Justice for the Poor


            Today’s first reading and Gospel reading present two widows. In ancient times if a man died and there was no  an adult son to protect and support her, the  widow’s life was precarious. She would often have to beg for food for herself and her children. The widow in the first reading from the First Book of Kings was trying to survive a famine.  She was about to cook the last of her food for herself and little boy before they died. No one cared about her, no one except God who sent the prophet Elijah to reward her generosity.


            Elijah’s successor as prophet for Israel, Elisha, came upon another widow who cried to him, “Creditors have come to take my two children away as slaves.” She had no defender.  She was at the mercy of dishonest judges.  She was blessed because God  performed a miracle for her thought the prophet Elisha.  He told her to gather all the empty oil jugs and jars she could find, and pour the little oil she had into each jug. She filled them all and then sold the oil to pay off her debts and save her children (2 Kings 4:1-7).  In today’s Gospel  Jesus attacks the scribes who devour the houses of widows.  The Books of Exodus and Deuteronomy in the Hebrew Scriptures place a curse on anyone who would deprive widows of justice, but the fact of the matter is that shrewd businessmen found ways around the laws to take advantage of these defenseless women.  The prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah, Zechariah and Malachi all note that the land suffers the sin of those who abuse the widows.  Perhaps, you might remember Naomi from the Book of Ruth.  When her husband and sons died, she was left without any support.  She sent her daughters in law to their homes for their own protection.  One, Orpah, went back to her father’s house, the other, Ruth, stayed with Naomi to care for her and protect her.  You might remember Naomi returning to Bethlehem with Ruth and crying to the people there, “No longer call me Naomi, a name that means “pleasant”.  Instead, call me Mara, a name that means “bitter”.  Ruth and Naomi survived on salvaging whatever was left over in the barley fields after the harvesters finished their work.


            Now, returning to the widow of the Gospel reading, Jesus’ statement that she gave from her poverty her whole livelihood, could be seen as a praise of her generosity.  It could also be seen as a condemnation of society who had left her so destitute that she, like the widow of Zeraphath, had nothing left to rely on than her certain death.  The others gave from their surplus, she gave all that she had left. How had this happened?  Had bankers mismanaged her money so that she had lost the little she had?  Had religious leaders encouraged her to impoverish herself for the sake of the Temple treasury? 


            How had it happened that society could take advantage of the destitute?  How does it happen that society continues to take advantage of those who have no protection?


            Pope John Paul II wrote quite a lot about the sinful structures of society and situations of sin.  This Pope who had suffered through the reign of Nazi terror in Poland and the destruction of thought by the communists and had experienced the plight of the poor and worship of materialism of the capitalists wrote about the ideologies that have held and continue to hold the world hostage to sin.  Yet, he did not see these ideologies as some sort of beings in their own rights.  Rather, these ideologies, be they Nazism, Communism or Materialistic Capitalism, were constructed in a way that they profit by preying upon the helpless.  They were established and supported by people whose sum total of personal sins turned them into vehicles for their illicit gain.  Those who formed and supported the Nazi’s concept and  glorification of Aryan supremacy saw their union as an opportunity to steal the goods and lands of those of other people be they Jews within Germany or Europe or gypsies, Poles, Slavs, etc.  The Nazis were not aliens from another world.  They were people like you and me who under the guise of nationalism saw an opportunity to profit from the weakness of others.  It was the sum total of personal sins that formed Nazism. 


            In the same way, communism as it evolved, or devolved, in the Twentieth Century, was not a matter of the ideals of workers sharing equally in the profit of their work.  Instead, communism was a destruction of all morality by those who wished to steal the goods of some for the sake of others.  Morality and Twentieth Century communism could not exist, therefore, God had to be eliminated from the communist country.  But the communists were also not aliens from anther planet.  They were people who sought to take advantage of others by devising a religion of the social order to replace the spirituality of God.


            But enough about other people and other ideologies.  Materialistic Capitalism has progressed, or regressed, into a complete disregard for the rights of the impoverished for the sake of the wealthy.  If people in Latin America, Asia or Africa are living a substandard existence  so that Europeans and Americans can benefit from cheaper labor, so be it.  If their children have to work in factories so our children can have cheaper sneakers, so be it.  How has our society come to this?  Materialistic Capitalism did not fall out of the sky.  It resulted from the number of people who firmly believe that the wealthy have the right to take advantage of the poor.  Some will actually say, “Might makes right.”  Others will actually sight an economic application of Darwinian evolution, “the right people get the stuff, the wrong people don’t.”  They will say and believe that the present situation of people in the world, the division of the world into the haves and have nots,  is merely the survival of the fittest.  Materialistic Capitalism, like Nazism and Communism, is the sum total of personal sins, the decision to take advantage of the less fortunate for personal gain.


            The world needs healing.  A doctor will tell you that the first step to healing is to recognize the sickness.  We need to be aware that to the extent that we participate in the concept that some must lose so others can gain, we are uniting our personal sins of greed and materialism to the sum total of a sinful society.


            It is not that wealth is bad.  What is wrong and sinful is using improper means to gain wealth.  What is wrong and sinful is wasting wealth without regard to the poor around us.


            We need a greater awareness of our responsibility to the formation of a Christian society.


            People should not marvel that a widow had nothing left to live on and gave to the Temple Treasury as a last hope before dying.  People should rejoice that the poor are cared for by the rich.  Indeed, the strength of a society is measured by the care it gives to its weakest members.