As we continue to read from the Book of the Prophet Amos it becomes clear that a grave sin among the people of that age was injustice to the poor. Consider an excerpt from today’s passage (Friday of the 13th Week of the Year):
Hear this, you who trample on the needy and bring the poor of the land to an end … [you] buy the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals and sell the chaff of the wheat. The Lord has sworn by the pride of Jacob: Surely I will never forget any of their deeds. Shall not the land tremble on this account, and everyone mourn who dwells in it? (Amos 8:4-8)
Elsewhere in the Book of Amos, the Lord also denounces injustice to the poor:
- They trample on the heads of the poor as on the dust of the ground and deny justice to the oppressed (Amos 2:7).
- Therefore, because you impose heavy rent on the poor and exact a tribute of grain from them, Though you have built houses of well-hewn stone, yet you will not live in them! You have planted pleasant vineyards, yet you will not drink their wine! For I know your transgressions are many and your sins are great; You who distress the righteous and accept bribes, and turn aside the poor at the gate (Amos 5:11-12).
- Hear this word, you cows of Bashan, who are on the mountain of Samaria, who oppress the poor, who crush the needy, who say to your husbands, “Bring now, that we may drink!” The Lord God has sworn by His holiness, “Behold, the days are coming upon you when they will take you away with meat hooks, and the last of you with fishhooks” (Amos 4:1-2).
Yikes, that last one was insulting—and scary! Actually all of them are scary, because the Lord indicates that injustice to the poor is a big part of what is causing the coming destruction. We, too, who often live in luxurious houses and enjoy choice food and drink, should be sober and not neglect justice to the poor.
What exactly is injustice toward the poor? If we have more than we need, we owe certain things to the poor. Whoever has two cloaks should share with the person who has none. And however has food should do likewise. (Luke 3:11).
In our times we often speak of our care for the poor under the themes of mercy and kindness. But the biblical truth is that we also have duties to them in justice.
Pope St. Gregory the Great puts it this way:
They [i.e., those who are stingy] should be advised to learn carefully that the earth from which they come is common to all. Therefore, it is foolish to presume themselves innocent who proclaim that the common gift of God belongs in their own private stocks …. They are daily responsible to the poor. And when we minister what is necessary to the indigent, we bestow not what is ours, but what rightly belongs to them. In fact, we pay a debt of justice, not an act of mercy (Pastoral Rule III.21).
The Catechism speaks to the theme of injustice to the poor by placing the consideration of this sin in the treatise on 7th Commandment, “Thou shall not steal.” To fail to care for the poor when one can reasonably do so amounts to a form of theft. Our excess belongs to the poor because God intends all the goods of the earth for all the people of the earth. The Catechism refers to this principle as “The Universal Destination of Goods” and says,
In the beginning God entrusted the earth and its resources to the common stewardship of mankind to take care of them, master them by labor, and enjoy their fruits. The goods of creation are destined for the whole human race. However, the earth is divided up among men to assure the security of their lives, endangered by poverty and threatened by violence. The appropriation of property is legitimate for guaranteeing the freedom and dignity of persons and for helping each of them to meet his basic needs and the needs of those in his charge. It should allow for a natural solidarity to develop between men …. In his use of things man should regard the external goods he legitimately owns not merely as exclusive to himself but common to others also, in the sense that they can benefit others as well as himself. The ownership of any property makes its holder a steward of Providence, with the task of making it fruitful and communicating its benefits to others, first of all his family (CCC 2402, 2404).
This does not mean that all excess should be recklessly and indiscriminately cast about. There may be value in using excess to develop businesses and other enterprises that can benefit others with employment or other resources. Further, there are legitimate concerns that the destitute not simply become dependent on welfare, something that indiscriminate giving can cause. The poor are usually best assisted by finding solutions to the causes of their destitution. The poor are to be treated justly, to be respected and assisted in a way that regards their humanity and moral agency.
Note that the Scriptures, the text from Pope Gregory, and the quote from the Catechism, all speak to us as individuals. This is a duty each of us has in justice. Too often we seek to push this obligation to the government. There may be a prudential assessment, in certain times and places, that government can play a role in rendering justice to the poor. But none of the texts above necessarily calls for big government solutions.
Whatever the prudential decisions, the point remains that individuals, communities, nations, and cultures are bound in justice to give to the poor. Amos makes it clear that the coming judgment of destruction on Israel is due in good part to its injustice to the poor. We live in times of abundance today and many live excessively. This is surely part of the judgment of God that is upon us today, along with our sexual promiscuity, abortion, easy divorce, widespread unbelief, lack of worship, narcissistic self-centeredness, etc.
What do I have that really belongs to the poor? What excesses could I end so that I would be more able to contribute to the good of the poor and others? Do I really need that latest upgrade, the addition to the house, etc.?
The Lord speaks to us through Amos in these recent daily readings. Are we listening or is greed always the other guy’s problem?
Finally, here is a quote attributed to St. Vincent De Paul that is almost shocking (and Amos-like) in its final sting:
You will find out that Charity is a heavy burden to carry, heavier than the kettle of soup and the full basket. But you will keep your gentleness and your smile. It is not enough to give soup and bread. This the rich can do. You are the servant of the poor, always smiling and good-humored. They are your masters, terribly sensitive and exacting masters you will see. And the uglier and the dirtier they will be, the more unjust and insulting, the more love you must give them. It is only for your love alone that the poor will forgive you the bread you give to them.