We invite you to reflect on our reading from Isaiah through Saint Oscar Romero’s vision that the Church choose to serve the world of the poor; engage with the concept of the “preferential option for the poor” through its roots in Latin America and the Second Vatican Council; and embody a Christlike openness to living alongside the poor and marginalized.
Share your bread with those who are hungry,
and shelter homeless poor people;
clothe those who are naked,
and do not hide from the needs
of your own flesh and blood.
Do this and your light will shine like the dawn,
your healing will break forth like lightning!
Your integrity will go before you
and the glory of YHWH will be your rearguard.
Cry, and YHWH will answer;
call, and YHWH will say, “I am here”—
provided you remove from your midst all oppression,
finger pointing, and malicious talk.
If you give yourself to the hungry
and satisfy the needs of the afflicted,
then your light will rise in the darkness,
and your shadows will become like noon.
Response: For the upright, Our God shines like a lamp in the dark.
For the upright, Our God shines like a lamp in the dark,
God is merciful, tenderhearted, virtuous.
Interest is not charged by these good people,
They are honest in all their dealings.
R: For the upright, Our God shines like a lamp in the dark.
Kept safe by virtue, they are ever steadfast,
And leave an imperishable memory behind them;
With constant heart and confidence in Our God,
They need never fear bad news.
R: For the upright, Our God shines like a lamp in the dark.
Steadfast in heart, they overcome their fears; / in the end they will triumph over their enemies.
Quick to be generous, / they give to the poor; / their righteousness can never change,
People such as this will always be honored.
R: For the upright, Our God shines like a lamp in the dark.
As for myself, sisters and brothers,
when I came to you I did not come
proclaiming God’s testimony with any particular eloquence or wisdom.
No, I determined that while I was with you
I would know nothing but Jesus Christ—Christ crucified.
When I came among you, it was in weakness and fear,
and with much trepidation.
My message and my preaching did not rest on philosophical arguments,
but on the convincing power of the Spirit.
As a consequence, your faith rests not on human wisdom,
but on the power of God.
Jesus said to the disciples,
“You are the salt of the earth.
But what if salt were to lose its flavor?
How could you restore it?
It would be fit for nothing
but to be thrown out and
“You are the light of the world.
You do not build a city on a hill, then try to hide it, do you?
You do not light a lamp, then put it under a bushel basket, do you?
No, you set it on a stand
where it gives light to all in the house.
In the same way, your light must shine before others
so that they may see your good acts and give praise to your Abba God in heaven.”
The Inclusive Lectionary © 2022 FutureChurch. All rights reserved.
The inclusive language psalms:
Leach, Maureen, O.S.F. and Schreck, Nancy, O.S.F., Psalms Anew: A Non-sexist Edition
(Dubuque, IA: The Sisters of St. Francis, 1984).
Used with permission.
By 1980, Saint Oscar Romero – then Archbishop of El Salvador – had gained international recognition for his courageous defense of human rights. In February of that year, Romero received an honorary degree from the University of Louvain in Belgium. Less than two months later, he would be assassinated while saying mass in retaliation for his condemnation of military violence against the poor. Known more as a pastor than a theologian, he nonetheless offers a profound vision of the Church, compelled by its commitment to the poor, and its engagement with the political dimension of society. The reading in Isaiah challenges us to not only help feed the hungry and defend the oppressed, but also to be in complete solidarity with the marginalized of society. This solidarity is exemplified in the image and life of Oscar Romero.
Many Catholics insist that the Church should stay out of politics. Whenever the pope admonishes American military or economic endeavors, politicians and talking heads often give some version of, “I look to the Church for spirituality and moral guidance, not foreign policy and economic expertise.” Or, how often do we hear the much maligned politician’s offer of “thoughts and prayers” in response to a mass shooting – implying that religion’s contribution to a problem should be spiritual and abstract, rather than concrete and political. It’s understandable why people worry about the Church involving itself in the political sphere, and why they think that by staying above the fray, the Church can maintain its clarity of moral vision. After all, shouldn’t the Church avoid being of the world? Isn’t the Church’s job to stay out of politics, instead offering charitable aid to the less fortunate?
Romero, however, says that if we take Jesus as our model, we become more political, not less. In an address at the University of Louvain in 1980, titled, “The Political Dimension of Faith from the Perspective of the Preferential Option for the Poor,” Romero says, “The Church is not a fortress set apart from the city. The Church follows Jesus, who lived, worked, battled and died in the midst of a city, in the polis,” (2). That is to say, Jesus did not keep the trials and struggles of the political world at arm’s length, but engaged them fully and completely.
How can the Church best engage with the world? How can the Church avoid getting stuck in the mire of partisan squabbles and instead discern how to properly engage the political dimension of the world? Romero offers a North Star for us to follow. He says, “The world that the Church ought to serve is the world of the poor…[It] is the key to understanding the Christian faith…It is the poor who tell us what the world is…and what it means for the Church to really live in the world,” (2). If the Church truly stands in solidarity with the poor, we will then see the world, and the Christian faith, with absolute clarity. If we see with the eyes of the poor, we will see that sin is not only spiritual death, but is also any force that brings bodily death to the poor. As Romero says, “idolatry of wealth, the idolatry of the absolute right of private property, and the idolatry of political power,” are all sinful because they bring death to the poor (7).
Taking the perspective of the poor also shows us that the incarnation was not a one time event that happened 2,000 years ago. Rather, the Church should embody the lives, struggles, and political realities of its people, just like God did when God was born as Jesus among the Galileans. The Church should incarnate itself in the socio-political reality of the poor, taking their side, and, “giving them hope, and encouraging them to engage in liberating praxis, defending their cause and sharing their fate,” (6). Romero challenges the Church to be Christlike, not only in questions of private morality or virtue, but in the concerns of the world. He championed the oppressed and lived his solidarity so radically that he died side by side with them.
Solidarity with the poor will give us a deeper understanding of the Church’s salvific mission. The Church’s essence is its, “mission to save the world in its totality, saving it in history, here and now,” (2). Yes, the Church is called to bring spiritual salvation, but also to save people’s bodies and lives. It is not enough for the Church to offer charity – it must engage in the struggle to change the world into a place where charity is not necessary.
In the mid-twentieth century, a grassroots movement started in Brazil and rapidly spread throughout Latin America, in which small groups of poor people, often illiterate, met together to discuss scripture, apply it to their lives, and see their lives reflected in scripture. For the most part, this was the first time some clergy had allowed the poor of Latin America to interpret scripture themselves, and the results were groundbreaking.
A radical understanding of God emerged. After centuries of being told “it is God’s will” that they were poor, the poor of Latin America realized that it is not God’s will for them to be poor. In fact, they came to understand that God wanted them to live and to flourish. This new understanding inspired them to begin organizing and struggling against the unjust structures of Latin American society, all inspired by the God of the Bible, the God of liberation and of life.
After the Second Vatican Council, the Latin American bishops returned home and used some of the council’s new direction to interpret this grassroots movement. In the spirit of the council, they listened to the poor of Latin America and understood this movement to be divine. They let it shape their vision for the future of the Latin American Church. At a 1968 meeting of Latin American bishops in Medellín, Colombia, they first penned the phrase “the preferential option for the poor.” In her book, Quest for the Living God: Mapping Frontiers in the Theology of God, theologian Elizabeth Johnson articulates the preferential option for the poor:
In situations of misery God is not neutral. As the Creator and ultimate ruler of this world, the God of life wants all creatures to flourish. When people are ground down, this violates the way God wants the world to be. In response, the living God makes a dramatic decision: to side with oppressed people in their struggle for life. In theological shorthand this is known as God’s preferential option for the poor. The sole reason for this partiality is divine love, which freely sides with the poor not because they are more saintly or less sinful than others, but because of their situation. The purpose of this divine partiality is to heal, redeem, and liberate the situation so that the dehumanizing suffering will cease (73-74).
The idea of God’s partiality scandalized many, but it does not mean that God’s love is unequal. God loves all God’s children equally, but rises up with special vigor to defend the ones whose lives are in danger.
It follows, then, that the Church cannot be neutral, but must actively take the side of the poor. We must serve our brothers, sisters, and siblings who are suffering until they can rid themselves of poverty and flourish in the fullness of their humanity.
For further reading:
Today’s reading from Isaiah speaks of the deep healing that comes from feeding the hungry, defending the oppressed, and giving shelter to the homeless. This healing is not simply a reward from God, or some kind of payment for doing good works; rather, when we serve the poor and alleviate their suffering, this healing is merely a natural part of the process of becoming more Christlike, of stepping closer to God, and of relinquishing some selfishness and inviting God to take its place.
If you are not in a position to physically serve the poor today, we invite you to pray for a conversion of heart, for the gift of solidarity with the poor. In Isaiah 58:7-10, Isaiah says, “Remove from your midst oppression, false accusation and malicious speech.” Let us examine our consciences for all the ways we have internalized our culture’s dismissiveness of the poor and of their suffering. Deep down in our hearts, do we think that the poor are different than we are? Do we think they are responsible for their poverty? Do we think we deserve our prosperity? Do we construct a life for ourselves that, in the words of Teresa of Calcutta, avoids Jesus “in the distressing disguise of the poor”?
Let us ask for God’s mercy for all the ways we keep the poor at arm’s length. Let us seek to be Christlike, and have a heart of solidarity. Let us seek the light in the darkness.
Saint Oscar Romero not only gave us a profound reflection on the preferential option for the poor, but also one of the most renowned examples of someone to put it into practice. Conservative and conflict-averse by nature, he was picked to be Archbishop in part because the military leaders and oligarchy who controlled El Salvador thought he wouldn’t make any waves.
However, once Romero became archbishop, he was transformed, converted by the people. He became the champion of El Salvador’s poor, courageously preaching their plight from the pulpit and using the Gospel to offer an ever more forceful condemnation of the intolerable conditions and violence that they suffered. After three years as Archbishop, mirroring Jesus’ three years of public ministry, Romero was killed for his defense of the poor, shot in the heart by an American-trained assassin while saying mass.
Because of the way Romero loved them and gave his life for them, many Salvadorans make a powerful association between Romero and Jesus. Shortly before he died, Romero said that if he was killed, he would rise again in the Salvadoran people. The people insist that they feel his palpable presence in their midst, proof that the resurrection is real.
Romero was a gift for the people of El Salvador, prompting the liberation theologian Jon Sobrino to remark that, “In Romero, Christ walked through El Salvador.” In 2018, El Salvador shared that gift with the rest of the Church when Oscar Romero was canonized a saint.
You can learn more about Saint Oscar Romero in the documentary, Monseñor: The Last Journey of Oscar Romero.
The Amistad Catholic Worker house lies in The Hill, the poorest neighborhood in New Haven, Connecticut. Amistad is run by Mark and Luz Colville, who raised six children in their Catholic Worker house of hospitality. Through the solidarity of voluntary poverty and peace activism, they live out the preferential option for the poor. On their website they say:
We are dedicated to the daily practice of the Works of Mercy, voluntary poverty, personalism and prayer. As Catholic Workers, we strive to follow Jesus in seeking justice for the poor, an end to all wars, and a new way of life grounded not in the endless, exploitation-fueled accumulation of material things but rather based on solidarity, nonviolence, and mutual love.
Each day, they cook and serve as many meals for their neighbors as they can provide, engage in community organizing, and open their doors to anyone in need. Their solidaristic commitment to their neighbors inspires them to resist the military industrial complex: they view the United States’ military budget as a theft from their underserved community. With the support of his homebase at Amistad, Mark regularly participates in Plowshares actions, protesting the production of nuclear weapons, for which he has spent considerable time in jail. Echoing Oscar Romero, who says that seeing with the eyes of the poor reveals reality, Mark says that he only fully understood the Bible once he read it where much of it was written: in prison.
Read Mark’s thoughts on the Plowshares Movement.
Terrence Malick’s 2012 film, To The Wonder, is more of a prayer than a movie. It follows several characters simultaneously, as they experience a descent into despair before finding redemption or reconciliation.
Javier Bardem plays a priest in the midst of a crisis of faith; God no longer feels real to him, and he has come to recoil from his desperately poor parishioners. He simply has nothing left to give them. One scene shows a woman in distress knocking on the door of the rectory, desperately looking for him as he hides inside, hoping she’ll go away. The film also focuses on Ben Affleck and Olga Kurylenko, who play a married couple who have become estranged in large part because the husband cannot make room for his wife’s inner life.
This scene (which is much more powerful if you watch the whole movie) depicts the reconciliation, as the priest has regained his faith, and the husband’s heart has softened by watching the priest serve the people. The movie doesn’t spell it out, but the catalyst for this change is that the priest has learned to see God in the poor, and to paraphrase the Isaiah reading, his wound is quickly healed and light rises before him in the darkness.