Our readings this Sunday take us into what has been called the preferential option for the poor. It is worth noticing that America today is really the only time in Catholic history that being “orthodox” and being, as our holy father Francis says, “poor and for the poor,” are seen as somehow unrelated. I challenge you to find ANY saint, ever, who was not radically poor and for the poor.
To pick some unlikely examples: Thomas Aquinas was known to regularly give the cloak off his back to beggars. His vocation as a Dominican radically undermined his ability to do intellectual work; he was supposed to be Abbot of a powerful monastery endowed by an Emperor who was one of history’s greatest patrons of scholarship; instead he chose to own nothing and to be at the service of his order (often annoying). The poverty of the Dominicans when he joined was radical, including a rule against riding horses – which is highly annoying when your most prized possession is books, and you have to travel to find them.
Cardinal Newman’s most defining choice in his life as a Catholic priest was to go far from Oxford and London and live among the dirty, indigent Irish immigrants of Liverpool. He is reported to have said something like, “those people have souls too.”
And Saint Therese’s holy father made a habit of seeking out beggars so his girls could give them money. Read Manuscripts B and C of Story of a Soul with this in mind, and you see how radically formative it was for her. Poor and for the poor.
Our Old Testament reading puts an interesting point on it. Those who “trample upon the needy, and destroy the poor of the land” are accused of eagerly anticipating the end of religious holidays and Sabbaths, so that they can get back to hurting the poor. Somehow there is a connection between how we treat the least of these and how we relate to Our Lord. The connection, we might say, is idolatry. We only cheat when our heart is not set on the Lord, but on wealth.
Jesus says the same thing in a different way in our Gospel. “No servant can serve two masters. . . . You cannot serve both God and mammon.”
And the Psalm gives us another angle. “God, who is enthroned on high . . . raises up the lowly from the dust; from the dunghill he lifts up the poor, to seat them with princes, with the princes of his own people.” This is a major theme of Scripture. Note that Mary’s one prayer in Scripture, the Magnificat, is entirely about how God lifts up the lowly and casts down the mighty.
There are two points, I think. The first is that God does not see as we see. Our standards of valuation – including our crass desire for material things – are not his. To be a Christian is to see as he sees, to love as he loves. That means loving everyone – but loving everyone means especially loving those who have nothing to give to us in return. The preferential option for the poor is proof of our love.
Second, we see that God is our sufficiency. To cheat in any way is, fundamentally, to deny the providence of God. I can go poor – poor, and for the poor – if I have God, because he will satisfy my every real need. (He might not give me a fancy house – but he will give me my daily bread, and himself.)
The first part of the Gospel and the Epistle extend this more broadly into what we call Catholic Social Thought. We are to pray for everyone, says St. Paul. But here, he says we are to pray especially for those in power. The Church has always emphasized this. Caring about the poor, caring about other people, also means caring about, praying for, and working for good government. To love others is also to love the society in which we live. You cannot love the poor and leave in place abusive structures. And the Catholic Church absolutely rejects the libertarian claim that government is necessarily oppressive. Often it is, certainly – but we should pray for and work for good government.
And so too, as Jesus says, we should “make friends with dishonest wealth.” That is, we should make all the wisdom of our worldly dealings opportunities to grow in love for all, especially the poor, and for their God.
Looking for last week’s readings? Reflection for Sunday, September 15.