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September 29, 2000 Issue
Foundations of Faith

The people who come first should be the poor

Living the Gospel calls for preferential option

Renew 2000 Season V: Renewing for the 21st Century
Week 1: Loving the Poor

By Patricia Kasten
Compass Associate Editor
Summoned to Serve

Do you hear it?

Do you hear the cry of the poor?

The Lord does. "See, you lowly ones, and be glad; you who seek God, take heart! For the Lord hears the poor, does not spurn those in bondage." Psalm 69 (vv. 33-34) is only one of the many references to the Lord's concern for the poor in the Old Testament, from Exodus to Isaiah, the Proverbs to Amos.

But who are the poor?

A term often used for the poor in the bible is the anawim. The word comes from Hebrew words'aniy or 'ana-v (pronounced "aw-naw-v"). These translate to mean "poor, needy, weak, afflicted, lowly and meek." These two words are found over 100 times in the Old Testament alone. The terms also appear in the New Testament.

One of those places is in Matthew's account of the Beatitudes: "Blessed are the poor (the anawim) in spirit." The New American Bible uses this passage to describe the anawim as "those who are without material possessions and who confidence is in God."

Throughout the Old and New Testaments, we find countless references to what the church now calls the "preferential option for the poor." Pope Leo XIII expressed this clearly in 1891 when he said that "the poor and helpless have a claim to special consideration (Rerum Novarum, no. 29).

Who are the poor? We can find an answer in the earliest books of the Bible. For example, Ex. 22:20-21 commands special treatment for aliens, widows and orphans. This command appears over and over again. And had the face of the poor changed by Jesus's time?

In the Gospel for Sunday, Oct. 8 (Mk 10:2-16), Jesus shows us both a divorced woman and a child and notes their need for protection. In Jesus' time, neither of these had legal standing, no recourse when they were wronged, few to defend and protect them.

Has that changed today? U.S. Census records for 1998 show that 20.6% of all children under age six live in poverty. That jumps to 35.8% for Hispanic children and 39.6% for black children. Single women with children fare even worse: 40.9% live in poverty and that jumps to 48.9% for black women and 53.2% for Hispanic women.

So have things changed much since Moses' time, or Jesus' time? And now, we face the 21st century. We are asked to renew it, summoned to serve.

Vatican II told us that we have "an inescapable duty to make ourselves the neighbor of every person ... whether he is an aged person, abandoned by all, a foreign worker despised without reason, a refugee, an illigitimate child ... or a starving human being who awakens our conscience by calling to mind the words of Christ: 'As you did it to one of the last of these my brethren, you did it to me' (Mt. 25:40)" (The Church in the Modern World, no. 27).

We have been summoned to serve the poor among us. That is the Good News Jesus announced at the beginning of his ministry in quoting from the prophet Isaiah: "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring glad tidings to the poor" (Lk 4:18). It is the same Good News he gave to his followers to spread. And it is the news we have been given to use in renewing the 21st century.

Our work of renewal brings help and hope to some, and a price to others. In 1971, Pope Paul VI said that "the Gospel instructs us in the preferential respect due to the poor and the special situation they have in society: the more fortunate should renounce some of their rights so as to place their goods more generously at the service of others" (A Call to Action, no. 23).

The U.S. Catholic Bishops, in 1986, said much the same in their pastoral, Economic Justice for All. Here, they again called for the preferential option for the poor, saying its prime purpose is "to enable them to become active participants in the life of society ... to enable all persons to share in contributing to the common good."

Everyone sharing in the common good is one of the principles behind the jubilee year. The Year 2000 is a year of jubilee -- a time when we are called to set all things right with God and our fellow humans. It is also an election year in our country. It is a time when we especially need to look at how the preferential option for the poor summon us to serve and renew the 21st Century.

(Sources: Catholic Social Thought, The Documentary Heritage; U.S. Census records; The NewAmerican Bible; Bible study tools; Rerum Novarum; and Guadium et Spes.)

Four priorities for the poor

How do we live the preferential option for the poor. The U.S. bishops, in Economic Justice for All, listed four priorities as "the most fundamental and urgent objectives:"

* Fulfilling the basic needs of the poor -- these include the necessities of food, housing, education and health care (no. 90).

* Increasing active participation in economic life by the excluded and vulnerable through policies that support family life, employment and widespread ownership of property (no. 91).

* Investing wealth, talent and human resources to benefit the poor. "(T)his priority presents a strong moral challenge to policies that put large amounts of talent and capital into the production of luxury consumer goods and military technology while failing to invest sufficiently in education, health, the basic structure of our society and economic sectors that produce urgently needed jobs, goods and services" (no. 92).

* Continual reevalutation of economic, social and workplace policies in light of their impact upon families, "the most basic form of human community" (no. 93).

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