Father Donald Senior, CP

Feb. 17: Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Wednesday, February 6, 2019

Option for the poor

Jer 17:5-8; Ps 1:1-2, 3, 4, 6; 1 Cor 15:12, 16-20

The phrase “the preferential option for the poor” frequently appears in Catholic writings about social justice. “Option” here does not mean, as it might in everyday language, a possible choice among several options.

The option meant here is a French loan word meaning a commitment to something, an actual choice made. Care for the poor is not a possible Christian choice among other options, but a required commitment.

Thinking about the Christian option for the poor is prompted by this Sunday’s Gospel reading. In Matthew’s Gospel, the setting for Jesus’ great sermon is on a mountain.

When crowds seeking healing come to Jesus, he climbs to the top of a mountain and there, in the presence of his disciples, begins to teach. In Luke’s version we hear today, Jesus comes down from a mountain where he had been praying and, surrounded by his disciples and a great crowd, begins to proclaim his message. 

This “sermon on the plain,” like Matthew’s “sermon on the mount,” begins with the beatitudes, remarkable declarations that serve as something of an overture to Jesus’ teaching. There is a challenging paradoxical tone here. 

Jesus declares “blessed” groups of people who in fact are suffering: the poor, those who are hungry, those who weep, people who are hated and excluded and insulted. Linked to the list of those who are blessed is a series of woes for those who, in contrast, seem content and comfortable: the rich, those who have their fill, those who can laugh now and those thought well of by everyone.

Jesus speaks here in the manner of a biblical prophet, seeming to turn upside down ordinary human equations. Why are those who are poor and suffering blessed, while those who seem to have good fortune are the objects of Jesus’ warning?

Jesus’ message has deep biblical roots. Throughout the Scriptures, both in the Old and the New Testaments, God is portrayed as one whose special love and care is turned to the poor and the vulnerable. We frequently hear of God’s protective love for the widow, the orphan, the stranger — that triad of people in special need of protection. 

When the Israelites are brutally enslaved in Egypt, God tells Moses that he has “heard the cry of my people” and is moved to liberate them. The prophets universally assail Israel’s leaders and those with an abundance for their neglect and abuse of the poor. Amos uses woe language in indicting those who exploit the poor “for a pair of sandals” and “trample the heads of the destitute into the dust of the earth and force the lowly out of the way.”

Isaiah, speaking in the name of God, scorns those who pray in the temple but whose hands are “full of blood.” Instead, the prophet cries, “Make justice your aim; redress the wronged, hear the orphan’s plea, defend the widow.”

Catholic social teaching about the preferential option for the poor is not a political slogan but an intuition forged in our Scriptures and in our Christian tradition that God’s love envelopes, in an intense way, those in need. 

Jesus, in Pope Francis’ beautiful phrase “the human face of the Father’s mercy,” was driven by this same divine love for the poor and those on the margins. We heard this commitment proclaimed a few Sundays ago when Jesus read as the keynote of his ministry the words of Isaiah, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me. He has anointed me to bring good news the poor, He has sent me to proclaim liberty to captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free.” 

Throughout the upcoming liturgical year, we will hear accounts of Jesus’ intense love for the poor and vulnerable. This is a special emphasis of Luke’s Gospel. Most people instinctively reach out to someone in desperate need. Photos of starving children in Yemen or distraught refugees at our borders tug at our hearts. Our Christian faith reveals that such human instincts are, in fact, reflections of the divine image in which we were created.

We are called to help those in need to experience God’s blessing. 



  • scripture