Injustice to the Poor and the Coming Judgment

Blog-06-30As 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:

  1. They trample on the heads of the poor as on the dust of the ground and deny justice to the oppressed (Amos 2:7).
  2. 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).
  3. 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.

11 Replies to “Injustice to the Poor and the Coming Judgment”

  1. “Poverty” is a relative thing. Prob is, in America, where almost everybody lives better than most people in the World (roof over head, furniture, a/c and heat, refrigerator, indoor plumbing, access to transportation, medical care, educational opportunities, cell phone etc) we can be fooled that the hobo on the street or the person who made bad life choices is pooooor, and therefore we need to enable that person to stay that way. Go to non-resort Mexico, or much of Asia and Africa or Eastern Europe, and see REAL POOR!

    Nonsense that we have to “help the poor in this country first”. These “poor” live quite well, relatively. I’ve seen real poor, lying naked on the sidewalk b/c they can’t afford clothing or shelter. I’ve seen real poor kids, swimming for coins in open sewers. I’ve seen people starving on the streets. None of that exists in good ol’ America. Send your money and effort to REAL POOR outside the USA, who have virtually NO opportunity that the indolent “poor” here have to better their situation!

    Your “feel good” dollar given to the dangerous looking hobo in downtown Denver or wherever is doing more harm than you know. Don’t be a fool.

    This is the “land of opportunity”. Deserving poor people live elsewhere and we must help them FIRST!

  2. I finally realized shedding tears every time i saw or heard a poor person being oppressed didn’t help in any way so i had to become an activist,just to fight for their rights

  3. St. Basil the Great on Poverty:

    The harshest form of covetousness is not even to give things perishable to those who need them. “But whom do I treat unjustly,” you say, “by keeping what is my own?” Tell me, what is your own? What did you bring into this life? From where did you receive it? It is as if someone were to take the first seat in the theater, then bar everyone else from attending, so that one person alone enjoys what is offered for the benefit of all-this is what the rich do. They first take possession of the common property, and then they keep it as their own because they were the first to take it. But if every man took only what sufficed for his own need, and left the rest to the needy, no one would be rich, no one would be poor, no one would be in need.

    Did you not fall naked from the womb? Will you not go back naked to the earth? Where is your present property from? If you think that it came to you by itself, you don’t believe in God, you don’t acknowledge the creator and you are not thankful to Him who gave it to you. But if you agree and confess that you have it from God, tell us the reason why He gave it to you.

    Is God unjust, dividing unequally the goods of this life? Why are you rich, while the other is poor? Isn’t it, if for no other reason, so that you can gain a reward for your kindness and faithful stewardship, and for him to be honored with the great virtue of patience? But you, having gathered everything inside the empty bosom of avarice, do you think that you wrong no one, while you rob so many people?

    Who is the greedy person? It’s him, who doesn’t content himself with what he has. And who the thief? He who steals what belongs to others. And you think that you are not greedy, and that you do not rob others? What had been granted to you so that you might care for others, you claim for yourself.

    He who strips a man of his clothes is to be called a thief. Is not he who, when he is able, fails to clothe the naked, worthy of no other title? The bread which you do not use is the bread of the hungry; the garment hanging in your wardrobe is the garment of him who is naked; the shoes that you do not wear are the shoes of the one who is barefoot; the money that you keep locked away is the money of the poor; the acts of charity that you do not perform are so many injustices that you commit.

  4. In a future post, could you expound on the quote below? I want to help the poor(er) in my community, but I don’t know how. We tithe to our local church, but anything personal seems fraught.

    “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.”

  5. I have found the more I examine and name all God has given me and the more gratitude I feel for how good He is to me, the more I realize it is all His. That helps let go of things because one naturally wants to do administer what is His in the best way possible. The problem is I often find it difficult to practically apply that. Someone else mentioned in the USA we tend not to see real material poverty the way it exists in other countries. The only people I see that come close are those addicted to substance abuse who stand on the corner and ask for money until they have enough to purchase their beer or drugs. When they’ve run out, they’ll come ask again. I’m always conflicted because I know giving them a $20 will not really even go to nourishing their body so naturally I feel like just giving them money only keeps the cycle going. I’d need to give them my time to feel I’m really helping them, but as a home schooling mother of four I find I cannot. That leaves getting involved in sandwich/food drives and money to be shipped to other countries. Again, that still only makes me feel like I’m taking the easy way out. It’s tough to discern how to be a good steward of what God has given us.

  6. What about the poor who may have a great many material things but are completely destitute of the knowledge of God and therefore are trapped in lives of unrepentant sin because they do not know how to repent because they don’t know their right hand from their left? What about those poor?

    And what about the rich i.e. the Catholic Church and those of her bishops and priests and laity who have all been endowed with knowledge of God by the Holy Spirit through her Sacraments and Teaching, yet refuse to make the truth known to those poor because they do not wish to be bothered? What about those rich?

    Unless I am quite mistaken that would seem to be a much bigger problem since it involves eternity.

  7. The biggest breach, the impossible breach for humans was the breach between man and our God. Jesus healed that breach. Man should be out in the streets celebrating that blessed event each and every day. But not only do we not celebrate what Jesus did, we still war and strive and lord over those who we deem beneath us. Healing the breach with God was hard, why can’t we at least stop hating each other? Every word you speak and every dollar you spend you will have to account for in front of Jesus some day. When Adam was evicted from the garden, he had nothing, his only suit of clothes was given him by God, God had to kill one of His animals to clothe Adam, we were already in debt. Every thing we have we stole or begged from God. People got rich cutting down trees that they did not own, extracting oil that they did not put there. God will want to know how you spent the money you made selling His goods.
    Helping the poor is a low hanging fruit put there by God so that we could with no energy spent earn unmerited blessings. You can help the poor by just rolling down your window. Oh you say, I’am not going to give him any money because he’ll just spend it on booze or some other vice, who cares, look how the rich spend their money, you think they don’t spend it on booze as well? And the giving isn’t for who you give it to, the giving is for you. Charity covers a multitude of sins, let that sink in for a minute, by your giving away something that only has any worth because humans believe it has worth can cover sins. Basically what is being said is if you give away what amounts to your faith in mans wealth for faith in God’s true wealth you can also cover a multitude of your sins. So you gain wealth in a place where the streets are paved in gold and the foundations are precious jewels and you buy your self some redemption to boot. No brainer

  8. smallspender, poor is poor, no matter what, where, or when. I don’t recall anywhere in scripture where we are commanded to only serve the “poor enough”
    What if the scriptures read this way” I was thirsty, and you gave me none to drink, as was not thirsty enough” “I was naked, and you did not cloth me , for I was not naked enough” etc. Get the idea?

  9. ‘We, too, who often live in luxurious houses and enjoy choice food and drink, should be sober and not neglect justice to the poor.’ Double yikes! Aren’t I in trouble, Monsignor! I know of families who live in shanties made of GI sheets or cardboards surrounded with trash all over, whose prayers are, ‘May we have food for tonight?’, and goodness gracious, our food pantry is full enough of stocks good enough for maybe a month. Don’t I need to straighten up?! Have mercy on me, oh GOD!

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