“The hope of the poor will not perish for ever” (Ps 9:19)

Pope Francis hosted a lunch for 1,500 homeless people last Sunday. He once again drew attention to poor people and the problem of poverty.

The Holy Father’s attitude to poverty and the poor has brought new energy to the discourse around those who are on the peripheries of society.

How we see and treat poor people needs to change. Poverty is not a moral failure on the part of the poor. Nor does being poor nullify one’s God-given dignity. If anything, poverty is a reflection of humanity’s greed and desire to humiliate and dehumanise others.

The poor are not a commodity to be exploited mercilessly for the selfish ends of those who want either power or wealth, or sometimes even both of these.

Jesus seems to approve of the opulence shown to him by a woman who uses expensive perfume on his feet, by saying, “the poor you will always have with you, but you will not always have me” (John 12:8) This verse has often been used as evidence that poverty is an unchangeable reality.

The complete phrase which Jesus’ audience would have been familiar with was, “there will always be some in the land who are poor, that is why I am commanding you to share freely with the poor and other Israelites in need” (Deuteronomy 15:11). This relevant section is often neglected when talking about the poor.

This New Testament verse can, quite obviously, be taken out of context. But Jesus was speaking to people who understood the fullness of the phrase. To those who exploit the poor, this verse seems to say that there are no obligations to the poor.

The poor are dehumanised and cast as barbarians or criminals ready to pounce on those who are better off. They are human beings, who because of chance or even bad decisions, have found themselves in poverty. Regardless of how one becomes poor, we are all made in the image of God. This does not change.

With Christmas around the corner, Pope Francis’ example forces us to reflect on our attitude to the poor who are all around us.

As the book of Deuteronomy reminds us, it is not enough to know that the poor will always be among us. It is also inadequate to sympathise with their plight and do nothing more than that.

Christmas is traditionally the time of the year when those who have neither family nor the means to live a dignified life, feel their need and marginalisation most acutely. For the Christian community, it can be a time to reach out to the poor in our midst and “share freely” with them our time and presence, not just our money.

In his letter on the World Day for the Poor, Pope Francis writes, “The poor are persons to be encountered; they are lonely, young and old, to be invited to our homes to share a meal; men women and children who look for a friendly word. The poor save us because they enable us to encounter the face of Jesus Christ.”

What could be a better birthday present for Jesus than to embrace those he loved the most?

Mr Fikile-Ntsikelelo Moya

Fikile-Ntsikelelo Moya is an independent journalist and former editor of The Mercury, The Witness and Sowetan and a senior journalist at many other mainstream South African newspapers.

f.moya@jesuitinstitute.org.za @fikelelom
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