Father Donald Senior, CP

Feb. 9: Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Wednesday, February 5, 2020

Why the poor?

Is 58:7-10; Ps 112:4-5, 6-7, 8-9; 1 Cor 2:1-5; Mt 5:13-16 

The opening lines of this Sunday’s reading from the prophet Isaiah plunge us into one of the most insistent motifs of the Bible: the obligation to care for the poor.

The Lord speaks through the prophet: “Share your bread with the hungry, shelter the oppressed and the homeless; clothe the naked when you see them, and do not turn your back on your own.” Later, the same refrain breaks out: “If you remove from your midst oppression, false accusation and malicious speech; if you bestow your bread on the hungry and satisfy the afflicted; then light shall rise for you in the darkness, and the gloom shall become for you like midday.” 

Responsorial Psalm 112 echoes this insistent message: “Well for the man who is gracious and lends, who conducts his affairs with justice. ... His heart is steadfast, he shall not fear. Lavishly he gives to the poor.” 

The Gospels demonstrate over and over that Jesus himself embodied this care for the poor and the vulnerable. He insists they are blessed in God’s eyes (“Blessed are the poor”). In Luke’s account of his first sermon in the synagogue of Nazareth, Jesus uses the words of Isaiah to proclaim that the Spirit “anointed me to bring good news to the poor … release to captives … recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free.” 

Throughout his mission, the poor, sick and marginalized press in on Jesus for healing and comfort. When the disciples are ready to send the hungry crowds off to fend for themselves, Jesus says, “You feed them,” and then proceeds to feed the multitudes with abundant bread and fish.  

In Matthew’s Gospel, when Jesus reflects on how our lives will ultimately be judged, he tells the parable of the sheep and the goats — a passage we will hear later in the year. The people who stand before their king are measured by their care for the poor: “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” 

In fact, the concern to care for the poor runs through virtually all the New Testament. I have always been struck by a passing comment of Paul the Apostle in his letter to the Galatians where, when assuring them of the genuineness of his preaching (some of his critics claimed that Paul was too radical), he recalls his meeting with the leaders of the church in Jerusalem. They endorse Paul’s mission to the Gentiles but add one important condition: “They asked only one thing, that we remember the poor, which was actually what I was eager to do.”  

Why this attention to the poor? First and foremost, our Scriptures and our Christian tradition recognize that even the poorest human being is a child of God, made in God’s image and therefore our brother or sister and worthy of care and respect. That’s why the church has consistently underscored the need to protect human life at every stage of its existence. 

Second, the Bible knows that those who exploit the poor, who in the prophet Amos’ famous words, “would sell the poor for a pair of sandals,” abuse their power and foment injustice. By contrast, those who have resources and strength reveal their nobility and virtue in treating with care and consideration those who are vulnerable and weak. 

In his famous description of the church as the Body of Christ in 1 Corinthians 12, Paul notes that in this “body” we treat the least honorable member with the most honor, and we consider the “weakest members to be indispensable.” 

In today’s Gospel selection from Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount, Jesus urges his disciples to be “the salt of the earth” and “the light of the world.” When so many people around the world (and in our own country) are homeless and hungry, our Scriptures challenge us. No doubt there can be legitimate debate about solutions to these problems, but no follower of Jesus can be indifferent.


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