Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. (Matt 5:3)
This first of the Beatitudes in the Gospel of Matthew has special meaning for me:
- The Mount of Beatitudes was a meaningful stop on my pilgrimage to the Holy Land in 2007
- My birthday is May 3rd; I have a Scripture verse bracelet with beads that say “Matt 5 – 3”
- In 2012, I had the privilege of hearing Gustavo Gutiérrez who opened his weeklong seminar with Matt 5:3.
According to Peruvian theologian Gustavo Gutiérrez, OP, “To be poor in spirit is to put our lives in the hands of God, to accept God’s will in our lives, to put material things second, and, as a consequence, to be committed to the real poor. ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit because they feed the real poor’ is the theme of Matthew’s Gospel from Chapter 5 to Chapter 25.” And thus began my deep interest in liberation theology.
This month I am presenting a three-session program on liberation theology at my church. In each session, we open with a song and a Scripture reading. We listen to one of the 12 lectures given by Dr. Michael E. Lee in Now You Know Media’s production of “An Introduction to Liberation Theology”. We then focus on one or two pivotal figures of liberation theology and spirituality, two or three “second-generation” liberation theologians, and three men and women who were witnesses to the Gospel among the poor and oppressed people of Latin America. After a few questions for reflection, we conclude with a prayer based on one of the Beatitudes and the homilies of Óscar Romero.
The theme of the first session is “the preferential option for the poor.” This expression, a major concept in liberation theology and spirituality, came into use in the 1960’s in the teaching and writings of Gustavo Gutiérrez of Peru and Leonardo Boff of Brazil – our two pivotal figures in this session. It is not possible in this post to go into detail about the life and writings of these two “giants”, but I encourage you to look for their writings. They are both still writing. Fr. Gutiérrez will be 90 years old next month, and Professor Boff will be 80 in December.
For Fr. Gutiérrez and other liberation theologians, the central questions of a liberation spirituality include:
- How are we to talk about God?
- What do the Scriptures have to say to the innocent who suffer?
- How are we to speak about God from the context of global poverty and injustice?
- How are we to respond to Christ amid the inequities of the world?
What are the key elements of a preferential option for the poor? First, an option for the poor means solidarity with the poor. It is a rejection of poverty. It is not enough to feed the poor, we must address the reasons people are hungry.
Second, a preference is a priority. In saying there is a preferential option for the poor, we are exposing a tension between the universality of God’s love and a preference for a specific group. This preference comes from the Bible. “The last will be first.” The rich are there, just not first. This preference is not exclusionary; we need to be concerned about others, as well. As Fr. Gutiérrez reminds us, we prefer the poor, not because the poor are good, but because God is good.
Third, option does not mean optional in the sense that we are free to do it or not. An option is a decision to take action and a commitment to enter into the world of the poor. It does not mean imitating the poor or pretending to be insignificant. In his own historical context, Jesus was not really poor or insignificant for he was called Rabbi. We have to be committed to the poor, approaching closer and closer to them with a humility that recognizes we are never fully committed.
The theologians I call “second generation” are those men and women whose teaching and writings help to make the work of the pivotal figures accessible to us today. For example, our video presenter Michael E. Lee, a professor at Fordham University since 2004, is an expert on Ignacio Ellacuriá and Oscar Romero – the subjects of our next session. In addition to Dr. Lee, we feature Dr. Roberto S. Goizueta of Boston College, whose writings focus on Hispanic/Latino theology and the concept of accompaniment.
Our witness to the Gospel whose lives were committed to the poor and oppressed include: St. Alberto Hurtado, SJ, of Chile; Dorothy Stang, SND, of the U. S. and Brazil, and the Mothers of the Disappeared in Argentina. I leave it to you to search out their stories.
I would like to conclude today with a song by Scott Soper that is based on Matthew 25:35-40. This Scripture passage continues to be a focal point for liberation theology. (You can find a video performance of this song by googling the title and composer.)
God of the Hungry by Scott Soper, 1989
- God of all the hungry millions, God who suffers with the poor,
still our greed keeps us from sharing with the hungry at our door.
All who thirst will thirst no longer, when we do as you would do.
May we care for all your people; help us know that they are you.
- God who travels with the stranger, greeted by our apathy,
teach us to embrace all people; all can live with dignity.
You have bid us clothe the naked, bringing hope in all we do.
May we welcome all your people; help us know that they are you.
- God who loves the sick, the dying, they are precious in you sight.
We will bring them your compassion, fill their living with your light.
God who brings the captive freedom, free our hearts to love anew.
May we comfort all your people; help us know that they are you.