Tag Archives: option for the poor

Enfleshing God’s love for the poor

Today is a strange confluence of events and feasts which, for me, show God’s ongoing love for the poor.

Since March 25, the feast of the Annunciation, fell on Good Friday this year, it is celebrated today.

Yes, the Word became Flesh on a specific day; but He continues being made flesh every day – in those who are marginalized, rejected, denied love and life.


Mosaic in the Filipino style in Nazareth

Today is also the anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., in 1968. I clearly remember the night, staying with my parents. I especially remember the phone call from a former classmate who knew of my concern for civil rights.

Benedict the Black

Today Franciscans celebrate the death in 1589 of a saint I have revered since grade school – St. Benedict the Moor (il moro), as he was known then.

The son of African parents who had been slaves, St. Benedict was raised in Sicily. After being freed from slavery, he joined a group of hermits and was eventually chosen their superior.

When the pope disbanded all the small groups of hermits, Benedict joined the Franciscans, where he served as cook. He was chosen superior, even though he was illiterate. He was later chosen novice master but he asked to be allowed to return to the kitchen.

His simplicity, his willingness to do whatever for the glory of God, reminds me of this quote from Martin Luther King, Jr.:

“Whatever is your life’s work, do it well. A man should do his job so well that the living, the dead, and the unborn could do it no better. If it falls your lot to be a street sweeper, sweep streets like Michelangelo painted pictures, like Shakespeare wrote poetry, like Beethoven composed music; sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will have to pause and say, “Here lived a great street sweeper, who swept his job well.”

Today is also the feast of St. Isidore of Seville, an encyclopedic bishop and teacher, who died in 636. He once wrote these words that reflect God’s love for the poor and mistrust of riches:

“The greater our love for the things we possess, the greater our pain when we lose them.
“Greed is insatiable. The person who is afflicted with it always needs something else; the more he has, the more he wants.
“The powerful are nearly all so inflamed with a mad lust for possessions that they stay well clear of the poor. Small wonder that when they come to die that are condemned to the flames of hell, since they did nothing to put out the flames of greed during their lifetime.”

Strong words that challenge all of us.

The challenge is how to be poor like Jesus, giving ourselves for others; how to be drum majors for justice like Martin Luther King; how to be humble servants like St. Benedict the Black; and how to use our gifts for the poor.


Image at St. Francis of Assisi Church, 31st Street, NYC

God chose the poor

Did not God choose
those who are poor in the world
to be rich in faith
and heirs of the Kingdom
that he promised to those who love him?
James 2: 5

The preferential option for the poor is central to a faith lived in the light of the Gospels.

It is an option not because we can opt out of it; it is an option because we are called to opt for the poor, to place the poor at the center of our lives, as God has.

This is not a political option, even though it has political and social ramifications. This is not an option for class warfare, although the poor often feel that the rich are fighting to keep them down.

It is above all an option for Christ – who became poor for our sake (2 Corinthians 8:9).

Pope Francis makes this very clear in paragraph 186 of his Apostolic Exhortation The Joy of the Gospel:

Our faith in Christ, who became poor, and was always close to the poor and the outcast, is the basis of our concern for the integral development of society’s most neglected members.

This is just what Gustavo Gutierrez, one of the fathers of Liberation Theology, has said, as noted in In the Company of the Poor: Conversations with Dr. Paul Farmer and Fr. Gustavo Gutierrez.

…there are “mil maneras,” a thousand ways to practice the preferential option for the poor. Finding our own way is the task of our discernment and the goal of our spirituality. What must be clear, though, is that to follow Jesus implies priority for the poor.

I want to emphasize that the preferential option for the poor is not made because the poor are somehow better than others, more virtuous or noble. Idealizing the poor would be the wrong basis for the spirituality we are describing. Often the poor are quite generous and beautiful people, but sometimes not. Nor are our motives for aiding the poor always pure; there can be a temptation to self-congratulation and ego-boosts in this work. So in our spirituality it is supremely important that each of us refines the basis of our preferential option for the poor to say: I accompany them not because they are all good, or because I am all good, but because God is good. The on-going discernment necessary to see that this is a theocentric option— centered in God’s love and life— is particularly suited to habits of communal and personal prayer, practices so central to Christian spirituality.

So let us contemplate Jesus and see how we are called to chose the poor of this world, as God has.


The cry of the poor

The Lord hears the cry of the poor.
Psalm 34

Does God really have a preferential option for the poor?

As I was reading today’s first reading from Sirach (Ecclesiastes) 35, I noted a glaring inconsistency between the Spanish and English lectionary translations.

The Spanish reads:

El Señor es un juez que no se deja impresionar por aparencias.
No menosprecia a nadie por ser pobre
y escucha las súplicas del oprimido.

The Lord is a judge
who does not let himself be impressed by appearances.
He does not despise anyone for being poor
and he hears the cries of the oppressed.

But the English reads:

The Lord is a God of justice,
who knows no favorites.
Though not unduly partial toward the weak,
yet he hears the cry of the oppressed.

What does the scripture really say?

The English translation from the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) – “He  will not show partiality to the poor” – is like the lectionary translation from the New American Bible (NAB).

I don’t have a copy of the Greek Septuagint (since this is one of those books that are not found in most Protestant Bibles). But I checked several translations.

The Jerusalem Bible reads

the Lord is a judge
who is no respecter of personages.
He shows no respect of personages to the detriment of a poor man,
he listens to the plea of the injured party.

The Christian Community Bible likewise reads

The Lord is judge and shows no partiality.
He will not disadvantage the poor,
he who hears the prayer of the oppressed.

The New Jerusalem Bible reads (for the third line):

He never shows partiality to the detriment of the poor.

My Latin is weak, but the Vulgate seems to reflect these translations – not the NAB or NRSV

Non accipiet Dominus personam in pauperem

God doesn’t accept the person against the poor.

One edition of La Biblia Latinoamericana reads:

El no se deja influenciar por la situación del que perjudica al pobre;

He doesn’t let himself be influenced by the situation of the one who harms the poor.

Other editions read:

Nunca recibirá mal al pobre

He will never receive (welcome) evil to (against) the poor.

La Biblia de Nuestro Pueblo reads

no favorece a nadie contra el pobre

He does not favor anyone against the poor.

Why this tedious comparisons of text?

I think it is important to be aware that sometimes the translations we favor are not always accurate but may reflect our prejudices. It is comforting for a North American congregation to hear that God is “not unduly partial towards the weak.” But it is quite uncomfortable to hear that God does not favor anyone acting against the poor.

The tradition of the church seems to favor the more difficult translation, as the Fathers of the Church take the side of the poor, often against the rich and as the popes, at least since Pope John XXIII have called for a “Church of the poor” or a “Church for the poor.” The Latin American bishops have taught us that God has a preferential option for the poor, a call taken up by the universal Church.

What translation, then, will we let guide our lives?

Educating in a different way

Paolo Freire proposed a new way of educating. His Pedagogy of the Oppressed proposed an alternative to the “banking” model of teaching where the teacher has all the knowledge and the students just have to take it all in and regurgitate it.

Sad to say this is the model here in Honduras – and in most places throughout the world. How few people are educated for critical thinking and acting.

What attracts me to Freire’s thought is his insight that the poor and the oppressed are not merely victims; they should not just awaiting others to come and liberate them. The poor have the capability to understand their reality and to work to change it. They can the instruments of God’s liberation for the oppressors as well as the oppressed. As Paolo Freire wrote:

This, then, is the great humanistic and historical task of the oppressed: to liberate themselves and their oppressors as well. The oppressors, who oppress, exploit, and rape, by virtue of their power, cannot find in this power the strength to liberate either the oppressed or themselves. Only the power that springs from the weakness of the oppressed will be sufficiently strong to free both.

This insight is, as I see it, related to God’s option for the poor and marginalized, which is stated succinctly by Donal Dorr on page 4 of The Option for the Poor and for the Earth, which I just started reading:

What is more important from a Christian point of view is our belief that God “chose what is week in this world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world” (1Cor. 1: 27-28). This implies that those who are weak, poor, marginalized, or disadvantaged are privileged instruments of God in sharing in the saving work of Jesus. This in turn indicates that the poor and the disadvantaged have a privileged role in the prior reading of the “signs of the times,” which enables people to discern God’s will for themselves, for their communities, and for the wider world.


Seeing from below

On April 9, 1945, Lutheran pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, was hanged for his participation in a plot to overthrow Hitler.

Bonhoeffer became, for many, an example of resistance to evil. His writings, especially those from prison, moved many to see that faith is not something that we only go to in times of trouble and that the Church must not turn in on herself.

He also saw that we must begin to understand the world in a different way, from below, an insight related to the preferential option for the poor that arose in Latin America in the late 1960s.

We stated what might be called “the preferential hermeneutic of the poor.” We can understand what is happening better if we look at it from the perspective of the poor.

We have for once learned to see the great events of world history from below, from the perspective of the outcast, the suspects, the maltreated, the powerless, the oppressed, the reviled – in short, from the perspective of those who suffer…. We have to learn that personal suffering is a more effective key, a more rewarding principle for exploring the world in thought and action than personal good fortune.

Bonhoeffer lived this out. In 1939 he found himself in New York City, protected from the Nazis who were closing in on him for his work with the Confessing Church. But he decided to return to Germany, even though it would be dangerous.

For Bonhoeffer, following Christ means taking up the Cross, being willing to suffer – not from masochism or denial of the good of the world God has created. Following Christ means, as Bonhoeffer noted, being willing to suffer and die, to give oneself for others.

I think he was able to do this because he let himself be touched by the suffering around him and saw Christ Jesus, our Lord, as one who suffered and helps us see the world from the perspective of the suffering.

That’s not easy – but I think it’s essential and, when done with love, can bring deep joy.


Frédéric Ozanam – living the option for the poor

On September 8, 1853, Blessed Frédéric Ozanam died. A well-known and respected professor with degrees in law and literature, he was an expert in Dante. But he is more well-known for his work with the poor, initiating with others the Confraternity of charity which later became known as the Society of St. Vincent De Paul.

Not content to work with the poor, he also wrote in response to the trials of the poor of his day and to the various solutions being put forward in his day.

He saw the divide between rich and poor as the source of conflict, “the battle of those who have nothing and those who have too much; it is the violent collision of opulence and poverty which makes the earth tremble under our feet.”

And so when the 1848 revolution hit the streets of Paris and was violently suppressed, Frédéric Ozanam defended the justice of their cause, even as he regretted their violent means. For this he found himself isolated from the more conservative Catholics of his time.

In some ways he expressed the option for the poor that we can find in the Gospels and the early church – and is now central to Catholic Social Teaching. The poor were for him “messengers of God to test our justice and our charity, and to save us by our works.”

And so where should the Church be?

“The Church would do better to support herself upon the people, who are truly the ally of the church, poor as she, devout as she, blessed as she by all the benedictions of the Savior.”

In the midst of political campaigns in the US and in Honduras, where will the Church stand? Will we be on the side of the poor, working with them and advocating with them for real justice, for real changes of the systems that oppress them?

This post is based in large part on the short biography found in Robert Ellsberg’s All Saints: Daily Reflections on Saints, Prophets, and Witnesses for Our Time,which I heartily recommend.