By: Rev. Joseph Chalmers, O.Carm.
Rev. Chalmers is the prior general of the Order of Carmelites. The followers article is taken from his letter to the Carmelite Family The Lord Hears the Cry of the Poor, March 1, 2006.
In the Old Testament, poverty is an evil which one must struggle and ask God to be set free (Dt. 15, 7-11). The consequences of poverty are humiliation, oppression, and dependence (Sir. 13, 3-7. 21-23). From this comes the evil. God, who made a covenant with the Chosen People, has a particular care for the disinherited, widows, slaves and orphans (Ex. 22, 25-26; Lv. 25, 35-38; Dt. 24, 1015).
Some people were so burdened by debt that they saw no option but to sell themselves into slavery. The law of the covenant protected them and defended them against cruelty so that if a slave was injured in the eye or lost a tooth, the master was obliged to set the slave free (Ex. 21,1-11.21.26-27; Dt. 15,12-15). The Israelites experienced in Egypt the weight of servitude. They were foreigners serving the local people. God intervened and brought the people out of Egypt. This was a profound experience for them that remained foundational. (Ex. 21,20). However, it took forty years of wandering in the desert before they were ready to enter the Promised Land. When they began to settle down, they had to learn that the foreigner is poor and that God loves him too. The widow and orphan are in the same situation, as they have no protection against injustice and mistreatment (Ex,22,21-23). It was believed that God hears the cry of the poor, those who suffer and the humiliated (Ex. 2, 24; 3,7; Sir. 4,1-6; 21,5). The messiah king will protect the poor. (Is. 11,4; Ps. 34,7). God takes the side of the poor, of the victims of injustice, the persecuted, and the weak: “For he has not spurned nor disdained the wretched man in his misery. Nor did he turn his face away from him.” (Ps. 22,25).
Initially, above all starting from the period of the monarchy, the appearance of poor people was a challenge to the existing mindset. The simple fact of there being poor people was believed to be an indication that the covenant had been broken. The prophets became spokesmen for the demands of divine justice. Among them, the Prophet Elijah holds a special place (1Kings 21,17-22; 1Chr. 21,11-15).
Later, especially during the Babylonian captivity, when the whole people were oppressed and poor, those who found themselves in such a position were no longer to be assisted simply by receiving alms from those who were rich, but it was understood that the poor themselves had a mission to accomplish with regard to the Chosen People and with regard even to the whole of humanity. This mission is expressed clearly in the songs of the Servant of Yahweh (Is. 42,6-7; 49,6; 61,1), which shaped Jesus’ understanding of his mission (cf. Lk. 4,18-19).
Slowly, over the centuries, the term “poor” came not only to express a social or political status but also it is understood to be an interior attitude of faithfulness that often brings with it isolation and persecution by the powerful. The little book of Zephaniah affirms that the opposite of poverty is not wealth but pride. The poor are humbly submissive to the will of God (Zeph. 2,3). Yahweh’s poor (the anawim) are the object of his benevolent love (cf. Is. 49,13; 66,2) and are the first fruits of the “humble and modest people” (Zeph. 3,12) that the Messiah will gather together. God gives salvation to those who accept his will. Jeremiah was not an indigent prophet (Jer. 32,6-15) but he experienced persecution. From his experience of being despised, persecuted and being weak, Jeremiah learned trust in God and so he discovered the source of his salvation (Jer. 20,7-13). Jeremiah also is one of the poor of the Lord. Material poverty is not a value in itself but it does have a particular religious significance. It is a call to open oneself to God. It is a mysterious preparation to accept God as the giver of all things. As a spiritual attitude, the person is poor who, in a situation of need, seeks humbly the help of the Lord. (cf. Ps. 34,7-11).
The idea that we find in the Law and the Prophets can also be found in the Wisdom Literature. The Book of Job, for example, describes in a very lively way, the situation of the poor (Job 24,1-2). The psalms have a wonderful spirituality of the poor. There is a loving dialogue between the poor and God. The one who prays presents his own misery and suffering, abandoning himself to God (Jer. 20,7-13). The poor look for their salvation to Yahweh on whom they depend. The danger of wealth is seen in the fact that it is the source of pride (Ps. 49,17-18). For this reason there tends to be identification in the Bible between “rich” and “wicked” (Is. 53,9). The rich person tends to be self-satisfied and proud and therefore does not believe in God (Ps.52,9). The Lord will give justice to the humble and the poor. The justice of God is not that of strict law but comes from the promises of the covenant: