What's This 'Preferential Option for the Poor'?

We must commit ourselves to the needs of poor people even if it means hardship for the rich.

BY: Jim Dinn


I once overheard two lifelong Catholics discussing before Mass a collection envelope for relief of Third World victims. They agreed there were plenty of problems closer to home and confided that they had each thrown away the offending envelope.

Their conversation suggests that the church's "preferential option for the poor" has not been universally understood. Many seem unaware that the concept, if not the phrase, is deeply rooted in our faith tradition. We are in covenant with a God who prefers mercy over sacrifice. Prophets in the Jewish scriptures have scathing words for any religious practice, from fasting to Temple offering, that seeks to please God while the poor are neglected.

The gospels reveal a Jesus whose mission centers upon the poor. Lepers, cripples, blind beggars, and public outcasts are the beneficiaries of his healing. The emphasis of Luke's gospel is unmistakable. "Blessed are you who are poor," Jesus says, "but woe to you who are rich." "How hard it is," he reflects, "for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!" He says that God brings "glad tidings to the poor." And the nameless rich man who ignores Lazarus, the poor man, is condemned. Clearly Luke and the Jesus he describes reflect what today's church might well call a preferential option for the poor.

"People are bound to come to the aid of the poor and to do so not merely out of their superfluous goods."

In every age of the church there have been conspicuous models of commitment to the poor-a Barnabas, a Francis of Assisi, a Vincent de Paul, a Katherine Drexel, a Dorothy Day, a Mother Teresa. And for most of our history there were groups with a shared lifestyle of service of the needy. What may be distinctive about today's call is its universality. Not only is the challenge addressed to the entire community of believers, but the poor to be served live everywhere on our shrinking planet.

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