Matthew 25:31-46 puts in the mouth of Jesus a vision for the end of the world, at the time when he will come again in glory. At this time, the king will separate the people, as a shepherd separate sheep from the goats. Those on the right side will inherit the kingdom prepared for them, for they gave food to the king when he was hungry, drink when he was thirsty, welcome when he was a stranger, clothes when he was naked, and care when he was ill or in prison. In this vision, those on the right side are confused, asking, “Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? When did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? When did we see you ill or in prison, and visit you?” And the king’s response is, “Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.”
Herein lies the biblical foundation for the Catholic Church’s teaching of the preferential option for the poor and the vulnerable, one of the seven principles of Catholic social justice teaching. This vision of the Last Judgment emphasizes that what matters in the eyes of God is how we treat those who are the least among us–the poor, the vulnerable, the isolated, the incarcerated, etc.
What is your initial reaction to this idea of a preferential option for the poor and vulnerable? How do you think different people in the United States would react to this idea?
The preferential option for the poor and vulnerable is often misunderstood, especially in the context of the United States where we are taught to “look out for number one” and to “take what we can get when we can get it.” We are surrounded by a cultural attitude of individualism where the individual and her or his needs comes first and the needs of others later (if at all). In this environment, people often have a negative reaction to the idea of a “preferential option” for anyone, let alone those who are on the margins of society. People may think that a preferential option for the poor pits those of different social classes against each other in an adversarial fashion.
Yet our religious tradition calls us to put the needs of the poor first. Why? For many reasons. One reason is an economic one: because the poor and the vulnerable have the greatest needs and do not have the same resources as those of the richer class to provide a basic standard of living for themselves and their families. Following from this is a social reason: when the poor have their needs met, they are then able to become active participants in our society, sharing in and contributing to the common good. Another reason is a moral one: our community is only as healthy as the least healthy among us. The suffering of the poor wounds the entire community; we can only truly be the body of Christ when the wounds of poverty are healed. As we see through the example of the life of Jesus Christ and the prophets before him, love of others is love of the poor and oppressed.
What do you think of these reasons for having a preferential option for the poor? Would you add any other reasons to the list?
This idea of a preferential option for the poor is not just an abstract idea; it is one that can guide our actions and participation in the political process. In the upcoming election, Minnesotans will vote on a state amendment that would require voters to show picture identification when they vote. As Catholics, we are required to look at this issue not from the stance of one political party of another but from the perspective of social justice, in particularly, this idea of a preferential option for the poor. Those who are in favor of this amendment are concerned about voter fraud and believe that requiring photographic identification will cut back on this problem. Those who are opposed to it are concerned about how its enactment would affect certain groups of voters, such as persons that are elderly, have disabilities, have low incomes, and are homeless. These individuals are most likely to not have valid identification as prescribed by the law, have access to certified documents, and the ability to go to an office to obtain valid identification because of time and/or economic restraints.
How do you think the idea of the preferential option for the poor applies to this situation?
To what other societal issues or things to be decided in the next election is the idea of the preferential option for the poor important?
How does the idea of a preferential option for the poor affect your life?
Photo courtesy of joe holmes via Creative Commons License