God’s Preferential Option for the Poor

23 May

The more attention I give to Scripture and to the life and message of Jesus, the more I am drawn to the realities of poor people and poverty.

Throughout the Psalms, like a recurring drumbeat, we hear the theme: the poor suffer, often at the hands of the affluent, and God always takes up the cause of the poor. Psalm 12 is an example: “Then the Lord speaks out: ‘I will act now, for the poor are broken and the needy groan. When they call out, I will protect them.’ “  The Magnificat says it clearly: “God has cast down the mighty from their thrones, and has lifted up the humble. God fills the starving and lets the rich go hungry.” 

Jesus lived among the poor, he identified with them, and he preached a message that comforted them and lifted them up.

But the more I reflect on the poor, the more questions arise. Christians—and members of other religions, as well—are commanded to care for the poor, and they have a strong record of establishing institutions that minister to the poor. God’s concern is beyond question. The phrase “preferential option for the poor” was used in 1968 in a letter from their Superior General to the Jesuits of Latin America. It has since been affirmed by popes and is a basic Catholic social teaching. Pope Francis has written that “without the preferential option for the poor, the proclamation of the Gospel risks being misunderstood or submerged.”

Lately, I have run across many images that reinforce the cries of the oppressed poor. In his 2016 book, Making Sense of the Hebrew Bible, Robert Butterfield throws the light of scholarship on the economic inequality in ancient Israel: poor farmers oppressed by the landowners. We should not be surprised that in this context, the great prophets of Israel, like Micah, and the psalms condemn this oppression.

Gerd Theissen depicts the poor in Jesus’ time in his  novel about Jesus, The Shadow of the Galilean, which I re-read every Lenten season. Theissen is a  German New Testament scholar, who has given attention to the dynamics of social class in Jesus’s time. The Zealots, the Essenes, and also Jesus—all appealed to those who were driven off their small farms by the exploiting policies of the landowners.

Pier Paolo Pasolini—in his great film, “The Gospel According to Saint Matthew”—offers the most vivid portrayal I know of Jesus’ compassion for the miserable poverty-stricken Galilean peasants of his time. Those of us who grew up on Sallman’s paintings of Christ find a totally different world in Pasolini’s presentation.

But the biblical drama of poverty and oppression covers many centuries, despite God’s will to the contrary and Jesus’ ministry. This same drama continues into our own times, bearing out Jesus’ own words, “the poor you will always have with you.”

Why does poverty continue—despite God’s concern and the monumental efforts of the world’s religion to eradicate it? Nancy Isenberg, charts the 400-year history of poverty in America under the title White Trash (2016). Her revisionist history of Britain’s deliberate shipping of its “undesirable” people to the colonies in America gives a radically different picture of our history from what I learned in high school and college. This was the beginning of social class discrimination in our country, regardless of our words about “one nation under God.”

Today’s talk about economic inequality and poverty has a long history. What is the significance of such talk and the conditions it describes? How are we to respond?

I would like to hear what you, the readers of this blog, have to say, so I will break off my reflections. Let me know your thoughts, so that I can pass them on and respond myself—if I am able.

(c) Phil Hefner, May 22, 2019

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