The Wisdom of the Poor
By Donald Senior, C.P.

"Blessed are you who are poor, for the kingdom of God is yours." The words of Jesus have punch, and this Beatitude from Luke's Gospel is a good example. Unlike the version in the Gospel of Matthew ("Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven"), in Luke's Gospel Jesus speaks directly to the poor and adds no qualifying phrase like "...in spirit." The people addressed here are the real poor, those without resources and truly in need.

Why would Jesus tell poor people they are blessed? The unemployed or those threatened with eviction from their home or with no food to feed their hungry children might be understandably enraged to hear someone say, "Don't worry, you are blessed to be suffering like this." Advocates for the poor have long criticized those who pat poor people on the head and say, in effect, "Hang on. God loves you and your reward in heaven will be great."

Luke's Gospel makes clear that Jesus' response to the poor was more than empty words. He was a healer who waded into the sea of broken humanity and healed bodies and spirits. Jesus threw his lot with the poor, eating with them and welcoming them (15:1-2).

And Jesus did not hesitate to challenge the rich through his prophetic words and sharp stories. He tells his dinner host that the next time he has a banquet he should invite the poor as his guests (Lk 14:12-14). One of his parables laughs at the wealthy landowner who decides to build extra barns to hoard his bountiful crop on the very eve that God will call him to judgment (Lk 12:16-21), another at the rich man who ate sumptuously every day but ignored the beggar Lazarus who lay sick at his doorway (Lk 16:19-31).

Right after the Beatitudes in Luke's Gospel come the "woes." The first of these pulls no punches for those who had resources and yet refused to share them: "Woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation" (Lk 6:24). Jesus' words were so provocative that he earned the anger of his opponents and put his life at risk.

Ultimate Vindication

So Jesus' words of blessing to the poor were not idle words. Jesus believed the poor are truly blessed because, despite everything, God cares for the poor and would ultimately vindicate their suffering. This is a fundamental conviction of the Bible. The God of Israel, the God of Jesus is on the side of the defenseless and those without resources. And while Jesus worked hard to alleviate suffering he also firmly believed that those crushed by poverty would, in God's realm, be lifted up and filled with abundant life. For Jesus this was not "pie in the sky, by and by" but an expression of his trust that God was faithful and that life extended beyond the realm of suffering and death.

But there was another reason why Jesus blessed the poor. Those who are poor embody a truth that the rest of us can often forget. The poor know what it means to be dependent on others. The poor know firsthand how fragile life can be. The poor have no illusions about being in control of their own destiny. These realities apply not just to the poor but to everyone, yet having a lot of resources can sometimes delude us into thinking we are the masters of our own destiny and do not really need others.

Hard-Won Wisdom

The Bible appreciates the hard-won wisdom of the poor and knows all too well the illusions that can befall the rich. That is another reason why Jesus blesses the poor—in a paradoxical way, their dependence and lack of autonomy reveal how all of us ultimately stand before God.

It is hard to read anything these days without thinking of the terrible events of last September and the current crisis gripping our country and the world. How should we read Jesus' words about the poor now? Surely we are more aware of the growing chasm between the "haves" and the "have-nots" that creates so much enmity and suffering in our world.

Jesus' words and actions remind us that God cares for the poor and that as Christians we have an obligation to share our resources with those in need. All of us are "poor" before God and depend on God's abundant and gracious mercy for our lives.

Passionist Father Donald Senior is president of Catholic Theological Union, Chicago, and professor of New Testament studies. He is past president of the Catholic Biblical Association of America and newly appointed to the Pontifical Biblical Commission.

Next: Blessed Are They Who Mourn

Questions for Reflection:

• Have you ever felt totally dependent on others? How did you respond?
• Talk about a time you felt your destiny was out of your control. Was God in the situation?

Responses to this month's Questions for Reflection from "God in Our Midst."


Sharing Our Bounty
By Judith Dunlap

I learned about giving from one's bounty when my youngest son, Peter, was four. I was sorting through his Tee-shirts one day, putting aside some of the older and faded ones for the parish clothing drive. When he asked what I was doing, I told him they were for some poor children. He went to his bottom drawer and pulled out three relatively new shirts and brought them to me, telling me he was sure they would like those better.

That afternoon I realized the difference between Christian charity and simply donating to the poor. I began to understand that with true charity there are no "haves" and "have-nots." Christian charity is a sharing of equals, recognizing we are all members of God's family. This subtle difference of attitude was made clear to me when my four-year-old just wanted to share with another little boy.

This Lent why not make an effort as a family to give from your bounty? Talk to your children about being a part of God's family. Ask them to choose some of their toys or other articles to share with brothers and sisters they may never meet. Model this spirit of giving by sharing some things that you still value. You might also choose one day a week during Lent for a soup and cracker meal. By leaving the table still hungry you can choose to experience a bit of the hunger many people have no choice but to experience.

True acts of Christian charity bridge the gap between the "haves" and the "have-nots." They are steps to building a world where everyone has enough. What a great way to spend Lent: sharing with our brothers and sisters and learning to give from our best rather than our surplus.


For Family Response:

As a family, decide on what you can do without for a week (chips, chocolate, beverage other than water at a meal). Decide together on a good cause to which you can donate the money saved.

Responses to this month's FAMILY CORNER.


By Frank Frost

Early in the animated movie Shrek, the title character complains to his companion, Donkey, "There's a lot more to ogres than people think." Ogres are like onions, he says. They have layers.

The same goes for the movie itself. Its layers of meaning give it cross-generational appeal and make this a genuine family picture.

As a simple story that appeals to children, Shrek relates the adventure of a misunderstood gentle giant of an ogre who is forced out of his swamp to rescue a beautiful princess held prisoner by a fire-breathing dragon. Shrek has been sent to rescue the princess for a prince who is far from charming.

Shrek's appeal to adolescents is helped by its anti-sentimental approach and broad irreverent humor. And they'll enjoy many of the things an older generation will also savor, including spoofs of TV game shows, wrestling, martial arts movies and, above all, Disneyland.

The movie opens with all the traditional fairy tale characters—from the Three Little Pigs and Pinocchio to Snow White and Cinderella—being hunted down and shipped out by agents of Lord Farquaad, an egomaniacal prince whose "perfect" kingdom lampoons Disneyland. When the fairy tale characters are relocated to Shrek's swamp, he strikes a deal with Lord Farquaad. He will deliver Princess Fiona from the dragon in return for sole occupancy of his swamp again.

The rescue of Princess Fiona, of course, exposes Shrek and his sidekick Donkey to great physical dangers. But a different kind of danger is really what this movie is about—the danger of (mis)judging people before you know them. It's also about the importance of friendship and the real meaning of true love. It reminds us that beauty is more than skin deep. For all its attempts to appear nonconventional, Shrek simply puts a twist on the old fairy tales to hold up solid traditional values.

Once Shrek vanquishes the dragon to rescue Princess Fiona, she eagerly awaits "love's true kiss" from him. But he declines, hiding behind his armored helmet. "It's destiny," she insists. "You must know how it goes." She's meant to be rescued from a dragon by her handsome prince, and they share true love's first kiss. We, the audience, are meant to recognize here the false expectations popular culture has created around physical beauty and romantic love. But we also know that an ogre does not marry a princess.

So a dilemma presents itself during their journey back to Lord Farquaad's castle and a prearranged marriage we know is made in hell. Princess Fiona and Shrek—now revealed for the ogre he is—take to one another. The two fall in love, but misunderstandings and misjudgments prevent them from bridging the ogre-princess gap, and Fiona rides off to marry Farquaad. But it can't end there, of course. After another rescue, the film's happy ending again makes explicit the themes of real friendship, beauty and true love.

By Judy Ball

St. Jerome Emiliani (1481-1537)

There is nothing like personal suffering to help one appreciate the hardships of others. It took defeat in battle and imprisonment in a dungeon to help Jerome Emiliani step back, review his life and make the transition from worldly soldier to model of sanctity and service.

At first, he focused on the care and education of his nephews while he simultaneously undertook seminary studies. As famine and plague raged through 16th-century northern Italy, Jerome, by now a newly ordained priest, reached out to the ever-growing numbers of orphans roaming the streets. After his own recovery from the plague he founded orphanages in cities throughout northern Italy. He established hospitals as well as a house for repentant prostitutes, one of the first of its kind. He personally cared for so-called incurables in the hospitals of Venice.

Jerome Emiliani went on to found a small congregation of priests—the Somascan Fathers, also known as the Servants for the Poor—dedicated to the care of orphans. The order continues to operate schools and orphanages today, primarily in Italy.

It was only natural that Jerome also wanted to instruct the young at his orphanages. By using the question-and-answer technique of the catechism, he is thought to have pioneered the teaching of Christian doctrine to the young. But it was the suffering of children that most touched the heart of Jerome Emiliani and prompted Pope Pius XI in 1928 to name him patron of orphans and abandoned children.

He died from an infectious disease he contracted while caring for the sick. He was canonized in 1767. His feast day is February 8.

Sister Jean Thuerauf, R.S.M.

Sister Jean Thuerauf says she gets her best ideas from the Holy Spirit. Apparently, the two are in constant contact.

There's the Cookie Cart, which she established in 1988 to provide a safe place for children amidst rampant gang violence and drug activity in her north Minneapolis neighborhood and which is now a thriving nonprofit business. There is the child-sized chapel in her backyard, where children can feel secure in God's presence and experience the power of prayer. There is the youth club, where youngsters learn about everything from courtesy to gardening to Jesus. Informal encounters with young people are part of every day.

And then there is Sister Jean's latest, and still-not-quite-realized, dream: Project Vision, which will provide a place for intact families to live in a Christian-oriented housing community where they can offer a nurturing environment to their children. She is anticipating having title to the 2.2 vacant acres by early 2002. But if she has to wait longer, that's no problem. "The whole idea came from the Lord. He will provide the people as well as the money," Sister Jean, 71, told Every Day Catholic.

Living and working in her neighborhood for the past 25 years have made the Mercy Sister a beloved and admired fixture, especially among the young, including present and former gang members who seek her counsel and stay in touch.

"Children are so loved by the Lord, and I want them to learn about his love," she says. "I want to do everything I can to make their troubled lives more humane.

"The Holy Spirit has sent me here to help build God's kingdom on earth. That's the mission."

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