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God’s Preferential Option for the Poor

Catholic scholars coined the phrase “God’s preferential option for the poor” to describe a phenomenon they found throughout both the Old and New Testaments: God’s partiality toward the poor and the disadvantaged. Why would God single out the poor for special attention over any other group? I used to wonder. What makes the poor deserving of God’s concern? I received help on this issue from a writer names Monika Hellwig, who lists the following “advantages” to being poor:

1. The poor know they are in urgent need of redemption.

2. The poor know not only their dependence on God and on powerful people but also their interdependence with one another.

3. The poor rest their security not on things but on people.

4. The poor have no exaggerated sense of their own importance, and no exaggerated need of privacy.

5. The poor expect little from competition and much from cooperation.

6. The poor can distinguish between necessities and luxuries.

7. The poor can wait, because they have acquired a kind of dogged patience born of acknowledged dependence.

8. The fears of the poor are more realistic and less exaggerated, because they already know that one can survive great suffering and want.

9. When the poor have the Gospel preached to them, it sounds like good news and not like a threat or a scolding.

10. The poor can respond to the call of the Gospel with a certain abandonment and uncomplicated totality because they have so little to lose and are ready for anything.

In summary, through no choice of their own—they may urgently wish otherwise—poor people find themselves in a posture that befits the grace of God. In their state of neediness, dependence, and dissatisfaction with life, they may welcome God’s free gift of love.

As an exercise I went back over Monika Hellwig’s list, substituting the word “rich” for “poor,” and changing each sentence to its opposite. “The rich do not know they are in urgent need of redemption....The rich rest their security not on people but on things....” (Jesus did something similar in Luke’s version of the Beatitudes, but that portion gets much less attention: “But woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your comfort....”).

Next, I tried something far more threatening: I substituted the word “I.” Reviewing each of the ten statements, I asked myself if my own attitudes more resembled those of the poor or of the rich. Do I easily acknowledge my needs? Do I readily depend on God and on other people? Where does my security rest? Am I more likely to compete or cooperate? Can I distinguish between necessities and luxuries? Am I patient? Do the Beatitudes sound to me like good news or like a scolding'

As I did this exercise I began to realize why so many saints voluntarily submit to the discipline of poverty. Dependence, humility, simplicity, cooperation, and a sense of abandon are qualities greatly prized in the spiritual life, but extremely elusive for people who live in comfort. There may be other ways to God but, oh, they are hard—as hard as a camel squeezing through the eye of a needle. In the Great Reversal of God’s kingdom, prosperous saints are very rare.

I do not believe the poor to be more virtuous than anyone else (though I have found them more compassionate and often more generous), but they are less likely to pretend to be virtuous. They have not the arrogance of the middle class, who can skillfully disguise their problems under a facade of self-righteousness. They are more naturally dependent, because they have no choice; they must depend on others simply to survive.

I now view the Beatitudes not as patronizing slogans, but as profound insights into the mystery of human existence. God’s kingdom turns the tables upside down. The poor, the hungry, the mourners, and the oppressed truly are blessed. Not because of their miserable states, of course—Jesus spent much of his life trying to remedy those miseries. Rather, they are blessed because of an innate advantage they hold over those more comfortable and self-sufficient. People who are rich, successful, and beautiful may well go through life relying on their natural gifts. People who lack such natural advantages, hence underqualified for success in the kingdom of this world, just might turn to God in their time of need.

Human beings do not readily admit desperation. When they do, the kingdom of heaven draws near.

Christianity Today, November 13, 1995, p. 52