back together while living with family. But I’m looking to a year or two from now when we’ll have to decide what our lives are going to look like again. The question that keeps coming up is this: if being poor, living among the poor, and serving the poor gives so much advantage in the Christian life, wouldn’t it make sense to live that way?
Of course, that’s counter-cultural, but it’s not such a radical idea even in this day and age. There are all sorts of Christians who have decided to live well below their means so as to be more open to what God might want to use them for. But living in a poorer neighborhood and well below our means means sending our children to schools that are below-average and living in what may be a more sleazy, run-down, and unsafe neighborhood. But at what point does “playing it safe” mean ignoring the best that God has not just for me, but for my family as well? How seriously am I going to take Jesus’ words, “Blessed are the poor”?
How seriously are you?