By Fr. James Kroeger
WHEN Pope Francis visited the Philippines in January 2015, he straightforwardly stated: “The poor are at the center of the Gospel.” How accurate the Pope’s words are! For example, Jesus warns his disciples against the real dangers of riches (Mt 6:19-21; Lk 8:14); he also invites those who wish to follow him more closely to embrace a simple life-style (Mt 19:21; Lk 12:33).
Jesus’ words are often very direct: “Sell your possessions and give alms. Get yourselves purses that do not wear out, treasure that will not fail you, in heaven where no thief can reach it and no moth can destroy it. For where your treasure is, there will your heart also be” (Lk 12:33-34).
In Mark’s Gospel (12:41-44) we find the story of the poor widow who contributed her two small coins to the temple treasury. Jesus pointed out to his disciples that her “widow’s mite” had great value because it was a sincere contribution, coming from her heart, while others only made contributions from their surplus wealth.
Jesus requires that both justice and mercy be practiced; the rich have an urgent duty to assist the poor. In fact, one’s eternal happiness is conditioned on how one concretely treats one’s poor neighbors: “When you have a meal, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind; that they cannot repay you means that you are fortunate, because payment will be made to you when the virtuous rise again” (Lk 14:13-14).
Furthermore, our service of the poor is a concrete expression of our love for Jesus, since He is truly the one we are helping when we serve the needy. This is explicitly expressed in the narrative of the Last Judgment (Mt 25:31-46); Jesus says that whenever we serve the hungry, thirsty, naked or the stranger and prisoner, we are assisting the Lord himself. “I tell you solemnly, in so far as you did this to one of the least of these brethren of mine, you did it to me” (Mt 25:40).
In Jesus’ perspective, one is blessed if, even in the face of personal need, one still looks to the needs to others. “Poverty” is not limited to only material needs; there is the poverty of being lonely, abandoned, unwanted, rejected by society. Even an ordinary poor person can show neighborly love, compassion, and human tenderness. Jesus declares those “blessed” in God’s kingdom whose lot is actual poverty caused by circumstances or persecution—if they remain generous even in their need.
Saint Paul in his beautiful Christological Hymn of Philippians 2:5-11 speaks about the kenosis, the “self-emptying” of Jesus’ divinity through the Incarnation. While maintaining the full divinity and full humanity of Jesus, Paul says that Jesus voluntarily condescended and “emptied himself to assume the condition of a slave” (v. 7); he did this in profound humility and accepted death on a cross. The Father has exulted Jesus through the resurrection: Jesus is Lord and Savior of the world.
In voluntarily serving the poor in our midst, we need to adopt the same “self-emptying attitude” of Jesus; we need to take on the “mind of Christ.” Paul writes: “Remember how generous the Lord Jesus was: he was rich, but he became poor for your sake, to make you rich out of his poverty” (2 Cor 8:9).
Aloysius Pieris, a Sri Lankan Jesuit, asserts that for the Christian voluntary poverty is a truly credible response to forced poverty. In other words, whoever legitimately has material goods in this life must freely and willingly (voluntarily) share them with those poor who live in forced poverty, caused by social-economic inequality, injustice, or even by natural calamities. Voluntary poverty is a clear sign of today’s Christian.
God will not force us to do good and live modestly; we must willingly surrender to Jesus’ Gospel challenges. For Jesus’ disciples, voluntary poverty is a pivotal attitude in our possession and use of this world’s goods. Undoubtedly, the poor are a central focus of Jesus in the Gospel!
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