Even though the term “preferential option for the poor” is relatively new in the language of the Church, the reality behind the term is as old as the prophetic faith of Israel… or even older, stemming from the very heart of the creator.
By proposing the notion of the preferential option for the poor as one of the guiding principles of Catholic Social Teaching, the Church has made more explicit and highlighted a dimension of our faith that is present throughout the Scriptures. This dimension has also been alive in the tradition of the Church from the beginning, despite the constant temptation of many to obscure its meaning or explain it away. God’s very love for the poor has been grafted into the hearts of countless believers, century after century.
Yes, the testimony of the Bible about God’s preference is unmistakable. The central event of the Hebrew experience, the Exodus, presents us with God’s peculiar predilection for the poor and for those who suffer injustice. In the call of Moses, and in the liberation of the Israelites which followed, we read about God’s mercy and special care for them. God was not impressed with the proud empires of Egypt and Mesopotamia, but turned with compassion toward the tiniest and least powerful of peoples. The descendants of Abraham were at the time enslaved migrants in the land of Egypt, not yet a nation. God’s saving power liberated them from servitude.
Thus, at the beginning of Exodus we read:
The Israelites groaned under their slavery, and cried out. Out of the slavery their cry for help rose up to God. God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. God looked upon the Israelites, and God took notice of them. (Exodus 2: 23-25)
Then the Lord said, ‘I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land… (Exodus 3: 7-8) The cry of the Israelites has now come to me; I have also seen how the Egyptians oppress them. So come, I will send you [Moses] to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.’ (Exodus 3: 9-10)
The central event of the Christian Gospel, the incarnation, clearly reveals God’s choice for the poor too:
And the Word became flesh and lived among us. (John 1: 14)
Now, one thing would have been for the Word to become human as the child of a royal or aristocratic family. A very different experience was being born –as Jesus was– from poor parents in a country torn by injustice, oppression, and violence. Life is never easy for the poor, and Jesus’ was not an exception. The infancy narratives that we read at the beginning of Matthew and Luke present us with many examples of the precarious situation of Jesus and his humble family.
Matthew presents the baby Jesus and his family as refugees in Egypt, having escaped from the violence of a ruthless tyrant. The following passages from this gospel can be used to meditate about different dimensions of Jesus’ poverty:
… An angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, ‘Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.’ Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod. (Matthew 2: 13-15)
When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under… (Matthew 2: 16)
When Herod died, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, ‘Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child’s life are dead.’ Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel. But when he heard that Archelaus was ruling over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. And after being warned in a dream, he went away to the district of Galilee. There he made his home in a town called Nazareth… (Matthew 2: 19-23)
God’s choice to take the flesh of a child with no wealth or worldly influence had very concrete consequences. Very soon into the evangelical testimony the direct historical consequences of such poverty becomes evident: the Holy Family shares the fragile fate of those who hunger, those who are persecuted, the homeless and the migrants. These and similar threats to life have marked the experience of the bulk of humanity. These threats indeed continue to hinder the life of the majority of people in our contemporary world. The incarnational vocation of Emmanuel –God with us– was to accompany that experience of precarious but faithful struggle for life which characterizes the existence of the poor now as two thousand years ago.