Part 1: Poverty

The following is the first in our series on Catholic social teaching.

By Marian Friedrichs

"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.

Access other articles from this series.

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