God’s Preferential Option for the Poor

by | Apr 4, 2023 | Blog | 1 comment

Image: Station 15: Triumph of Life From the “Stations of the Cross from Latin America 1492-1992” by Adolfo Pérez Esquivel


During my pastoral career, I’ve noticed a common response to the forefronting of particular groups and their struggles for justice. When sustained special attention is directed towards people who are suffering, oppressed, and marginalized, folks who do not identify with those groups experience discomfort and begin to wonder, “What about us? Do we matter? Do we belong here?” Whether it’s supporting Black Lives Matter, making land acknowledgments, or displaying pride flags, calling special attention to a particular group’s struggle for justice, dignity, and human rights causes some to ask, “Why are we highlighting this group’s particular need?” or “Isn’t this unequal distribution of attention a form of reverse discrimination?”  

This sense of felt exclusion, discomfort, and unfairness is not uncommon. In fact, as a middle-class straight white man, I have had similar reactions to intentional efforts seeking to ensure that people who are different from me are heard first or given special attention.  

God’s Preferential Option for the Poor
Years ago, I was introduced to the theological concept of “God’s preferential option for the poor” by Craig Greenfield. Greenfield and his family have lived in some of the world’s poorest places, from Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside to slums in Cambodia. He is an activist, author, and founder of Alongsiders, an organization dedicated to developing a network of mentors for vulnerable and marginalized children. The notion of God’s preferential option for the poor was popularized by Catholic social teaching in Latin America and emphasizes God’s special concern for the vulnerable as evident throughout Scripture. Greenfield explains that like a parent who loves all of their children, but who gives special attention to a particular child when they are sick or hurt, God has “a particular care and concern, even bias . . . for the people at the bottom of society’s heap, those who need more attention from God and from us.” (Read Greenfield’s short and helpful article “Here’s why I think Jesus would be cool with saying #BlackLivesMatter.”)

Scripture is full of calls to pay special attention to the vulnerable

The Witness of Scripture
Scripture is full of calls to pay special attention to the vulnerable. The Bible repeatedly brings our attention to a group of people who theologian Nicholas Wolterstorff refers to as “‘the quartet of the vulnerable: the poor, the foreigner residing within your borders, the orphan and the widow.” Jesus told the teachers of the law, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick.” (Matt. 9:12, Mark 2:7, Luke 5:31), and he said, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.” (Matthew 11:28) Additionally, after affirming the value of all the parts of the body (a metaphor for the members of a church), Paul stresses the importance of treating those who are thought of as less honorable with “greater respect” (1 Cor. 12:23), while other members “need no special treatment.” (1 Cor. 12:24).

Paul stresses the importance of treating those who are thought of as less honorable with “greater respect,” while other members “need no special treatment.”

Luke records an incident where at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, Jesus stands up in his hometown synagogue, unrolls the scroll of Isaiah, and reads:

 “The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
– Luke 4:18-19

Playfully pointing out people’s tendency to feel excluded when a particular group is given special attention, Greenfield imagines a Pharisee standing up and asking, “Jesus, don’t you mean ‘proclaim Good News to EVERYONE’?” Immediately following the Isaiah reading, Jesus references two passages from Scripture where God shows special favour towards outsiders in need. The crowd in the synagogue responds by trying to throw Jesus off a cliff! God’s special concern for the vulnerable, and people’s defensive and angry responses to God’s preferential option for the poor have been around for a long time. Part of spiritual maturity is learning to participate in other people’s joy and celebrating their worth without feeling like it somehow diminishes your own.

Christ’s Solidarity with the Poor
Liberation Theology also stresses Scripture’s revelation of God’s unique presence with the poor. Jesus’ parable of the sheep and the goats suggests that God is in mystical solidarity with the least of these. The god figure in the parable says, “‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’” (Matthew 25:40). When Paul is on his way to Damascus to round up and punish Jewish Jesus followers, a light from heaven flashes, he falls to the ground and hears the voice of Jesus say, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” indicating that Jesus is present in and with the vulnerable. 

Blessed are the Poor in Spirit
While I was in seminary I took a course with activist, author, and scholar Bob Ekblad at Tierra Nueva, his ministry center in Burlington, WA. As a prison chaplain, Bob ran Bible studies with inmates, many of whom were immigrants from Mexico who had become involved in gangs in America. I travelled from Vancouver to Burlington with a group of fellow Regent College students for the course which took place over several weekends. Those of us from Regent were mostly white, well-educated, and financially stable. During the course we studied the Bible alongside former inmates Bob had gotten to know in prison. Bob opened our eyes and ears to God’s clear preferential option for the poor as we examined passage after passage from Scripture. As the course went on, we noticed how the local participants from Mexico were energized by the texts, while most of the Regent students felt more and more uncomfortable.

“If the gospel is good news to the poor, and God is especially close to those in need, then where does that leave me, a wealthy, educated, privileged white seminary student?”

One day, one of my fellow seminary students gave voice to our rising tension saying something like, “If the gospel is good news to the poor, and God is especially close to those in need, then where does that leave me, a wealthy, educated, privileged white seminary student?” I remember Bob gently helping my classmate explore his uneasiness, revealing a sense of discomfort, lack, and longing to be included – senses that were shared by most of us from the seminary. He said something like, “It sounds like you are feeling uncomfortable, distant from God, and that you are sensing a need for God’s grace.” Many of us began nodding in agreement. Bob then said something to the effect of, “Congratulations. Now you are in a position to receive God’s love and grace afresh.” From that moment on, I had a greater understanding of Jesus’ beatitude, “Blessed are the poor in spirit” (Matthew 5:3), and how God is uniquely present to those in need. 

Don’t Hear What I’m Not Saying
So, when you hear me excitedly exclaim how the church is a place where the oppressed, traumatized, and marginalized are welcome, please don’t hear what I’m not saying. I’m not saying no one else is welcome. Of course all are loved! God desires the liberation of all! I’m just trying to follow in the footsteps of our Lord who went out of his way to welcome the ostracized (John 4:4), to touch the stigmatized (Matt 8:3), and to humanize the demonized (Mark 5:15). I’m simply trying to keep in step with the Spirit who empowers those who have been disempowered (Acts 2:17-18), and to expound Scripture like Jesus (Luke 4:18-19). 

If we don’t interrogate our feelings of defensiveness when we hear God’s special concern for the poor being expressed, we run the risk of keeping company with the older arms-crossed brother of the Prodigal son and missing out on the celebration of God’s gracious table being extended to those in need. God’s love is not scarce. There is more than enough for all. If our well-being is truly bound up with the well-being of others, then there is no downside to justice.

If Liberation Theology is new to you, here are some people you might want to consider learning from: John Sobrino, James Cone, Miguel A. De La Torre, and Delores Williams..