I was in Detroit some years ago for a 3-day Catholic conference, part of a movement begun by the Bishops of the United States. The consistent theme of the talks and the small-group workshops was the necessity of a preferential option for the poor. What that term means is that the first and overriding response of the sincere follower of Jesus has to be a conscientious regard for the destitute poor among us, coupled with some form of action on their behalf. Why? Because that’s what Jesus’ primary mission was and what his mandate to us is.
Everyone knows that the distribution of wealth in our world continues to become more disproportionate and unfair. I’m not an economist; therefore, I can neither affirm nor deny that the standard of living throughout the world has, on average, risen. However, just one look at a decent newspaper any day of the week reminds us that there are hundreds of millions of desperately poor people, whose situations worsen by the day. And I’m not giving you any news when I say that these unfortunate people are to be seen throughout the United States as well — unless we deliberately look away.
I believe it’s true to say that we, the well-fed and well-housed and well-clothed, outnumber the suffering poor among us. How can we stand by and do nothing — or leave it to our government or our churches to do it all?
Say what we want about a free and competitive economy, there is something terribly wrong with a society that allows very hurtful disparities to develop and continue. Our wealthy members have every creature comfort imaginable, yet we cannot figure out how to feed adequately our hungry poor, educate everyone, and house those who have no homes.
I remember that 20-or-so years ago a famous athlete received for one TV commercial more money than was paid in a full year to all the people in the third-world country that produced the commodity he advertised.
It seems so clear to me that if everyone had sufficient means to live a minimally decent human life, these vast differences in personal wealth would not be immoral: they might well be simply the acceptable result of ingenuity, honest work, and careful planning. But that is not the case; instead, the world, including our own country has huge numbers of almost hopelessly disadvantaged people whose only salvation can be the care and concern of others who have the means to help them.
Our system of capitalism represents an unparalleled opportunity for us to share generously with those who cannot have a truly human life without us.
Today we celebrate Jesus under the title of Christ the King. It was his ancestor, King David — adulterer, murderer, eventual saint — who combined in his life the concepts of shepherd and king, because he was both. Tradition tells us that he loved the sheep he tenderly cared for. He nursed to health the weak among them, searched for those that were lost, and protected all of them from danger.
In a way, we are both shepherds and kings after the example of David and Jesus. In moments of quiet prayer and in the changing circumstances of our lives, the Spirit shows us which of the sheep we can and should reach out to at a particular time, in a concrete way.
Celebrating Mass is a good thing, of course. But we are called by Jesus, the Shepherd King, to give and to do what we can on behalf of the otherwise hopeless poor.