Who are the poor whom God hears?

In the Mass readings for today, the refrain of the Psalm is “The Lord hears the cry of the poor.” It’s interesting to ask the question: who is poor?

The Catholic Church’s social justice teaching  has long expressed the idea of the preferential option for the poor, those who are materially poor. God has a preference to care for the needs of the poor (and for us to do so, also). It’s not that God loves any one person more than another, but rather that God is like a father or mother who sees a child in need. If a mom  or dad saw one child was fine and the second had been injured, she would attend to the child in need at that moment. Similarly, God cares for the poor because they are in need and specially deserving of God’s love. Gustavo Gutierrez, OP, the founder of liberation theology in Latin America, argued that not to take sides is de facto to take sides with those in power. God’s taking the side of the poor and oppressed is God’s action to restore the equality of all people, to whom dignity and freedom belong as a right.

In another sense, we are all “poor”. Whereas Luke’s account of the Beatitudes says, Blessed are the poor, the other synoptic accounts say, “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” There is a wider sense in which we are all existentially poor: we all suffer, we all sin, we all eventually will die. When we hear “The Lord hears the cry of the poor,” that also means all of us.

One might argue that the reason that we can and should work for the restoration of the dignity, freedom, and material well being of all of God’s people is because we can all identify with that greater existential poverty, if we are honest about ourselves. Compassion, sympathy, and mercy come not from privilege but rather from recognizing a shared poverty in being human. At the same time, we have to acknowledge the distinctiveness of the kinds of experiences of marginalization and impoverishment that are qualitatively different than our own–if I have not experienced real hunger, or been the object of a racist attack, I ought to be a good listener to what that really means rather than assimilating it to my own experiences of lack or being hurt. The Lord hears the cry of the poor because God listens. We also are encouraged to listen, to others’ voices and to the internal voice that helps us to know our own poverty, which God hears and wants us to hear.