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Part 1: Poverty

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By Marian Friedrichs (Feb 11, 2016)
The following is the first in our series on Catholic social teaching.

"Do not turn your face away from anyone who is poor, and the face of God will not be turned away from you. If you have many possessions, make your gift from them in proportion; if few, do not be afraid to give according to the little you have. So you will be laying up treasure for yourself against the day of necessity" (Tob 4:7-9).

Imagine that "day of necessity." Christ our Judge sits on His throne. At His feet sit His little brothers, the poor. They describe to the Lord how we looked, spoke, and acted when we encountered them — whether directly or through one of their advocates. They testify to our remembrance or forgetfulness of them when we planned our budgets, offered our prayers, or cast our votes. If we did not turn our faces from them on earth, we are able to meet their collective gaze on this day of our judgment. But if we averted our mortal eyes from them out of fear, indifference, or self-centeredness, we now hide our faces from them in shame.

It is all too easy to walk through life without seeing the poor. They have so little power to make themselves known, and there is always so much noise and urgency competing for our attention. Consider the rich man in the parable. I always wonder if he truly was a wicked, cold-hearted Scrooge who spat on poor Lazarus as he passed him by every day, or if he was simply a friendly, busy "good person" so full of himself and his own affairs that he never even noticed the heap of human suffering at his gate. The Gospel does not help us much to answer this question. It tells us only that the rich man "was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day" while Lazarus lay outside "covered with sores and longing to eat what fell from the rich man's table" (Lk 16: 19-21). But I think it probable that the rich man was like many of us: hard-working, well-intentioned, and with senses sadly dulled to the sight of a neighbor in the dust.

The rich man had a family to care for, obligations to meet, perhaps debts to pay. There was hardly room for people like Lazarus in his crowded thoughts or his already-full list of responsibilities. And yet, if we study and take seriously the age-old social teachings of Christ and His Church, we see that the poor are, indeed, part of the family God gave us to care for; that they have a right to remind us of our obligation to do what we can for them; that we owe them a debt for which we will be held accountable by our Father and theirs.

Saint Ambrose wrote, "It is not from your own possessions that you are bestowing alms on the poor; you are but restoring to them what is theirs by right. For what was given to everyone for the use of all, you have taken for your exclusive use. The earth belongs not to the rich, but to everyone. Thus, far from giving lavishly, you are but paying part of your debt." Yes, we live as debtors, and the powerless, voiceless, anonymous poor hold our promissory note. Therefore, if we do honestly try to "mind our own business" and "take care of our own," we will commit time, treasure, and talent to the repayment of this debt. We will recognize and take seriously our obligation to spread God's wealth more evenly, standing up for the poor with our words and actions. When we consider policy proposals or candidates for leadership, we will not focus exclusively on how the issues affect us and those close to us, but we will investigate and take into account their potential impact on the poor.

"You are the servant of the poor," wrote St. Vincent de Paul. "They are your masters. ... And the uglier and the dirtier they will be, the more unjust and insulting, the more love you must give them. It is only for your love alone that the poor will forgive you the bread you give to them." If we remember that love is the sincere desire to see the beloved have what is genuinely best for him, and the willingness to do whatever we can to help him obtain it, then we will understand that love for the poor does not mean sentimentality or even affection. Rather, it means acting on their behalf — acting out of conviction that they ought to have what they need to build a life worthy of their human dignity, and that we ought to give of our resources and our influence to help make that happen.

If we do this, they will "forgive" us — forgive us for the concupiscence that drives us to amass more than we can ever use while they watch their children languish in body and in spirit; forgive us for the times (the countless times!) we hurried past them without a glance; forgive us for the injustice that forces them to humiliate themselves by begging us to share the divine gifts we have hoarded. They will forgive us in this life, and in the next, they will acknowledge us as their friends. They will stand witnesses to the fact that we met their eyes with fraternal compassion, and the Lord will not turn His face away from us. He will gaze on us with the same love we showed these His least ones, and He will count us among the merciful who shall obtain mercy.

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Be a part of the discussion. Add a comment now!

Robert - Feb 26, 2016

The duty of compassion for the poor is vital to Catholic Social Teaching, as this article rightly emphasizes. But I think we need to be more careful about lifting statements about our duties to the poor from Scripture and from the saints out of the socio-economic context in which they were spoken. For example, up until about the 18th century, it was literally true, just about everywhere, in all civilizations, that there was only a given amount of wealth in the world (in agriculture, flocks and herds mostly) so that if some had more that inevitably meant others had less. It was a no-growth situation; the pie always remained the same size, so one person's bigger piece meant a smaller piece for others. But there was a radical change in the 18th century to a largely free-market-based economy in which new wealth was being created all the time, especially with the continual advance of new technologies, so that the wealth that was created by investors,thru new businesses and new products, to a considerable extent, increased the size of the whole pie, so that everyone's standard of living began to rise. A bigger piece for some generally trickled down to a bigger piece for others as well.

I am not here defending a strictly free-market economy (as someone once said: the trouble with trickle-down economics is that it works--what makes it all-the-way down is only a trickle!). But the point is that when the saints tell us that the poor have a kind of right to the wealth of the rich, and that to deny it is an injustice, they were addressing a no-growth-pie civilization, not a growth-pie one. In the latter situation, while it is still hard-hearted and lacking compassion for the rich to do little to help the poor directly, it is not an injustice in quite the same way as before--their good entrepreneurship and investments often help lift the poor and middle class just through providing good jobs and affordable consumer goods. And this includes the good work of small businesses even more than big ones.

Again, the scriptural statements about the evil rich were also made in a society without income taxes--and indeed, progressive income tax rates. Your average middle class American today pays about 1/3 of his/her gross income in federal and state taxes, at least half of which goes to various forms of income support (e.g. social security, unemployment benefits, food stamps). I am not denying the need for a social welfare safety net. I am just saying that it is easy to moralize about how "invisible" the poor are to us today and forget that most of us, as wage-earners, are supporting the poor through taxation in ways, and to degrees, that were unthinkable in biblical times, and in the times of just about every saint until the 20th century.

Can we find ways to do more--or more effective ways to help the poor? Of course. But let's not lay an excessive guilt-trip on the relatively wealthy first world folks: they are already doing far more for the poor than in most eras (in the ways mentioned above--and in direct giving to charitable outreach). Moreover, over the past 35 years of greater international free trade, an international pie-growth situation, according to both the IMF and the World Bank, the percentage of people in absolute poverty (that is lacking basic food, clothing, shelter, or medical care) has declined from over 40% of the world's population to just over 20$--it has been cut in half.

Much more needs to be done. But I think it is wrong to imply that we live in an especially or increasingly hard-hearted age with regard to concern for the poor.

Katie - Mar 3, 2016

Thank you Robert. I agree with you. I was feeling really bad just now, because we were just having this discussion in bible study and our town now has a huge homeless problem, because as the saying goes you build it and they will come. We used to have a handful of homeless, now because they built a shelter they are coming from all over and the crime is up, the drugs, the alcohol is up, the trash and even tent city's plus many aren't using the shelter because they have rules so they sleep here at the church. Instead of a hand out how about a hand up. You clean these sidewalks and you get lunch? I don't know if that is the right attitude, but if you can get it for free why work. I know that its a bigger problem in the city's. I pray that we can get a new president that can help turn the economy around and build business instead of taking from them so they in turn can hire more people and then less people would be homeless.
God Bless!