St. Joseph Catholic Church - Toledo, OH

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September 25, 2016 - Catholic Social Teaching #4 - Preferential Option for the Poor and Vulnerable

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“My child, remember that you received what was good during your lifetime while Lazarus likewise received what was bad; but now he is comforted here, whereas you are tormented.”

The parable of Dives (the rich man) and Lazarus presented in the Gospel (Lk 16:19-31) for the 26th Sunday in OT sets the perspective for the most recognizable principle of Catholic Social Teaching - the Preferential Option for the Poor and Vulnerable.

God from the moment he delivered Israel from slavery imposed on them the duty to care for the vulnerable as a reflection of the compassion He showed and would continue to show:

“You shall not oppress or afflict a resident alien, for you were once aliens residing in the land of Egypt.  You shall not wrong any widow or orphan. ...  If you lend money to my people, the poor among you, you must not be like a money lender; you must not demand interest from them. If you take your neighbor’s cloak as a pledge, you shall return it to him before sunset; for this is his only covering; it is the cloak for his body. What will he sleep in? If he cries out to me, I will listen; for I am compassionate.” (Ex 22: 20-26)

The Catechism reminds us (2449):

Beginning with the Old Testament, all kinds of juridical measures (the jubilee year of forgiveness of debts, prohibition of loans at interest and the keeping of collateral, the obligation to tithe, the daily payment of the day-laborer, the right to glean vines and fields) answer the exhortation of Deuteronomy: “For the poor will never cease out of the land; therefore I command you, ‘You shall open wide your hand to your brother, to the needy and to the poor in the land.’”

The Prophets continually called the people to task for neglecting to poor, the widow, the orphan and alien such as the admonition this week and last from Amos (Amos 6:1a, 4-7; 8:4-7 respectively) who scolds the southern kingdom for sitting by in luxury while the northern kingdom is ravaged by war and ruin; and chastises those who “crush the poor, and make the needy of the land to fail” with their greed and cheating.  Solomon in his Proverbs prophetically foreshadowed today’s parable when he said, “Those who shut their ears to the cry of the poor, will themselves cry out and not be answered” (Prv. 21:13).

Christ, whom the Church at prayer reminds us, “Went about doing good”, for:

“He always showed compassion For children and for the poor,
For the sick and for sinners, And be became a neighbor
To the oppressed and the afflicted. By word and deed he announced to the world
That [God is] our Father And that [He] care[s] for all [His] sons and daughters.

Jesus began His public ministry fulfilling Isaiah’s prophecy by His very life and work in proclaiming:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring glad tidings to the poor.

He has sent me to proclaim liberty to captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to proclaim a year acceptable to the Lord.”

And uses His own preaching of the Good News of Salvation to the poor and work on behalf of the vulnerable as a sign of proof to the disciples of John the Baptist that He is indeed the Messiah.[2]

“Hence, [taking our lead from Christ the head] those who are oppressed by poverty are the object of a preferential love on the part of the Church which, since her origin and in spite of the failings of many of her members, has not ceased to work for their relief, defense, and liberation through numerous works of charity which remain indispensable always and everywhere.” (CCC 2448).

This love for the poor and vulnerable does not often come easily - if it did there would not be such strong Biblical exhortations and need for Divine legislation.  As a result of sin, our own failings - myself included (remember my story of a few weeks ago and how I actively tried not to cooperate with God in responding to the poor) - we struggle between the love of the poor and an immoderate love of riches or their use, which is ultimately a symptom of selfishness.  St. James in his epistle speaks strongly of this mindset:

If a brother or sister is ill-clad and in lack of daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what does it profit?[3] and

Come now, you rich, weep and howl for the miseries that are coming upon you. Your riches have rotted and your garments are moth-eaten. Your gold and silver have rusted, and their rust will be evidence against you and will eat your flesh like fire. You have laid up treasure for the last days. Behold, the wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out; and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts. You have lived on the earth in luxury and in pleasure; you have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter. You have condemned, you have killed the righteous man; he does not resist you.[4]

This is the lesson of Dives and Lazarus.  While Dives sat in luxury - loving his wealth and the status it gave him - Lazarus sat languishing at his door.  For his refusal to attend to Lazarus - eternal torment awaited him.  Using this Gospel as a basis St. John Chrysostom once famously preached: “Not to enable the poor to share in our goods is to steal from them and deprive them of life. The goods we possess are not ours, but theirs.”[5]

Now, I know that over the course of these homilies on Catholic Social Teaching, and perhaps even the length of my time as administrator, I’ve come across pretty heavy with challenges and admonishments to be attentive to the needs of others.  So much so that it could sound like I intend to move St. Joseph towards being a social outreach center.

There is many adages among priests about preaching.  One goes “To comfort the afflicted, and to afflict the comforted.”  Another is, the homilist often preaches the message he needs to hear the most himself.  In this regard it is true.  For every example of where I have been moved to reach out in love to the poor, I can cite 2-3 examples of where I was too afraid, cold hearted, or just plain selfish of my time and resources to do anything.

I’ve been preaching such because I fear our culture and our country is at a crossroads.  The violence that is being played out in the streets of our communities I see at times as a result of the disparity of justice.  The poor and vulnerable are being ignored or worse abused by those with power and authority.  But at the same time there are those who are using some events to promote hatred.  I fear our country’s future is at stake with the direction we take in this election. I see there are three roads before us. In my terms: One of close-mindedness that seeks to create greater separation between peoples.  One that seeks to create equality but often by taking through coercion from the rich to simply give to the poor.  And the way of the Gospel.  I know these are overly simplistic generalizations.  

But as a Catholic People - we must be guided by the Gospel and the Tradition of the Church, as we form our conscience and prudentially judge which individuals and policies will truly bring about the common good of all the American people.  The rich, the poor, the protected and the vulnerable.  For if we have not listened to the Law and the Prophets, then even if someone should rise from the dead - will we truly listen?

“My child, remember that you received what was good during your lifetime while Lazarus likewise received what was bad; but now he is comforted here, whereas you are tormented.”

[1] Roman Missal, Preface of Eucharistic Prayer for Various Needs IV “Jesus who went about doing good”.

[2] Mt 11: 2-6

[3] James 2:15-16

[4] James 5:1-6

[5] St. John Chrysostom, Hom. in Lazaro 2



Iustus germinabit sicut lilium: et florebit in aeternum ante Dominum.
-- Gospel Acclamation, Solemnity of St. Joseph, March 19

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