It is not uncommon to see persons on street corners with a sign that says, “Will work for food.” Or, “out of work, anything will help.” I must confess, I always feel, well…small… on those times I choose to drive by such persons without offering any help. Now, let’s not be mistaken; we are not morally obliged to give money to any person who asks. There even is a certain caution in giving because it is true that some persons begging in similar circumstances are taking advantage of charity. But I believe that it is a good thing that one should struggle with the “to give, or not to give” question, and even that one feel a bit small when choosing not to give; not because we’ve done anything wrong; but because it means that the instinct for the “preferential option of the poor” is alive within us.
Jesus himself wants us to feel the sting of the “to give or not to give” question. In Luke he says, “Give to everyone who asks of you, and whoever takes away what is yours, do not demand it back.” In saying this Jesus is putting “salt on the wound,” so to speak, each time I make a decision not to give to the beggar at the corner. He clearly says, “Give to everyone who asks of you.” But in another place in the Gospel Jesus was having his feet anointed with an expensive perfume. The Pharisees seeing this said, “Why was this oil not sold for three hundred days’ wages and given to the poor.” Three hundred days wages! Consider that! How much money do you make in three hundred days? And yet Jesus response was, “Leave her alone… you will always have the poor with you but you will not always have me.” And so the tension of “to give or not to give” in a particular circumstance will always be there; but what is never in question is that a Christian is expected to care for the poor.
This is an element of being a “Godly person.” Have you ever heard that phrase, “He is a Godly man?” What a high complement! Today’s first reading illustrates an element of being a ‘Godly man.’
First it says, “The Lord is a God of justice, who knows no favorites.” This means that God is a Father who is assiduously concerned for all his children, rich or poor, good or bad, just or unjust. He knows no favorites. As Jesus says, “God makes the sun rise on the good and the bad, and he sends rain on the righteous and unrighteous” (Matt 5:45). So too, we must practice assiduous care for everyone we meet. This is what it means to love our neighbor. Remember, the Latin word for ‘neighbor’ is ‘proximo,’ which literally means ‘next to.’ A godly man shows no favorites; but he shows concern for all who are ‘next to’ him.
Next we see that God is “not unduly partial toward the weak,” meaning that God does not create one injustice in order to correct another injustice. Parents know the tension of having to give more care to one child without depriving another child of needed attention. It is a difficult balance. Being a “Godly person” also means knowing how to distribute care according to need. There is balance in giving; but this never denies the moral obligation to give.
So the reading continues, and our Psalm echoed, “God hears the cry of the poor.” While there is balance in giving there is also a preferential option in giving to the poor. As the Catechism states,
“The Church’s love for the poor… is a part of her constant tradition.” …Love for the poor is even one of the motives for the duty of working so as to “be able to give to those in need.” It extends not only to material poverty but also to the many forms of cultural or religious poverty.”
So who are the poor? The poor is any person lacking a basic human need who cannot fulfill that need on their own. As the Catechism says, the Church’s teaching on the preferential option for the poor doesn’t refer to only “material poverty” but also to “many forms of cultural or religious poverty.”
Yes, obviously the poor refer to those who are financially destitute; those who do not have proper housing, clothing, food or jobs. We are called to provide for such persons. We are blessed in our diocese to have a wonderful Catholic Charities as well as Lord’s Diner. We have several food pantries in our parishes and many centers of help within our city. In our own parish we are incredibly blessed to have a very strong and active St. Vincent DePaul society that gives regular aid to those in need; not least of which is a listening ear to those who are in a bad spot. We also budget thirty thousand dollars a year to give to the poor; not to mention the nearly twenty five thousand dollars we receive from the use your Dillon’s cards that go to charitable needs. Do not forget too, that as our tithe increases our ability to care for the poor as a parish increases; not only because of our own budget but also because the money we give to the diocese is also given to national and international charities. It is an unfortunate truth that as our pledges and tithe suffer so too does our ability to provide resources for those in need.
But poverty extends beyond material poverty and strikes at every level of the human person. There is also social poverty, intellectual poverty, psychological poverty, emotional poverty and spiritual poverty. Our first reading speaks of social poverty when it refers to widows and orphans; men and women who have lost their closest relatives who can suffer from isolation or loneliness. To this end St. Francis has many men and women who visit the homebound or go to nursing homes. Intellectual poverty affects those who cannot find the proper resources to educate themselves. Thus the Catholic diocese of Wichita and St. Francis in particular, has made Catholic education one of its biggest ministerial outreaches. We are convinced as a diocese, and as a parish, that the best way to combat all levels of poverty in society is by providing a strong Catholic education; whether this education is in our Catholic schools, in our PSR programs, or in collaboration with our public school system. Psychological or emotional poverty affects those men and women who suffer from various mental illnesses or chemical imbalances. Sometimes these are manifested through various psychoses or addictions. I think particularly of the many military personal or first responders who deal with PTSD after offering themselves for our safety. Again Catholic Charities has wonderful resources for aid. Many psychologists and social workers provide services and support; and recently a mental illness support group has been started here at St. Francis. Finally, spiritual poverty refers to those who have become estranged from God, the Christian community or the life of faith for various reasons. Darkness, confusion, embitterment, argument, disagreement, impiety, immorality, impurity can all contribute to a separation from a person from the sense of God or from the experience of a nonjudgmental community.
You see, the preferential option for the poor is not only about the kind of poverty in foreign countries where we see families living near trash dumps; though it does include this. In fact, that kind of abject poverty seems at a distance; as if it exists only on infomercials or in mass mailings. Or we even insulate ourselves from such poverty. But the truth is this: poverty exists in our homes, in our neighborhoods, in our parish, in our workplace and in our city. We must have eyes for the poor wherever we are.
The preferential option for the poor begins with the simple question, “How can I serve?” Our neighbor is our “proximo,” the person next to us. We must have eyes to see the needs of all who surround us.
The point I am trying to drive home is this: if we can’t see the needs of those who are next to us then we have not yet developed a sense for the preferential option for the poor. I the same way I felt small because I did not respond to the beggar at the street corner; so too, there should be a sense in us that we feel small if we do not respond to the needs we see in those closest to us. Now, don’t get me wrong, it is not possible for us to fulfill everyone’s needs. As I said earlier, there is a balance; serving others needs is not intended to make us destitute in our own needs.
But the next point I am making is this: the face of poverty can been hidden and ignored even inside our own home. When a brother avoids a sister who is having a bad day; when a husband ignores a wife out of disinterest or disdain; when an employer ignores the state of mind of his employees, or visa-versa; when a neighbor refuses to visit the elderly or infirmed of their own neighborhood… all these are ways that we do not listen to the cry of the poor.
A “Godly person” lives with the constant tension of “to give or not to give.” A godly person keeps active the question, “How can I serve.” A godly person knows there is a balance between stretching oneself to give; giving more than what one can in a healthy way; and giving less than what one should. “The Lord hears the cry of the poor.” Do we listen to the cry of the poor? Do we know when to give; when to refrain from giving; and when we have not done our Christian duty? We must not be selfish. Let us have eyes for the poor wherever we are. Let us not be afraid to feel small when we make that difficult decision to “give or not to give.” Then, perhaps, one day, someone will call you a “godly person.”