“Don’t forget the poor.” That is what one of the Cardinals said to Pope Francis as soon as he was elected. And he hasn’t. Over and over again he has reminded us that the poor are not on the edge of Christian life. Jesus put them at the centre. So must we. When St Matthew wrote his Gospel he put near the beginning his great Sermon on the Mount – a kind of summary of Jesus’ teaching – and he begins that with the Beatitude “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of heaven.” St Luke is even more direct. Today’s Gospel stands at the beginning of Jesus’ teaching and is a kind of manifesto of what Jesus cares about. Here at the beginning we are told to preach good news to the poor. What does that mean?
If I were to answer that question properly we would be here all day. I would like to look at just one aspect of that question – who are the poor? Or who are the poor we need to be preaching to? It is easy to see the poor on the edge of our life – the homeless we see in the streets, the bleak estates where some of us have lived, the thousands and thousands of really poor people I see when I go to Zimbabwe. Are these the poor we must preach the Gospel to? Well, yes, of course. But first there is something else we must do. We must recognise that we too are the poor.
In the world of mission we are often reminded that when we want to go out and convert people to Jesus the first person we need to convert is ourselves. Unless we have fallen passionately in love with Christ, and have gone some way at least along the road of changing our lives to be like his we will have no impact at all on those to whom we preach. It is the same with our ministry to the poor. It is easy to see them as people who need our help. It is relatively easy to part with a bit of money, the part we can easily spare, to help others help them. It is a bit more demanding to go on Father John’s run for Tariro and even to gather people to sponsor him so that Tariro kids will be able to stay in school and escape the poverty trap into which they were born. All that is good. But if we are really to do this as Christians we have to admit that we are poor too. Our material wealth, our cars, our education and all the gifts that we have acquired in the years before we came here actually count for very little. Even the theology we have learned, the Greek we have acquired count for little unless they take us deeper into the message which the poor have to give us.
Pope Francis does not just remind us of the poor and our duty to help them. He wants us to get close to them, to have about our persons the smell of the sheep. I have met shepherds in Romania, some of them monks, who actually live with their sheep, and certainly smell like them. Francis goes further: he tells us we must let the poor evangelise us. We think we are the ones who must preach the gospel to the poor and wonder how we can do it. Francis tells us we must let the poor preach to us. That means we have to admit that actually we know very little about the Gospel. We have to open our ears to hear uncomfortable things and take them to heart. What are these things?
Well I can’t say for you. I can only speak for myself. When I go to London and walk past a homeless person begging I realise I am mean. I usually make sure I have no cash so I can honestly say to myself that I have nothing to give. If I was more generous I would make sure I did have cash so that I could give. When I go to Zimbabwe and see the food people live on, I am ashamed to worry every day about the quality of the porridge at breakfast, or the meat on Sundays. I am ashamed to live in a society that spends so much time, money and energy constructing what each person thinks is a perfect diet when the people in Zimbabwe must struggle to find something to eat.
Yet it’s not only shame and meanness I discover. There is joy. Life among the poor is so much fun. They have resilience and humour. They also know more about God. We middle class comfortably off Christians don’t really need God to stay alive. We struggle to let him into all of our life, rather than treat Him like an optional extra. Poor people, at least in Africa, know that without God they have no chance at all. One must be honest and say this doesn’t always make them good! There are plenty of crooks, thugs, prostitutes and drug addicts who believe in God and try to get his support for what they do. But then of course, Christ loves sinners as much as anyone and those who know they are sinners have a better chance of receiving that love, than those who think they are good. We know that from the Gospels.
We can push this a little further: the great Liberation Theologian Gustavo Gutierrez once said that Liberation Theology does not begin with analysis; it begins with a mystical experience of a deep encounter with the Lord in the face of someone who is poor. I am very much in favour of theological study, New Testament Greek, reading a wide range of books and writing about what we read. But if that isn’t founded on the sight of Jesus in the face of the poor it will do nothing good for the Kingsom of God. Each of us needs to find a way to let the poor teach us about God.
But let us return to St Luke: Jesus hasn’t just come to announce the Gospel to the poor. He has come to offer release to the captives, sight to the blind and liberty to the oppressed. If we are the poor, it is likely that we are also the captives, the blind and the oppressed. A good start to our meditations this week would be to ask ourselves, not whether we are captives, blind or oppresssed, but why Jesus thinks we are. What holds us captive? What is it we do not want to see? What weight of oppression holds us down and stops us fully living the Gospel life?