Last week the one word I pulled out of the Sunday readings was “righteousness.” This week, it was humility. It’s like a one-two punch, isn’t it?
Last week when I wrote about being in “right relationship” with God, myself, and other people, I said that comparing myself to others was like comparing apples and oranges and that we are all equals. Yet this week, the Gospel seems to be saying that some are more important than others, in two different ways. Jesus not only suggests to the presumably “distinguished” guests at the party He’s attending that there may be someone out there “more distinguished” than them; He also has the audacity to suggest to His host, a leading Pharisee, that the most distinguished people he could have invited are the poor, crippled, lame, and blind who have no hope of repaying him.
Catholics understand this reading to be the foundation of one of the primary tenets if our social teaching – “the preferential option for the poor.” This concept does not contradict our belief in the equal dignity of every human life, but it does acknowledge that equal dignity does not mean equal outcome. Some people are clearly more blessed than others, and those of us who’ve been blessed “more” ought not overlook those who’ve been given less.
The Pharisees of Jesus’ time believed that blessings (or lack thereof) were a reflection of someone’s moral character; the modern day equivalent would be the evangelicals who tout prosperity theology. The preferential option for the poor does not attempt to answer why some are more blessed than others, but it does suggest that to whom much is given, much is expected – we ought to pay special attention (and kindness) to those who struggle.
Nothing irritates me more than Catholic politicians on both sides of the aisle who cherry-pick parts of Catholic social teaching to justify their particular issue, whether it’s abortion or redistribution of wealth. This tenet of Catholic social teaching is often used to justify all sorts of well-intended legislative solutions to the problem of poverty. But if we who call ourselves Christian “outsource” the application of this principle solely to our political representatives and don’t practice it in our daily lives, we’ve completely missed the point. How do we treat poverty in all its forms?
Jesus said that the poor would always be with us. He was talking about the materially poor. But He could just as easily be talking about the spiritually poor, too.
There’s a woman who works at the gas station I frequent who never has a smile on her face. She always seems to have an attitude or a chip on her shoulder. She’s never rolled her eyes at me when I pay for my gas with a check, but sometimes I get the feeling she wants to. Whenever she’s on duty she looks at me like coming to the window to pay for my gas is a huge inconvenience to her.
I practice my Catholic social teaching with her. I have no idea what her financial position is, but spiritually, she’s poor. Someone who can’t ever bother to crack a smile is just about bankrupt as far as I’m concerned. I’ll be honest, my gut reaction to people like her is not a very Christian one; it’s more like a mental middle finger. And as soon as I find myself thinking that, I remember that I need to pray for her. I pray for her health and happiness.
I do that for the jerk who cuts me off on the highway. For the man where I work who always seems to have a complaint. For the person on Facebook who wants to call me names. Sometimes, I even pray for myself.
In seventh grade, I switched from Catholic school to public school. I was the new girl in class, and I started the year as I started every year – with hope and excitement and a positive attitude. I made one or two friends the first day, but by the end of the first week, I came home from school crying because of how awful the kids in my class treated me. I could tell by the way they were dressed and the way they talked that they did not come from families like mine, with two overprotective, loving, church-going parents. Even at 12 years old, I understood that I was going to school with peers who were poor – spiritually and probably materially, too. And even though they hurt me with their words and actions, I felt sorry for them. It was the beginning of me practicing kindness and forgiveness and a preferential option for the poor.
Today, my family practices a preferential option for the poor in our home – a preferential option for the “baby.” I have a whole lot more patience for the four-year-old’s tantrums and moodiness than I do with my ten year old son. We often schedule our activities around her limits, and the older kids have to help their sister with picking up after herself. A lot of times, the older ones will say, “It’s not fair!” At which point, I quote my good friend, Liz: “You’re right, life’s not fair, usually in your favor.”
No matter how little I have, there will always be others who have less. The preferential option for the poor means holding the door for them. It does not mean doing for others what they can do for themselves – that would just be me “helping” so that I don’t have to feel uncomfortable watching them struggle, or ashamed that I’ve been so blessed.
Doing for others what they can truly do for themselves is selfish. But treating people with kindness and care, starting with those who have less material and spiritual resources to “do for themselves” is at the very heart of our Christian faith. It’s a fine line between truly helping and just making ourselves feel better about someone else’s poverty, which is why it is something that is best done one on one and not left up to the government, or even the Church. It starts with you and me.