Pope Francis is not the first pope to speak of the Church’s preferential option for the poor. Neither is he the first to criticize unbridled capitalism or critique harshly the belief in trickle-down economics. But his actions toward the poor and disenfranchised make Church teaching about the least of these much, much harder to ignore.
Which is probably why some people are apoplectic about the Pope’s economic comments in his 224-page apostolic exhortation released in late November. “The Joy of the Gospel” (Evanelii Gaudium in Latin, because, come on, Latin is just cool) makes no bones about condemning an unregulated free market or the “crude and naive trust” some people have in it. Again and again, standard bearers of so-called conservative values said the Pope was leaning far too left for their comfort.
Each time one of these pundits spoke up, I wondered if they were familiar with the Gospel. Because if ever there was a leftist on economic issues, Jesus Christ was it. (Maybe that’s why he wasn’t real popular.) The Gospel message of protecting the poor is not easy. Never has been, never will be. Christianity is not about the “prosperity Gospel” no matter what these guys wants you to believe. Christianity is about sacrifice and service and being your brother or sister’s keeper, even when – or perhaps especially when – you don’t feel they “deserve” being kept.
But the hardest part about this keeping isn’t giving away your hard-earned cash. Not at all. That’s the easy part. In fact, it can even feel good. Just ask anyone who’s paid it forward in a fast-food drive through. What is really hard – and why I think the Pope’s actions and words are hitting a nerve – is treating people in poverty or addiction or prison or disability or lunacy like fellow creations of the Almighty. It’s pretty darn easy to write a check to, for instance, an organization fighting abortion or providing housing for unwed mothers. It’s much harder to challenge a system that says it is a sin to kill an unborn child in the United States but not to bomb and kill a pregnant mother in Iraq. Or to fight a system that allows a man and his wife to work 40 hours a week at back-breaking labor and still have to pick up family bags at the soup kitchen once a week because rent inflation is out of control. Or to ignore that the kids on one side of town get the good teachers and the safe classrooms and the kids on the other side of town don’t.
The hard part about what the Pope is saying is not the money part, it’s the people part. It is the part where we have to let people we’d rather not know about (or at least not have in our neighborhood) get up close and personal.
Which brings me to the pauper who wound up inside the stable in our Nativity Scene this Advent. Click on the photo and you’ll notice that the guy with the ragged clothes and knapsack on his shoulders is up close to the Holy Family. Almost like he’s a relative.
When I was setting up our Nativity Scene – made Holy to me by the fact that we started nearly 30 years with only Mary, Joseph and Jesus and no place to house them so my husband made a stable out of scraps – I put the beggar pretty far away from the action. Like I always do. The Magi were always up close. The donkey was usually nearby. But the humble folks – the beggar, the shepherd, the traveling towns person and his son – they were always outliers. But this year, I set up the Nativity scene after reading much of “The Joy of the Gospel.”
And I put the beggar in the stable. Like a relative. Like someone who belongs.
Every morning, the Nativity scene is the last thing I see as I get ready to head to the bus, and it makes me think: Who do I keep out of my stable? Jesus said the second greatest commandment was to love our neighbor as ourselves. Not instead of ourselves, but just as much as ourselves. It is the call of justice, and it is really hard work. But we are, as Jesus said and as Pope Francis so clearly emulates, our brother’s keeper. So help me, God.