Monday, May 12

Scriptural Ruminations on Mary

As many Bible scholars are well aware, the Scriptures contain very few references to Mary. The bulk of material related to Mary in the New Testament is found in Dr. Luke and Matthew’s infancy narratives, and in Matthew’s gospel, Joseph is the key actor. There are also a handful of references to Mary when she and Joseph take Jesus to Jerusalem, when we see her and her other children come to see Jesus, when she is standing at the cross, and when she is with the disciples in the upper room in Acts 1. Aside from this, there are no other implicit mentions of Mary, although some believe certain passages - such as Galatians 4:4 and in Revelation 12 - can be interpreted as referring to Mary, but much of what we have on Marian understanding comes from apocryphal traditions (Note: this article draws inspiration from Tissa Balasuriya's work, Mary and Human Liberation).

From these scant references, then, we can gather a number of things about Mary. When the angel Gabriel announced that she would give birth, it may have been difficult for Mary to come to terms with having a child who is the Messiah. She may have anticipated that he would have to suffer. It is also important to note that some feminists have seen this as an act of God relying on a female to carry out the plan of salvation, and that this important interaction between Creator and Creation ought to be appreciated and researched.

Following this, Mary then visits her cousin Elizabeth, who is supposed to have a child - who would be famously known as John the Baptist, mentioned in the New Testament documents and the writings of the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus. During her stay with Elizabeth, she prays the Magnificat. The implications of this prayer seem to be that of cultural revolution, political revolution and economic revolution. She is often seen as comforter of the disturbed, rather than disturber of the comforted. Mary is presented in the infancy narratives as a tough young woman who has to endure many sufferings and hardships. She may be shunned by some who see her as having an illegitimate child, she is turned away by the rich who own the inns of Bethlehem, and she must give birth in a hard place (the Infancy Gospel of Thomas and Justin Martyr allege that it was a cave).

The visit of the shepherds to see baby Jesus allow Mary to reflect and think on it. Dr. Luke’s gospel shows Mary to be a very deep, reflective and thoughtful young woman, and she is invested in the future of her child. Later, at the presentation of Jesus in the Temple, Mary and Joseph make the offering of the poor. The man Simeon tells Mary that a sword will pierce her heart – evidently referring to the death of Jesus, at least insofar as most interpret this statement. Knowing that she would suffer with Jesus through his life took a lot of courage and love as a mother.

Thinking further into her journey, the flight into Egypt would not have been an easy one. Retracing the steps of those who had left Egypt in the Exodus, Mary, Joseph and the young Jesus would have had to cross the scorching deserts, the harsh roads and likely faced political issue when there, as Joseph likely would have had to become a migrant worker, and Mary would have had to find constant news from Palestine to learn of the political situation back home. As an aside: Could Joseph have learned carpentry during his time in Egypt? Also, one may wonder, though unlikely – did Jesus or Joseph ever have to build crosses? Could Jesus have built his own cross?

Moving further into her life, we understand that the middle-aged Mary would have had to go through trials with Jesus as he grew up. As with any mother, she may have desired grandchildren, she may have desired to see him married, and have a long life, among other things. But he likely told her that he must be about his Father’s business. After reflecting, as she was known to do, she supported him in his ministry, and would have treasured up these things in her heart.

Mary followed Jesus throughout his public ministry, usually from a distance. She likely would have understood her son as going against social and religious values of the time. Mary also more than likely struggled with restraining herself from protecting Jesus when she saw Him going up against the Pharisees, Sadducees, and others, but realized that this division was part of his mission, and that this mission was of utmost importance.

As there are only a handful of references to Mary within the canonical gospels, it follows that there are only a handful of recorded conversations between Jesus and Mary. We see these when Joseph and Mary find Jesus in the temple, when Mary tells Jesus about the wine in Cana, the public ministry in which his family – out of concern – come to take him, and finally, and when Jesus addresses Mary whilst on the cross. Interestingly, the last recorded words of Mary in the gospels are "Do whatever he tells you." The Catholic Church places great emphasis on Mary's relationship with Jesus, and what a better summation of this than in her words. We can see these words conveying a message even to contemporary Christians 

Now, we may assume that Mary was present and with Christ throughout the trial (as seen in the stations of the cross as well as the Dolorous Passion of the Christ). Mary knew that Jesus had to suffer and die and she probably felt rather helpless in the desire to help her son but knowing that she could not help him. During the Passion of the Lord, Jesus had several women that were still with him. His mother Mary was still present, as was Mary Magdalene. Perhaps we may assume that Salome was also present, as she was involved in the tomb activities. 

Interestingly, women were the first witnesses of the Resurrection. In antiquity, the testimony of women was generally not accepted in court, so the idea that women were the first witnesses is interesting to note. These same women told the apostles that Jesus was resurrected. In the case of Mary, then, she is a witness to life beyond death. She bears witness as the theotokos to the presence and life of Jesus. This title of theotokos - God bearer - was in use in the early church as seen, for example, in the hymn Sub tuum praesidium (AD 250).

In order to have a truer understanding of Mary, we need to understand her relation to Jesus, how Mary and Jesus interacted, how she understood Him and how He understood her. Certainly, they grew together as mother and son in his three decades of life, which is cause for further considerations. The message of Jesus in this context is understood as being that of the kingdom of God. Christ taught (as seen in the canonical gospels, as well as the Gospel of Thomas) that the kingdom of heaven is both present and future. It is both within and without. It is spread across the world but also coming as an eschatological event. We also note that in terms of christology, Jesus did not use the theologically loaded phrases that we do today or that the councils or patristics developed.

We find a description of Jesus as a loving and strong man (hence why he is likened to the Lion and the Lamb in early Christian literature), one who had a deep concern for the poor, oppressed, needy, sick, marginalized, the hurt and others. As a result, Christ challenged the cultural, political and social norms of His time. Mary appears to have sided with Jesus, and having the backing of his mother more than likely provided much needed support. Jesus was very skilled and radical about his interpersonal relations. He crossed barriers - including social barriers. He spoke to Samaritans, he taught and accepted aid from women, he ate with tax collectors, he went against the authorities of his day, he forgave others and did not hold their wrongs against them, and this particular openness evidently landed Jesus in a heap of trouble.

In the early Christian Church (which was initially called "The Way"), Mary was likely seen as the mother of the Christian community. Women had very important roles in society at the time, but it is important to remember that Mary was in a sense the first believer due to her Annunciation (as seen when the an, she was also the woman who raised Jesus, and she was given into John's care by Jesus. Therefore, we may look at Mary as the mother of the early community, which makes sense. The fact that property was held in common as clearly seen in Acts and the Didache bears out the notion that the community needed a mother to guide them. It is also here noted that different theologians (such as feminists) have very different understandings and views of God.

In regard to the liberation of women and Mary, feminist theologians have done much work in this area. Indeed, she is seen as having participated in and engaged in the life of Christ fully and completely, which accords her a very high status. Another consideration mentioned here is Mary in relation to Genesis. Although some may look at Genesis 3:15 in a certain light, I would suggest that woman referred to is both Eve and Mary. Feminist theologians hope that Mary's life and work can and will provide men with an opportunity to enable better perceptions of women and the abilities of woman, that she may help us see both genders as creators, and that Mary will continue to help men detach from the ancient superiority of men. For example, historically, woman deacons (deaconesses) are mentioned in the New Testament as well as certain documents such as the Didascalia. However, the priesthood is not available for women because the clergy are those in charge and - feminists argue - men want the dominant power and therefore do not let women be ordained as priests.

The life, work and idea of Mary is carried into Third World countries. As such, the Marian spirituality is here identified as being specifically directed at the current issues going on in the world, particularly in the Third World countries, such as poverty, military and war, the death of women while giving birth, and a variety of other problems. Mary is seen as one who overcomes and ought to be mimicked. When we look at the answer Cain gave God in Genesis 4 - "Am I my brother's keeper?" - the implication is that we are indeed supposed to take care of one another. God created the world for us to inhabit and take care of, and our goods ought to be for everyone, including technologies that should be used to create jobs for people. 

But there are a number of problems in our world, such as famine, hunger, unemployment, the poor and others which degrades the human person. Mary's role is to help bring world justice and peace to all. There are a number strategies for transformation that we may apply, particularly on the basis of a Marian spirituality. For example, we can come together as a society that accepts both equality and plurality. Values were held in high regard by both Mary and Jesus, therefore, values need to be upheld. So prayer, coming together as a society and as a community and further reflection - just as Mary once did - is called for.

Sunday, May 11

A Big Heart Open to God: Pope Francis

Pope Francis (real name Jorge Mario Bergoglio) is the most recent man to become Pope. Notably, he is currently gaining a lot of media attention for his desired changes to the Roman Catholic Church. In an August 2013 interview conducted by Jesuit journalist Antionio Spadaro, Pope Francis conveyed a variety of ideas on different topics that are currently very relevant not only to him, but also to the church. It therefore seemed pertinent to write an article outlining this landmark interview - and this is the result. Starting off in the Jesuit Society from the age of 36, he has since risen to be the new Pope. Francis is noted for having a very simple workspace – only having an icon of Christ, St. Francis, St. Joseph and Mary – is not very familiar with Rome, and is the first Jesuit to ever become the Bishop of Rome. 

This Pope also has a growing reputation for being a very personal man. He prefers to have one on one conversation with individuals as opposed to the gathering of masses (no pun intended). In fact, he prefers one-on-one so much so that in recent days, he made a phone call to a young man who had written him a letter – merely because he believed it was a beautifully simplistic letter and wanted to privately speak to him. He completely trusts people also, and that individual must make a very bad mistake for him to rebuke that person. This is a very unique aspect of Pope Francis’ character: his personal and private self. 

Pope Francis was asked a variety of questions, particularly pertaining to why he joined the Jesuit order, how he feels about homosexuality and abortion, what he feels should happen between a Young and an Old Church, the idea of community and the notion of discernment. Why did he join the Jesuit order? According to Pope Francis, he desired something more but was unsure of what it was that he wanted. In my thinking, this longing is the desire described in Ecclesiastes 3:11, “[God] has set eternity in the human heart.” This longing was the longing described by Ronald Rolhesier and many others-  the insatiable burning desire described by Rolhesier. 

King Solomon had tried everything “under the sun,” and nothing made him happy. This is why he concluded in Ecclesiastes that God has placed this desire in our heart for eternity with him – it is not what is under the sun that satisfies and saves. Therefore, Pope Francis recognized this longing and burning desire and found his peace in the Jesuit Society. To him, the idea of missions, community and discipline were to be admired. As we see in his one-on-one interaction with others, Pope Francis also notes that he needs to be around people, which is which he believes that consulting those around him is wise; he cannot live his life or have an identity without other people, hence why he is in this society.

When asked what aspect of Ignatian spirituality helps him live out his ministry, Pope Francis replied that it is the idea of discernment that he cherishes the most. I tend to agree with him on this point. You may have a lot of knowledge about a topic, but unless you are able to discern truth from falsehood and right from wrong, what does the knowledge do for you if you cannot discern wisely? The Pope believes that discernment is found by looking for signs from God, listening to things that occur, and so forth – essentially, watching the Bonaventurian fingerprints of God at work. This also ties into his idea of finding God in everything just as St. Bonaventure once taught, seeing God’s echoes, pictures and fingerprints in Creation. Also, although we are also created in His image, God understands that we are not perfect and that we make mistakes. 

He also believes that – although we may see evidence of God in his creation and elsewhere – God leaves just enough room for uncertainty. Pope Francis notes that God gives us just enough doubt so that we can have sufficient evidence, but that we must take that final leap of faith as Hebrews 11:6 talks about. The Pope also addresses the hot topics of homosexuality and abortion – to him, when these sort of issues are discussed, they simply must be talked about in their individual context. Pope Francis has a lot of brilliant and fresh ideas to help hold up the pillars of the Catholic Church, and a lot of his ideas resonate with me. It appears that the Church is in for a new reformation, and I look forward to seeing the changes Pope Francis brings. 

Wednesday, May 7

Christianity and the Poor Through the Ages

On a hillside in Galilee nearly two millennia ago, Jesus spoke the words that have echoed throughout the centuries – “Blessed are you who are poor” (Luke 6:20a).[1] Who are the poor? Why are they blessed? What did Jesus mean when he said this and other things concerning the poor? The poor and the wealthy have a long history that can be borne out through textual and historical examples and considerations.

By examining the history of how Christians have treated the poor and the idea of the poor, we are able to then bridge the gap between the poor seen in the canonical Biblical texts and today’s poor. The Second Vatican Council declared that each human being was created in the image of God and has inherent value. If this is the case – what has and does Christianity teach theologically in regard to the poor, and how have Christians throughout history lived out their views?

This paper is an attempt to describe modern efforts to help the poor – often called the “preferential option for the poor” – what is being done about the poor, and how our theology has shifted. As a result, the intention is not only to provide further clarification and understanding to ancient Biblical passages on the poor as well as various Christian historical developments, but also to treat the human being as that – a human being. Popes toward the end of the 1800s as well as several Popes in the last century – such as Pope Saint John Paul II and Pope Francis – dealt with this enormous topic and problem that has been facing our world for centuries.

Part of this is influenced by Vatican II, which shifted the theological emphasis on the poor and the effects are still being felt today. By examining the past, then, we are able to venture forth into the future. There are certainly several political, social, economic and other factors that deal with the poor and poverty overall, but although there will be usage of such elements, this paper is intended to be historically and theologically based, so despite a variety of other considerations, they do not fall within the scope of the paper.

Judeo-Christian Views in Antiquity on Poverty
In Greek times, there were two common terms used for the poor - penes and ptochos, which have a variety of meanings. The term penes generally means “the working poor” and ptochos means “the destitute beggar who is outside or at the fringes of society.”[2] However, the terms do not always necessarily mean absolute poverty. They can also “refer to someone who is not wealthy enough to lead a life of leisure and independence, and therefore, could be considered one of the common people, or as someone with a low income.”[3] There were other terms, such as endeomenos (the needy; as in Didache 4:8) and hysteroumenos (lacking; as in Hermas 5.3.7), that were used in early Christian contexts.[4]

Bearing this in mind, by the time of Jesus in the 1st century AD, although the poor did not themselves constitute an actual social class, much of Christian focus was on the poor and poverty. In fact, in not only the New Testament but also in the Old, much of canonical Scripture either relates directly or indirectly to the poor, so that if all the relevant text was cut out, there would be very few pages left of Scripture.[5] It is therefore relevant to examine the Biblical texts which inform so much of Christian social teaching and current views on poverty. During the Greco-Roman times, there was a prominent belief that poverty was a curse from the gods or the result of demonic activity, as well as the idea that the poor were utterly unworthy of attention, of compassion and of solace.[6]

This was the context in which Christianity began. A cursory glance at various texts provides different aspects on the poor and how it affects the poor. For example, the Revelation of John condemns imperialism, the Letter of Jacob[7] is a local prophetic critique of poverty, Dr. Luke’s Acts of the Apostles displays a charity model, the Shepherd of Hermas shows God-given wealth, and the Didache emphasizes siblinghood as a reason to share possessions. Evidently, there were a variety of thoughts on poverty and a myriad of approaches. But what does the canonical Scriptures actually say?

According to the Hebrew Bible, God promises to bless those who bless the poor (Psalm 41:1-3, 112Proverbs 14:21, 31; 19:1722:928:27Isaiah 58:6-10) but to judge those who oppress and denounce the poor (Deuteronomy 27:19; Proverbs 17:521:1322:1628:27Isaiah 10:1-4Ezekiel 16:49, 18:12-13). Similarly, God is seen in various roles throughout Scripture. In relation to the poor, he is seen as defender of the fatherless and the oppressed (Deuteronomy 10:18; Psalm 10:16-18; 40:17, 68:5; Jeremiah 22:16), the protector of the poor (Psalm 12:5), the rescuer of the poor (1st Samuel 2:8; Psalm 35:10, 72:4, 12-14; Isaiah 19:20; Jeremiah 20:13), the provider of the poor (Psalm 68:10, 146:7; Isaiah 41:17), the savior of the poor (Psalm 34:6, 109:31) and the refuge of the poor (Psalm 14:6; Isaiah 25:4).

When the Israelites received the Mosaic Law (sometime between AD 1400-1200), there were a number of points which concerned the poor. The poor were given the right to glean fields (Leviticus 19:9-10; Deuteronomy 24:19, 21), during the sabbatical year, the poor were able to get food by sharing in the produce from the vineyards and the fields (Exodus 23:11; Leviticus 25:6). Further, during the year of Jubilee, the poor could have their property returned (Leviticus 25:25-30), those who borrowed from the poor had to return the possession before the setting of the sun (Exodus 22:25-27; Deuteronomy 24:10-13), and the rich were commanded to be charitable toward the poor (Deuteronomy 15:7-11). There are other points mentioned – the poor were to share in feats (Deuteronomy 16:11, 14; Nehemiah 8:10) and part of tithes were to be given to the poor (Deuteronomy 14:28-29; 26:12-13). Intertestamental literature highlights the generosity and virtues of the righteous rich, such as Abraham, Job, Judith and Susanna, and their goodness in caring for the poor is seen as essential in the apocryphal wisdom literature (Jubilees 16:22-25; Testament of Abraham. 1:5; Testament of Job 9-13; Susanna; Sirach 3:30-31; 4:1-10; Tobit 1:8; Wisdom 19:14-15, etc.). Also, in Intertestamental literature, charitable practices were understood as a ransom for sins (as in Tobit 4:10, “Giving to charity frees a person from death.”).

In the New Testament we find similar references to treatment of the poor as in the Hebrew Bible (Luke 3:11, 14:13; Acts 6:1; Galatians 2:10; James 2:15-16). St. Paul entreats us to “Remember the poor” (Galatians 2:10) and cautions against a love of money (1st Timothy 6:10), but not proper usage of money. Also, it is worth noting that Dr. Luke’s gospel portrays Jesus as being born into poor conditions; 2nd Corinthians 8:9 describes Jesus becoming poor for us so that we may become rich. Another aspect of the poor seen in the New Testament is begging. Begging was not common in Hebrew Bible times, but it was during the 1st century in Palestine (see Luke 16:20-21, for example). However, it was forbidden to beg if you were able to work, and you were called as a Christian to “work with [your] own hands” (1st Thessalonians 4:11; 2nd Thessalonians 3:7-13; Ephesians 4:28).

Elsewhere in the New Testament, the word “poor” is used in the figurative context (Matthew 5:3; Luke 6:20; 2nd Corinthians 8:9; Revelation 3:17). It is here that the Beatitudes enter into discussion. There are two varying accounts of the Beatitudes, one recorded in Matthew’s gospel and the other recorded in Dr. Luke’s gospel. Matthew’s version contains nine beatitudes whereas Dr. Luke’s has only four. The first three found in both Matthew and Luke are in line with Jewish tradition, particularly that of Isaiah and the Psalms. Attention is called to those who are in lowly conditions, those who are captive and those who live in ruined cities according to the prophet Isaiah. The mission of Christ, then, is seen in both Matthew and Luke as helping others: those who are in need morally, economically and socially. For the earliest Christians, Matthew’s beatitudes were used as the basis of requirements for Christian living (as in the Didache, which is primarily based on Matthew’s gospel). Later on, St. Augustine, St. Gregory and Martin Luther also used the beatitudes to show concern for the poor.

We can also grasp Scripture’s view of poverty by examining various aspects of the life of Christ. Consider that in Luke 2:8-20, the shepherds come to bear witness to Christ after being visited by an angelic host. As one scholar pointed out, “Why such a special invitation for lowly shepherds, at the bottom of the cultural barrel? Most Bible experts see a theme in this story: empathy and compassion for the poor. Jesus came in humility to bring the good news of salvation to the poorest people. Some thirty years later, Jesus said as much during a worship service in his hometown of Nazareth: ‘The Spirit of the LORD is upon me, for he has anointed me to bring Good News to the poor’ (Luke 4:18).”[8] 

Jesus’ words on the poor and his approach to the poor can be seen in light of the imago Dei. Since we are made in the image of God (Genesis 1:26-27) and have the Spirit of God within us, by treating others poorly or hurting others, we are hurting God. According to Proverbs 14:31, “Those who oppress the poor insult their Maker, but those who are kind to the needy honor their Maker.” This idea is echoed in the words of Christ in Matthew 25:40, “whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.” On a theological level, man is responsible for his fellow man. When God asked Cain where his brother Abel was, Cain replied, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” (Genesis 4:9b). The implied answer is “yes,” we are to care for our brother and sister, including those who are poor. Christian tradition follows these considerations from both the Old and New Testament, and textual as well as historical examples of how Christians have carried out this mission since provide for further thought.

One example of this Christian mission is seen in the alms boxes. "By the door of all Jewish Synagogues... were placed two alms boxes, one to provide for the poor of Jerusalem and the other for local charities... Paul, a convert from Judaism, simply followed this example of alms collection for the poor in his own later missionary travels during the first century AD."[9] Further, examples from various Christian documents also bear out this care for the poor and needy. The Sentences of Sextus, a 2nd century collection of Christian moral aphorisms from Alexandria, approves the practice of fasting in order to provide food for the poor; this is also seen in the Shepherd of Hermas[10] and later, the Didascalia and Apostolic Constitutions echo this idea. In the Acts of Paul, the queen sends “much clothing and gold… [to Paul] for the service of the poor” (27, 41). In the Gnostic Hymn of the Pearl, wealth is viewed as the recognition of your soul in relation to its origin, so it is seen in intellectual terms, which is echoed in the Gospel of Thomas. Taking food to the poor and sick is mentioned in the Testament of Joseph 1:29-30, where the writer says, “I skipped my meals for three days, taking the food to the poor and sick.”

The Judeo-Christian treatment of the poor can be considered radical, given the socio-historical context in which these texts come out of. Following the composition of the canonical New Testament, a number of other Christian writers continued to share these views on the poor and poverty, which is seen most prominently within the writings of the early Church Fathers.

Treatment of the Poor in Patristic Writings
The first three centuries are mainly responsible for the self-definition of Christianity, especially in relation to poverty.[11] Notably, most of the Christian literature of this era comes from the elite and not the poor, even when they write about the poor and poverty.[12] As a result, there is a rather glaring lack of voice of the poor within these texts,[13] so the early writings are in this sense a disadvantage in investigating. In fact, even when Christian literature does mention the poor, the texts very rarely offer an extended look, but what we do have is usually concerning charity, and in this model, the wealthy provide for the poor and the poor pray for the wealthy.[14]

Since these writings come from the elite, the Greek patristic texts rarely denounce the rich for being rich, and rarely do they call for the abolition of slavery.[15] Instead, the Patristics seem to accept poverty as a part of the natural order to life. For those who did call for these things, we may see a possible inconsistency: they would call for the rich to help the poor, yet preached in highly ornate churches. Did they ever comment on or recognize this inconsistency? Yes – but no. The church fathers held that wealth used in service of God is a good thing, it is only when wealth is misused and outside of the church that it ought to go to the poor. St. Thomas Aquinas later had comments on this, as had St. Ambrose, arguing that "even the vessels consecrated to divine worship are to be sold for the ransom of prisoners and other needs of the poor."[16] We see then, that even consecrated vessels were considered as a way in which to help the poor.

Clement of Alexandria (AD 150-215) is one of the earliest authors known to have discussed questions of wealth and poverty in way that is comprehensive and cohesive.[17] His work was Quis dives salvetur?, the first full-fledged biblical commentary on wealth and poverty. He believed that it was not good to ever be poor, unless you were poor in spirit, and quotes Proverbs 10:4, which seems to imply that poverty can humiliate a person. Instead, Clement defends actual wealth as an instrument of doing good and sharing it with others.[18]

Other Church Fathers took a different approach. In fact, three of the Cappadocian Fathers – Basil of Caesarea, his brother Gregory of Nyssa and their friend Gregory of Nazianzus – had a lot to say about wealth and poverty. St. Basil wrote quite simply, “Surely the more you abound in wealth, the more you are lacking in love!“[19] Another early Church writer (who came more toward the close of the fourth century), St. Augustine of Hippo said in his Confessions that the key factor of conversion for St. Anthony of the Desert was his response to the gospel, “go, sell whatever you have, and give to the poor,” so it seems that some early Christians were taking a literal approach to Christ’s words.[20] Many of these individuals were the Desert Fathers, which is seen through early Egyptian papyri. These texts demonstrate that there was a number of charitable works going on as a result of the Egyptian Christians, such as wine being distributed to poor widows.[21] 

The Desert Fathers held that one should “seek economic sufficiency, not economic security. Sufficiency represents a state of vulnerability.”[22] Evagrius Ponticus (AD 345-399), an early Christian monk, was one who objected to the poor, saying that “the poor person has other sources of financial help, while I do not; I do not have enough for both me and the poor person; the person is not very poor or at least not as poor as others are, and besides, he is lazy and will not work; I would just make myself poor; [and] the poor person is my enemy.”[23] Interestingly, it was monks who usually took a vow of poverty, and Evagrius would have been one of these men. Under the vow of poverty, however, you would not live in absolute poverty but rather not own private property, sharing all things in common with other monks as early Christians did in Acts of the Apostles.

Around the same time as Evagrius, John Chrysostom (AD 347-407) criticized the excess of wealth for people in his area, saying “Countless people have to go hungry so that you can wear a single ruby.”[24] Chrysostom was well known for his sermons, and in a homily on Matthew he writes, “Do you make him a cup of gold, while you fail to give him a cup of water?”[25] In a sermon on 1st Corinthians, John argues that being rich is not itself a sin. It was a sin, however, to not share one’s riches with the poor.[26] It is also in John’s writings that we can see how the fathers viewed alms. Chrysostom felt wrote that gold was “good for almsgiving, for the relief of the poor, unprofitable when it is hoarded up or buried in the earth… It was discovered for this end: that with it we should loose the captives, not form it into a chain to enslave the children of God.”[27]

Giving alms was a common Christian practice. The Canons of Athanasius, of Egyptian origin in the late fourth or early fifth century, implores bishops to give alms to those in need - including widows and the fatherless - on a weekly basis. Also, generous gifts were to be given during the great feasts of the Epiphany, Pentecost, and Easter.[28] These Christians felt that as a result of the words of Christ, when you “Minister to a poor person and you have served Christ,” as noted by St. Ambrose.[29] Similarly, St. Jerome wrote to Christians that “your duty is of a different kind. It is yours to clothe Christ in the poor.”[30] There are certainly a number of different approaches the fathers took, much of which was informed by their context or their particular theological understanding. These differences sometimes took the form of differences in living out an approach to poverty. Eusebius, a fourth century Christian historian, mentioned an early Jewish-Christian sect known as the Ebionites,[31] which meant “the poor ones” in Hebrew, and were likely named as such because of their state of voluntary poverty."[32] This form of voluntary poverty was carried on in Christian history, well into the Middle Ages and up to today.

The Church in History: Mendicant Orders, Charities and Almsgiving
A number of groups have taken on voluntary poverty. During the AD 1200s, St. Francis of Assisi began the Franciscan movement. This movement was a Mendicant Order, a kind of order that depended on others for charity. The Dominicans were also a Mendicant Order. Franciscans took a vow of poverty, and early Franciscans were quite literal in this vow, having no possessions whatsoever. Over time, however, some followers disagreed with absolute poverty and began to change their approach, but one of the things that the Franciscans were famous for is living with the poor, begging with them and for them, and helping the poor and the needy in whatever way they could. This form of helping the poor is seen later in Christian history via the preferential option for the poor.

There are other historical examples of those who have responded to the Gospel in the same way as St. Francis of Assisi as well as St. Anthony of the Desert. One of these examples is seen in the life of St. Elizabeth of Hungary (1207-1231), the daughter of King Andrew II. As aforementioned, she did what Jesus once asked of a rich young man, ‘Sell all your possessions and give the money to the poor” (Matthew 19:21). When Elizabeth was about 21 years old, she “liquidated her wealth and use the money to feed the poor and build hospitals.”[33] Although other Christians did not follow this example, it is certain that charity continued. During the Greek middle ages, despite poverty, civil wars, attacks by the Ottoman Turks, as well as confusion from the council of Florence, the Greek Orthodox Church continued to find ways of being charitable to the poor and needy.[34]

In the tenth century, we see other examples which include St. Mary the Younger and St. Michael Maleinos. Mary was a saint who paid off the debts of the poor, borrowed money for individuals who could not pay their taxes, and before she died, she ordered that the rest of her goods and possessions were to be sold off in order to pay for the debts of the poor and the needy.[35] Maleinos, who lived around the same time, sold his patrimony and gave the proceeds to those who are poor. These individuals are only two examples of how Christian charity continued centuries after the first followers. Even Thomas Aquinas, well-known for his intellectual and theological work, felt that in some cases corporal alms were much more valuable to the poor than spiritual alms - a hungry person ought to be given food instead of being taught philosophy.[36] Other Christians throughout the centuries have done much to help the poor, such as the Order of Malta, the Knights of Columbus, and the Missionaries of Charity founded by Mother Teresa. As with Mother Teresa, in recent years, particularly in Catholic circles, the preferential option for the poor has become a major approach.

Preferential Option for the Poor
Since the later half of the 1970s, the phrase “preferential option for the poor” has been used to make members of the society think: how do laws and decisions affect those who are sick, those who are young, and those who are in poor economic or social standing? To go about changing injustice, Pope Saint John Paul II held that we needed to listen to the poor and share their experience with them, or rather to stand by and with them. Only by doing this can we truly know how decisions in politics and economics affect the poor. The Pope also connected “preferential option for the poor” and “action for social justice” with the “duty of solidarity.” This solidarity is not simply the desire to change but the will to incite and enact change, and a call to commitment and servitude. In fact, according to Mark’s gospel, those who wish to become great must become a servant, and those who wish to be first must be last – they must become a servant to all.

The lives of various saints also bear out this concern for the poor, as seen in past examples. Monastic life was directed specifically at those who are poor, and more famously the life and teachings of St. Francis of Assisi bear out this concern for the poor. The Franciscans held that as disciples of Christ, they were to share in experience and life with the poor, including those who were sick and those who were in poor social standing. Religious hospitals, orphanages, schools and various other services have been provided through the ages that are sometimes directed specifically at the poor. Now, the mission toward the poor is connected and concerned with the future of the church for a number of reasons, but it is worth pointing out that concern for individuals and the future of humanity as a whole drives the concern and mission of the Church. The Christian Church is not only to be concerned with the individual salvation of people, but with the salvation of the entire world. This would include how we care for our planet, our resources, how we treat outer space as we now have access to it, how we treat the poor and how we treat animals.

The option for the poor is one in Christian theology that attempts to respond to the question, “How can one live a Christian life in a world of destitution?”[37] The preferential option for the poor “has to do with a lifestyle and not with sporadic acts of proximity or assistance to the poor,”[38] and is preferential in the sense that God loves all of his creation, but he has a preferential or a special kind of love for the poor due to their destitute position in our unequal and discriminating society. Therefore, the option for the poor means that we are trying to share in their lives, to be friends with them, to be committed to their particular social class – to live with them, as we see that Mother Teresa and the Franciscans did.

In recent years, several papal encyclicals have either directly or indirectly addressed the poor, such as the 1991 encyclical from Pope John Paul II, Centesimus Annus, which notes that new forms of poverty have arisen in recent times, requiring an expansion of our definition of the poor and that the Church’s teaching on social justice should not be a mere theory but a motivation for action.[39] Prior to this, directly before the Second Vatican Council in September 1962, Pope Saint John XXIII suggested “an innovative pastoral and theological perspective when he spoke of the church of the poor. ‘Before the underdeveloped countries,’ he said in an oft-cited text, ‘the church is, and wants to be, the church of all people and especially the church of the poor.’”[40] Due to the efforts of Popes such as John Paul II and John XXIII, the Church began shifting their approach to and concern for the poor. As a result, the lay people and local bishops began reconsidering their own theological vision, bringing about various theologies. One of the more prominent theologies to come out of the last century is liberation theology.

Liberation Theology
What we call "liberation theology” came out of a conference of Latin American bishops in Medillin, Colombia, in 1968. Liberation theologians fixated on the Exodus from Egyptian slavery in the Hebrew Bible as their central scriptural motif, which spawned a number of contextual theologies. These theologies began with reflections on the struggles of oppressed and marginalized people, as opposed to abstract theological ideas and traditions. For many Catholics as well as Protestants, a certain kind of social-scientific analysis now seems to be integral to addressing poverty. However, this kind of reliance by Catholic theologians on economic analysis has been looked down on by the Vatican, resulting in tension between the Official Church and Popular Catholicism.[41]

Since liberation theologians such as Elizondo, Guiterrez, and others began to write about poverty and liberation in the late 1960s, in many ways the situation of the poor today has actually gotten worse, not better. In fact, “more than half of the planet still lives on less than two dollars a day…. [early Christians were clear that they needed] ‘to be mindful of the poor’ (Gal. 2:10),”[42] and part of the changes from Vatican II and from Liberation Theology have focused on actual human experience and helping to make this situation better. One of the individuals who has lived this out is the Archbishop Oscar Romero.

Romero, like Jesus, was martyred. When he first became Archbishop, he was more head-based than heart-based in his approach. But over time, as he watched the oppression, the needless violence and suffering in his country of El Salvador, his views changed. Romero once said, “I rejoice in the fact that our church is persecuted, precisely for its preferential option for the poor, and for trying to incarnate itself in the interest of the poor.”[43] Romero wanted his homilies to be the voice of the people, including those who lived in poverty.[44] It is people like Romero who live out the Christian message and the Christian mission, and it is individuals like Romero who provide hope for the hopeless.

Poor and Poverty Today
The current pope, Pope Francis, is also putting great emphasis on the poor and poverty. Pope Francis has recently said, “May we never get used to the poverty and decay around us. A Christian must act.”[45] He has noted elsewhere that the Church needs to refocus itself and have a greater concern for the poor and the needy in our world than on bookish concerns. As the Second Vatican Council discussed, we are human beings created in the imago Dei, and have inherent value, worth and dignity. With this dignity, we are all to care for one another and love one another.

The Catechism (2437-2449, 2544-2547) speaks about the poor, poverty, poverty in riches and poverty of the heart, the poverty that Christ lived in, social justice and other factors. One section (2447-2448) notes:
The works of mercy are charitable actions by which we come to the aid of our neighbor in his spiritual and bodily necessities. [Cf. Isa 58:6-7; Heb 13:3] Instructing, advising, consoling, comforting are spiritual works of mercy, as are forgiving and bearing wrongs patiently. The corporal works of mercy consist especially in feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, clothing the naked, visiting the sick and imprisoned, and burying the dead. [Cf. Mt 25:31-46] Among all these, giving alms to the poor is one of the chief witnesses to fraternal charity: it is also a work of justice pleasing to God: [Cf. Tob 4:5-11; Sir 17:22; Mt 6:2-4]… In its various forms - material deprivation, unjust oppression, physical and psychological illness and death - human misery is the obvious sign of the inherited condition of frailty and need for salvation in which man finds himself as a consequence of original sin. This misery elicited the compassion of Christ the Savior, who willingly took it upon himself and identified himself with the least of his brethren. Hence, those who are oppressed by poverty are the object of a preferential love on the part of the Church which, since her origin and in spite of the failings of many of her members, has not ceased to work for their relief, defense, and liberation through numerous works of charity which remain indispensable always and everywhere.[46]

Although there are great strides being made by various organizations or groups previously mentioned, such as the Missionaries of Charity, the Franciscans, the Order of Malta, and the Knights of Columbus, it must be noted that there is also a difference in opinion on how to view poverty. Throughout history, there has been a debate between individuals who see poverty as humiliating (and therefore an evil) and those who see in poverty a kind of simplicity, which some take on as a vocation. The history of voluntary poverty, as mentioned earlier, goes back at least to St. Anthony in the AD 300s, although St. Francis is probably the most famous promoter of this tradition.[47] This tension between supporters of poverty and opponents of poverty continues to shape current perceptions, though more seem to oppose poverty than support it. In light of this, it is pertinent to make a theological comment in regard to the rich and the poor in Luke 16.

The Rich Man and the Poor Man
In the parable of Jesus as recorded in Dr. Luke’s gospel, the poor man, whose name is given as Lazarus, begs at the gate of a rich man, who is not named. Dogs come and lick his sores, and Lazarus is never let in, even to take the scraps of food off the floor of the rich man’s house. At death, the rich man goes to the underworld, but the poor man goes to paradise. The rich man became poor spiritually, so to speak, whereas the poor man became rich in spirit (i.e., “blessed are the poor in  spirit”, see also James 2:1-9). What does this say about views on the rich and the poor? It seems that the rich man failed to provide for his fellow man and became poor in spirit as a result. It is worth noting that the poor beggar is given a name whereas the rich man is not given a name. Perhaps the message to take away from this important parable is that God calls his children to care for his other children, and as brothers and sisters created by God, it is indeed our duty.

Today, we may perhaps say that the core theological problem is not necessarily the problem of the nonbeliever – although this is certainly highly important – but rather the problem of individuals who are considered to be nonpersons by the elite.[48] Christians are therefore called to work toward the transformation not just of an individual but indeed the transformation of the world and strive to uphold hope where hope has been negated.[49] Christians throughout history have continually responded to this call in a number of ways, and lived out the gospel by lending a hand to the poor, the needy and the oppressed. By examining the texts that make up the canonical corpus of Judeo-Christian Scripture as well as various pieces of Christian literature and examples of Christian saints and movements throughout history, we have seen the way in which this call has been answered. To be sure, the poor remain and poverty is still very prominent, but the Christian call will continue to be answered, and the cardinal virtues of faith, hope and love will be granted unto the poor as Christians and non-Christians alike work together to build a better world for those who have lived as the poor in spirit and the economically poor.

[1] It is worth noting that Matthew’s version has “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” Also, Dr. Luke’s gospel says that the sermon was delivered “on a level place” (6:17), where Matthew says that it was “on a mountainside” (5:1). It may have been a level part of a mountain.
[2] Groody, Daniel G. The Option for the Poor in Christian Theology. 1st ed. Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 2007. 42. Print.
[3] Faherty, Vincent E. "Social Welfare Before The Elizabethan Poor Laws: The Early Christian Tradition, AD 33 To 313." Journal Of Sociology & Social Welfare 33.2 (2006): 109. Academic Search Complete. Web. 28 Feb. 2014.
[4] Groody 42.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Holman, Susan R. Wealth and Poverty in Early Church and Society. 1st ed. Grand Rapids, MI: Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology, 2008. 57. Print. 
[7] The Epistle of James.
[8] Miller, Stephen M. The Jesus of the Bible. 1st ed. Uhrichsville, Ohio: Barbour Publishing Inc., 2009. 57. Print. 
[9] Faherty 111.
[10] Rhee, Helen. Loving the Poor, Saving the Rich: Wealth, Poverty and Early Christian Formation. 1st ed. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2012. 112. Print.
[11] Ibid., XIV.
[12] Ibid., XV.
[13] Ibid., XVI.
[14] Groody 37-38.
[15] Holman 292.
[16] Pope, Stephen J. "Christian Love For The Poor: Almsgiving And The "Preferential Option." Horizons 21.2 (1994): 293-294. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials. Web. Feb. 2014.
[17] Holman 69.
[18] Ibid., 75.
[19] Groody 84.
[20] Holman 67.
[21] Ibid., 88-102.
[22] Ibid., 84.
[23] Ibid., 86.
[24] Ibid., 128.
[25] Ibid., 134.
[26] Ibid., 129.
[27] Ibid., 212.
[28] Ibid., 92.
[29] Rhee 182; from the De uiduis 9.54.
[30] Holman 213; from the Letter 130 to Demetrius 14.
[31] Most famous for their Christological views. They denied the divinity of Jesus but accepted him as Messiah.
[32] Faherty 112.
[33] Miller 229.
[34] Holman 206.
[35] Ibid., 250.
[36] Pope 291.
[37] Groody 5.
[38] Ibid., 30.
[39] Ibid., 58.
[40] Ibid., 17.
[41] Hillerbrand, Hans J. Christianity: The Illustrated History. 1st ed. London: Duncan Baird Publishers, 2008. 118-119. Print.
[42] Groody 3.
[43] Ibid., 99.
[44] Ibid.,100.
[45] Francis, Pope (Pontifex). “May we never get used to the poverty and decay around us. A Christian must act.” 3 Apr 2014, 1:03 a.m. Tweet.
[46] Catechism of the Catholic Church 2447-2448.
[47] Hillerbrand 118-119.
[48] Groody 119.
[49] Ibid., 210.