The Gospel of the poor just as relevant today

Father John A. Kiley

The Gospel according to St. Luke is rightly labelled the gospel of the poor. His sensitivity toward the needy is necessary in every generation and in every circumstance. St. Luke would have been as moved by the poverty of St. Vincent dePaul’s Paris or of Charles Dickens’ London as he was by the destitution found in ancient Antioch and Rome. The trash-strewn lots, door-off-the-hinges tenements, and broken-down vehicles of inner-city America would evoke similar compassion from this disciple. At the conclusion of this coming Sunday’s Gospel, St. Luke underlines his message with these insistent words: “Rather, when you hold a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind; blessed indeed will you be because of their inability to repay you. For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.” The sacred author had already announced clearly, “Blessed are the poor.” He attaches no modifiers, no conditions, no qualifications, to this first beatitude. Unlike St. Matthew, St. Luke does not write vaguely of an amorphous poverty “of spirit.” Rather St. Luke writes bluntly of persons who are homeless, underprivileged, broke, even broken. He is frankly writing of beggars. The beggar Lazarus is easily recalled. This poor, homeless, diseased individual is welcomed to Abraham’s heavenly bosom while his well-off neighbor perishes. In the ancient world a physical handicap almost certainly reduced a man or a woman to beggary. No matter how humbling the reception of social services might be in modern America, welfare, child support, unemployment insurance, Social Security and Medicare are a vast improvement over the outstretched hand that was the only hope of survival in previous centuries.

As sincere as St. Luke’s concern for the ancient world’s economically disadvantaged was, his Gospel message is not merely an anti-poverty program. St. Luke’s concern for the poor reveals a broader, in fact, universal concern for disadvantaged persons in any and all circumstances. Not only poverty, but sometimes nationality, religion, occupation, disease, mental disorders, widowhood, even being a woman, placed a person on the periphery of social involvement and on the edges of neighborly concern. Accordingly, St. Luke especially highlights the association of Jesus Christ with all those whom others in the ancient Jewish world ignored. Jesus boldly cures the servant of a Roman centurion, a foreign military officer from the dreaded occupying army in Palestine. Jesus makes a hero of the Good Samaritan, a foreigner whose people were considered heretical half-breeds. So nationality was no barrier to Christ’s love. Jesus dined with the publican Zaccheus and praised another publican’s contrite prayer at the Temple. So occupation was no obstacle to salvation. The Master raises an only son to life because his widowed mother would be left destitute without him. The Savior accepts anointing from a woman of questionable reputation. Christ welcomes support from women who travel with him in His ministry. Such favorable attitude toward the widow, the woman of ill-repute, and the female disciples is Jesus’ expansive gesture toward all women who were considered second-class citizens in ancient Israel.

Jesus in his public ministry famously touches and cures lepers who by law were medical, social, and religious outcasts. Again Jesus is remembered curing a demoniac who was at the very least a psychologically challenged person! And in great testimony to Jesus’ concern for all persons, those on the edges but also those in the center, St. Luke twice recalls Jesus sitting on the hillside facing the holy city, weeping over his beloved Jerusalem because it did not know the time of its visitation. It pained Jesus to think that any man or any woman would deny him or herself access to the Kingdom of God.

The concern of St. Luke for the disadvantaged of his day reflects, of course, the deepest interests of Jesus himself. Christ dealt freely and kindly with all manner of people. In St. Luke’s mind, the openness of Jesus Christ to the poor, the foreign, the handicapped, and even the sinful sets a policy, a program, a mission, for the Church in every generation. The Church will always need a St. Martin splitting his cloak with a beggar, a St. Francis embracing the leper, a St. Margaret rescuing captive serfs, a St. Katherine Drexel educating Native Americans. A close reading of St. Luke reveals that his is not only the Gospel of the Poor; it is truly the Gospel of Universal Salvation. All persons are welcomed into the Kingdom of God!