Friday of the Fifth Week of Lent
JER 20:10-13/JN 10:31-42
The terms we use to describe people and groups matter. Sometimes, long-standing terms change: in the law for example, there is a transition away from “illegal aliens” to “undocumented” or from “felon” to “formerly incarcerated person.” This is also evident in the movement to put “people first” (i.e. “child with a disability” instead of “disabled child”). There is a valid debate about the balance between ensuring non-offensive terminology on the one hand and obfuscation on the other. Yet in our search for neutral terms, it is essential that we not lose the spirit of what we are trying to describe. This can blind us to key truths and lull us into a false sense of security.
I am thinking especially of the unfashionability of the term “the poor.” This phrase can be found in Scripture about 150 times (not including other references to poverty). Christ uses it himself in the Beatitudes and other places, famously saying “the poor you have with you always” (cf. Mt 26:11, Jn 12:8). The Church teaches us about the “preferential option for the poor.” In today’s Old Testament reading, Jeremiah exalts the Lord, for “he has rescued the life of the poor from the power of the wicked!”
Yet when we as a society talk about “the poor,” we use terminology that masks the meaning conveyed in the Bible. “Low income,” “impoverished people,” “victims of poverty” each attempt to replace “the poor” with a more tolerable phrase; one that makes those of us with means feel more comfortable—and we are desperately afraid of being uncomfortable. “The poor” is uncomfortable because it sounds bad; it conjures images of a mass of suffering people languishing without the earthly goods they need to survive. Yet each of its would-be replacements fails in an important respect to get at the heart of who “the poor” are and why they are close to God’s heart.
Poverty has a spiritual dimension that cannot be captured with mere reference to income. To be one of “the poor” means much more than lacking economic opportunity or being a victim of social forces. God has not explicitly called on us to facilitate opportunity for others nor to support policies aimed towards a living wage (though He would welcome both of these, and the Church advocates for such policies); He has called us to serve them, to love them. When we use terms like “low income,” we risk hiding the poor and therefore not being able to serve them. If we see those in need not as “the poor” but as something else, we abdicate our Christian responsibility to serve them as God intended. The phrase “Do not turn your face away from any of the poor, so that God’s face will not be turned away from you” (Tb 4:7) means nothing if there are no poor.
Graduate Student, UST School of Law