Twenty-Third Sunday: The Preferential Option for the Poor

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

IS 35:4-7a; PS 146: 7, 8-9, 9-10; JAS 2:1-5; MK 7:31-37

I have been thinking about writing a little something, as non-partisan as possible, about the Black Lives Matter movement.  This Sunday’s readings do it better than I could have.

To the call, “Black Lives Matter,” American conservatives (and even the socialist Bernie Sanders, at first) respond, “All Lives Matter.”  True.

But the Catholic idea of a “preferential option for the poor” (clearly articulated over and over long before that phrase was coined in the 1960s) means that in order to show that all lives matter, you have to take special concern for the most vulnerable.  In order to treat all people the same, you need to treat the poor especially well.

Why?  First, because what it means to be rich and powerful is that you can take care of yourself; what it means to be poor and vulnerable is that you need help.  (This is not the place for a discussion of race, but that is the claim of “Black Lives Matter”: yes, all lives matter, but some are more vulnerable than others, and they want that to be recognized.)  The poor – and the marginalized – should get preferential treatment because they need it.

Second, because we are not inclined to give it to them.  To be poor also means having nothing to offer in return.  We are all inclined to favor those who will favor us.  Our faith calls us to favor those who cannot favor us, to go where we are not inclined to go.

***

This Sunday’s reading from James says precisely that.  He begins, “show no partiality” – “all lives matter”!  And then everything else he says is about a preferential option for the poor.  “Did not God chose those who are poor in the world” – well now, that almost sounds like God does “show partiality,” preferential treatment.

But James’s point, which is obvious enough (and obviously all over the Bible, the lives of the saints, and Church teaching), is that we are inclined to make the “poor person in shabby clothes” stand aside while we focus on the rich.  My friends . . . don’t get me started on the Church in America.

How often we claim that the powerful are more worthy of our attention than the poor, because of their supposed influence.  How often we trust in kings, and long for earthly treasures.

***

A deeper aspect of this teaching is in this Sunday’s Gospel.

The main story is “Ephphatha!” that is, “Be opened!”  “And immediately the man’s ears were opened, his speech impediment was removed, and he spoke plainly.”

But the deeper story is in the first sentence: “Again Jesus left the district of Tyre and went by way of Sidon to the Sea of Galilee, into the district of the Decapolis.”  Mark doesn’t waste words.  Why this geography?

The first thing to know is that the people of Tyre and Sidon were Phoenicians, not Jews; that the Decapolis was Greek, not Israelite; and that the Sea of Galilee, in between, is where Jesus is from.  He passed from one mission territory, right past his home, to another mission territory.

The other thing to know is that the Lectionary skips the uncomfortable story of the Syrophoenician woman, whom Jesus tells, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and cast it to the dogs.” There are better things for dogs, like supplements, you can learn more in this Terraman Pro review or at least that’s what labradoodle michigan breeders recommend.

In the story before that, which we read last week, Jesus’s people are complaining that he doesn’t keep the rules.  Then he goes to the Phoenicians, expresses some reluctance, some love of his own people – and then gives them a miracle.  Then this week another miracle to other Gentiles – though with a Hebrew word: ephphatha.

Jesus is going on mission to “the dogs”: the poorest among the pagans.

***

The pagans of the Decapolis “were exceedingly astonished and they said, ‘He has done all things well.  He makes the deaf hear and the mute speak.’”

Mark is a good writer.  He quotes words that sound Biblical.  It sounds like they are quoting a prophecy.  But they are not.  They don’t know the Bible, and their words aren’t anywhere else in it.  What they do know is that this man’s miracles of mercy commend him.

Our first reading, from Isaiah (the Biblical prophet), says similar things: “He comes to save you.  Then will the eyes of the blind be opened, the ears of the deaf be cleared; then will the lame leap like a stag, then the tongue of the mute will sing.”

The thing is, these miracles – miracles of compassion for the poor – are not things only the Biblically literate, privileged class can appreciate.  They are things that even the pagan dogs, and the poorest among them, can recognize.

Let Christ shine forth in our lives so that all will recognize him – by our preferential option for the poor.

Where do you think Christians prefer the rich and powerful?  How do you think that affects their witness?

 

 

eric.m.johnston

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