Jesus’ Preference for the Poor

By John Cowan


I know that they say that Jesus had a preference for the poor. Since he never those words, I doubt that phrase defines his feelings. I am confident he did not mean that you should be poor if you hoped to please him or hoped that he would greet you with love.

The story goes that a rich young man once asked him what he could do to be good, and Jesus gave him a list of ordinary things that people do like pray a lot, and give some money away, be nice to people. But the rich young man said that he already did those things. So, seeing the possibility this kid could be exceptional, Jesus said, “Sell all you have, give it to the poor, and come follow me.” When the kid backed down. Jesus did comment sadly that he had so much stuff he could not give it up, but Jesus wasn’t angry about it. The rich kid was still doing lots of good things. Just not taking the extra step. (The scholars doubt that Jesus had this conversation. Its support of the push for early Christians to turn in their money to the community seems a wee suspicious.)

At another time, in response to a criticism for allowing money to be spent on a party instead of given to the poor, he said, “The poor you always have with you.” The phrase was used often by the Jews of his day to remind them that the poor were part and parcel of their life, always to be attended to. Jesus point was that other things mattered too, such as parties.

Many of Jesus’ friends seem to have been as economically solid as could be expected in a conquered nation. Martha and Mary with the home to be visited by Jesus and his friends, the food to be fed to Jesus and his friends, and the tomb bought and paid for. Mary Magdalene, the wealthy businesswoman ranked by some in her day as ahead of Peter on Jesus’ personal list of friends. (No, she was not a prostitute. And, yes, her being called Jesus’ best friend did irritate Peter greatly, particularly the part about Jesus kissing her on the lips. The Gospel of Phillip. 1st page or so. q.v.) And more, Joseph of Arimithea the owner of Jesus’ tomb, Nicodemus the curious Pharisee. A tax collector made it to the status of the inner circle. Oh and those fisherman with their boats, Capitalists all! Jesus had good enough feelings for a Roman Centurion he just met to perform a healing at his request. Did he prefer the poor ahead of them? Or less than them?

I do think he had feelings for the poor. Compassion. And I do think he would appreciate deeply our efforts to lift them out of poverty. And efforts to prevent others from falling into it. But for all that kind of preference he never dropped preaching the good news to anyone who would listen in order to give a helping hand to the poor. If we must say what he preferred, did he not give preference to preaching the gospel, the Good News, that the Kingdom is here and now without preference of one over another?

If you want a source for the phrase, “Preferential Option for the Poor” you will find it first used in Liberation Theology, a relatively recent movement, and then picked up and its meaning altered some by several Popes. I celebrate their intelligence in finding this vehicle to transfer money to the poor. Keep the flow going, for God’s sake and the sake of the indigent. Just do not tell me what Jesus’ preferences were. To me it looks like he did not have any.

So why do I care enough about this to risk your ire by challenging a popular perspective: First, because I think it is the truth.

Second, the roots and trunk of the message of Jesus is that the Kingdom of God is present here and now. A branch of that message is that the poor cannot be left behind. The community must keep them in the circle of love or it is not the Kingdom Jesus speaks of. They cannot be excluded. But they cannot be nourished if the circle of love does not exist.

To try to serve the poor without the servers and the served having a home in the Kingdom risks: First that the servers without the sustenance of the Kingdom will become tired, arid, dry, empty. Second: To say you are in the Kingdom, but have excluded the poor, is an impossibility. If you do not have the poor always with you there is no Kingdom. This I know. The Bible told me so. Third: The branch is part of the tree. The poor are not outside the Kingdom. In serving them, we are serving us.