Caring for and respecting poor is a Christian duty
Following on from the Jubilee of Mercy (December 8, 2015-November 20, 2016) which celebrated the Christians' call to imitate God the Father's merciful love, Pope Francis has designated tomorrow, November 19, as the first World Day of the Poor.
In his message to mark the occasion, the Holy Father begins by referring to I John 3:18: "Beloved, let us not love in word or speech, but in deed and in truth."
Our relationship with the poor is pivotal in our relationship with God and we are called to love them in very practical ways.
As Christians, we must serve the poor and care for them with a love that recognises them as our brothers and sisters, equal to us in dignity and value. For they also serve us by helping us towards our eternal salvation, and there exists a real danger, if we see ourselves as merely 'looking after' the poor, that the relationship becomes marked by condescension.
We are called into real friendship with the poor and understanding them as, along with ourselves, children of God and brothers and sisters of Jesus Christ. The same Spirit of God lives in them as in us.
In the past, here in Ireland and elsewhere, we have seen the devastating consequences of separating service of the poor from love and genuine respect for them. Institutions that were established to provide care for the needy and vulnerable degenerated into places of terror, where cruelty and abuse were rife. In these establishments, all too often, love was absent, with devastating results.
We must never lose sight of Jesus present in His poor brothers and sisters. He expressly identified Himself with the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the stranger, the sick and the prisoner. "Whatsoever you did to even the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did it to me (see Matthew 25:31-46)."
We must be very careful, as Christians, that we are not just in love with the idea of Jesus. We must love His person, and He has told us that we can see and touch Him in our neighbours who are poor. God's command to Christians is crystal clear: "Do not merely listen to the Word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what the Word says (James 1:22)."
Remember Our Lord's parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus? The wealthy man lost his soul, not because of his cruelty to poor Lazarus, lying hungry and covered in sores at his gate, but because he was indifferent to him. He never even noticed Lazarus (see Luke 16:19-31).
Loving and humble service of the poor, therefore, contributes to our own salvation. Do we want our sins that are like scarlet to be made like wool? Then, the Lord says, "Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the orphan; plead the case of the widow (see Isaiah 1:16-18)". If you share your bread with the hungry and shelter the homeless, then, God says, "your own healing will quickly appear (see Isaiah 58:6-8)".
The poor are not merely beneficiaries of our charity who make us feel good about ourselves. We are called to a true encounter, in equality, humility and love, with these brothers and sisters of ours.
"Blessed, therefore, are the open hands that embrace the poor and help them: they are hands that bring hope. Blessed are the hands that reach beyond every barrier of culture, religion and nationality, and pour the balm of consolation over the wounds of humanity. Blessed are the open hands that ask nothing in exchange, with no "ifs" or "buts" or "maybes": they are hands that call down God's blessing upon their brothers and sisters (Pope Francis)".