It is well known that Christianity and Islam both have a tremendous emphasis on caring for the poor. Additionally, every one of the Prophets of the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) also calls our attention to the most downtrodden of society, the poor, the orphan, even people of foreign origins.
What is the purpose of this caring for the poor?
Many have heard of the great work of several Islamic charities. However, as a Christian, I know Christian charities better. And both Catholic Charities and Catholic Relief Services are among the finest, most efficient and productive charities in the world. A huge percentage of contributions to these fine charities goes directly to helping those in need. Operating costs are kept as close to zero as is humanly possible. (Of course, this is not the case with some other charities that operate for ulterior motives. Ahem.) Together, Christian and Muslim charities have helped billions of people around the globe.
But this does not answer the question of “Why?”
Why do these great religions give so much attention to the poor?
Is it to be “nice?” Well, I suppose that being “nice” is a good quality for people to cultivate, and it is proper for us to be “nice” in many of the circumstances that we encounter in our lives. Being “nice” has many positive effects. It makes our life in community, in our society, easier and smoother. It prevents some aggressions and difficulties, and adds a sort of a communal bonding element.
If we encounter a poor person, it seems correct to be “nice” to that person. We give some aid. We feel better. We did something good.
But this is only a beginning reason for charity towards the poor, if it is a reason at all. Being “nice” is an initial cause, a first step. But there is something deeper, far deeper, going on in our love for the poor. What is it?
Why should we care about the poor?
Pope Francis is always talking about the poor. He has lived a life of intentional service to the poor. He has spent his life serving the poor in the barrios (ghettos) of Buenos Aires. And Pope Francis has become a mystic, a holy person, a superb pastor and shepherd, a leader of humanity.
All of our Scriptures discuss the need to care for the poor.
In the Qur’an, there are so many frequent references to the vital necessity for us TO WARMLY LOOK OUT FOR, to be concerned for, and also to care for, the poor.
In the New Testament, Jesus (Isa) recommends to us to invite the poor into our parties and festivities. He often reminds us of the poor.
The fierce John the Baptist, a sort of bridge figure between the Old and New Testaments, when he gives us advice, gives advice almost entirely about sharing our resources with those who have not. In the Qur’an his name is Yahya. John the Baptist is the first economist. He’s always talking about sharing and distributing our resources, and about social justice.
And every single one of the Prophets of the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) speaks of caring for the poor, the orphan, the widow, the helpless foreigner. Every single prophet ever speaks of social justice.
We have our marching orders. But this still does not answer the question:
Why care for the poor?
Of course, the fact that our Scriptures urge us to is reason enough to consider it. Yet, it does not fully answer the question:
Why do our Scriptures tell us to care for the poor?
Why does Jesus (Isa) want us to have a party for the poor?
The answer to this question is in the Qur’an and the New Testament, but here in this essay, I would like to look at a similar form of the answer. It is in the Hebrew Scriptures, in the Book of Psalms. Specifically, it is in Psalm 72. (Psalm 72 is both a Ladder Psalm and a Menorah Psalm, which makes it one of the most central Psalms, but we shall not discuss this now.)
“72” is the holiest number for our Orthodox Jewish friends. It is a number that is connected with the holiest Hebrew name for God, “YHWH.” Other numbers are connected with YHWH too. For example, “26” is the value of the four letters that make up the Tetragrammaton, the name YHWH. In Psalm 136, for example, the refrain “God’s love endures forever” resounds 26 times.
72, however, is the number that derives from a complex reading of the Book of Exodus, and the passage through the Red Sea. (This same baptismal passing of humanity through the waters of the Red Sea also appears in Psalm 136.)
The number 72 surfaces in later Scriptures. The Septuagint (LXX) is the translation of the Hebrew Scriptures into Greek, which was the lingua franca of the Roman Empire. The myth about the translation process goes like this: A group of rabbis went into huts to translate the Hebrew Scriptures into Greek, and they all came out at the same time, with exactly the same translation in hand. This was taken as a divine sign of the approved nature of the Septuagint. The number of the rabbis independently producing the same translation was 70 in some ancient manuscripts of the story, while in other manuscripts, the number was 72.
Another story: An ancient Hebrew midrash (Scripture commentary) goes thus: “One day some people did something that made God happy. So God created 70 new heavens.” However, in some manuscripts, the number of new heavens that God creates is 72. This also relates to Islamic descriptions of the Paradise to which we are moving towards (We owe a debt of gratitude to the people of ancient Iran for their creation of the beautiful word “Paradise”).
And in some manuscripts of Luke’s Gospel, Jesus sends out 70 disciples, while in other manuscripts, the number is 72.
In Psalm 72, the first word is “God.”
But then the focus of the poem-prayer-song pivots to all things human.
First, the Psalm turns towards the request that God give God’s own qualities to the human leader of the human society, so that the society can be led to happiness.
After the first word, “God” is not mentioned again in the Psalm. It’s a bit like the Book of Ruth, where everyone is kind, nice, and helpful to each other. As a result of this, God prefers to hold back, observe the situation, and bless everyone involved. God stays out of the story, but ensures that everyone is happy, joyful. God loves a celebratory ending, as long as we are willing to honestly work for it.
Back to Psalm 72. The leader of society is one who builds the best possible society.
How? How does the ideal leader ensure the happiness of society?
BY LOOKING OUT FOR THE POOREST. It might seem odd, but caring for the poorest will actually produce the happiest community possible.
The ideal leader is very concerned with the most downtrodden in society. The Psalm requests that the ideal leader “judge for the poor of the people, and save the children of the destitute, and crush the extorter, the oppressor.” (Psalm 72:4) The Hebrew word for “people,” or “nation,” is “am,” which is related to the Arabic word “Ummah,” meaning the people of the entire vast family of Islam.
Later the Psalm states, “[this ideal leader] will deliver the destitute person who calls out, and the poor person with no one to help them.” (72:12) Again, this ideal leader “will have pity on the impoverished and destitute, and the souls of the destitute she/he will save.” (72:13) Again, the next verse develops this theme more deeply: “From fraud and from violence he will redeem their soul; their blood is precious in his eyes.” (72:14; some ideas for translating these verses came from the Schottenstein Edition of the Tehillim (Praises, or Psalms), which is part of the Artscroll Series, published by Mesorah) The word “redeem,” yigeal, is the same key verb that Boaz performs in the Book of Ruth. In humanity, we all redeem each other. (It’s all a big fun contest to see who can redeem who the most. A game of spiritual tag, if you will.)
Yes, the ideal leader of Israel is the person who looks out for the poorest, and goes after each and every injustice in society, to make life paradise for all people.
We are, all of us, made out of earth. We are vessels of clay, with God’s Spirit in us. We are all earthlings. This means that in addition to our human mother, our home base of Earth is also our mother.
Our Earth loves us.
Our planet loves each one of us. We are Her children. All of us. Earth loves us.
And we are encouraged, by the Scriptures, and by our ongoing evolution, to care for our Earth.
For all the millennia of human existence, the indigenous people have been in deep communion with the Earth. Some of us modern people have not lived that connection as deeply as we might, although maybe this was an almost unavoidable part of our amazing evolutionary advances, and we have leapt forward, unevenly and awkwardly, so much, in so many ways, that we need to take a moment to make an accounting of things, and see where we need to better integrate our rapid development. We are more complex people now, and we need to respect that.
For example, we can check how we can let go of fear and greed, and take up love. Now is the time for this great evolutionary pivot. Such a basic and obvious posture towards Reality and Community is now absolutely essential to our evolution. Fear and greed need to go. We must love.
We shall return to earth in a moment.
Even if we are of different regions of this planet, we all have one mother from which we are all made. This fact alone unites us deeply.
Synergy is the extra life, the extra super-abundant Spirit, that happens when a group of human persons moves to a deeper level of unity.
When humans get along, in love, with each other, our mother knows. The Earth knows.
And the Earth is happy to know that her children are all getting along with each other.
How happy the Earth will be when wars here are done. When all of her children are living in love and peace.
The perfect leader of ancient Israel of Psalm 72—that is, each person who is called to any good leadership role at any level of human society—cares for the poor because we humans need to be united. Fully united. This will strengthen our community.
The perfect leader goes after the evils of society in any way necessary to remove anything that subjugates any human persons. The true leader, like our mother Earth, wants all people to be happy. The true leader eradicates all evil, because evil is that which subjugates human persons and divides human community. Evil prevents full community.
Leaving aside the Earth for a moment, there is really a powerful joy that occurs when our community is whole, united, together: to quote from Psalm 133, “How good and how pleasant it is, when people live in unity….” Something mysterious and good happens when society, community, is humming and harmonious. When people intentionally connect with all people in community. (The entire Book of Proverbs is about this communal harmony too.)
At the beginning of the Catholic Mass, every person asks every other person to pray for them. We are all in this together. We are all radically united. Deeper than we can currently understand. (It’s like the fact of gravity throughout our cosmos, where every single atom is in a gravitational relationship with every other atom throughout the universe. Mind-boggling. But God knows every single atom, and desires to share this knowledge with us.)
This union of humanity is positively necessary for our future.
In the New Testament, Paul speaks of the Body of Christ. Which is the Church. Similar to this is the nous-sphere of Teilhard de Chardin. In other modern terms, we might discuss the emerging World Soul, the emerging Global Heart, the emerging Connection of All People. Everything this essay has discussed thus far could be incorporated into a Pauline understanding of the Body of Christ.
The Qur’an states several times, to paraphrase: Allah could have made everyone in unity from Creation onwards until now, but chose not to. Perhaps the reason he didn’t is because he knew that our learning to make friends with all other people is a necessary step of our evolution. And the Qur’an is very deeply steeped in Human Evolution.
When this union is more manifest among us—when social justice actually occurs for all people on our planet—what will happen?
Something really good.
Mother Earth Herself will respond. Mother Earth will help heal us, and will more readily heal Herself. The harvests will be abundant. Better weather will appear. Humanity may aid in these processes, fulfilling our mandate from the first pages of the Book of Genesis, to care for the Earth. Humanity and Earth will exist in much deeper understanding and harmony. Wheat and crops will abound, with wheat growing on the mountaintops: “May there be abundant grain on the Earth, on the tops of the mountains, may its fruit rustle like the cedars of Lebanon.” (72:16a) And nature will be so glorious that humanity will be more like Her: “May people blossom in the city like the grass of the earth.” (72:16b)
We will begin to know Paradise on Earth. Humanity will be stronger, healthier, and more intelligent than ever, and we will continue in these positive trajectories. This is God’s plan for us.
The poor and the downtrodden are our brothers and sisters. They are necessary members in the making of our community, our humanity, our Ummah. We are simply incomplete without them. Only with them will we realize and actualize the Deep Unity that Humanity is meant to become. Only then will the gifts that God wants to give us become available to us. Only total unity will suffice us. Only together can we move forward into an indescribably bright future.