Care for the Needy

Love, even more than considerations of justice, has inspired Catholics and other Christians to care for the socially marginalized and any man or woman in need. Christianity inherited from the OT a healthy message of concern for widows, orphans, and strangers (e.g. Deut. 24: 17—21), along with prophetic opposition to those who used their wealth and power to oppress the economically and socially weak. The very early post-NT codes on which we have already drawn maintained the Jewish moral message by attributing to 'the way of death' the actions of those who 'attend not to the widow and orphan', 'turn away the needy', and 'oppress the afflicted' (Epistle of Barnabas, 20. 2; see Didache, 5. 2). The denunciation bears on sins of omission (failures to help widows and orphans) and those of commission (in positively turning away the needy and oppressing those who are already afflicted).

Those whom Jesus expected his followers to help included the hungry, the thirsty, strangers, the naked, the sick, and prisoners (Matt. 25: 31—46). The list of the suffering with whom he identified did not explicitly include widows and orphans, but the list was obviously open-ended. His parable of 'the Good Samaritan' powerfully illustrates what he wants from all: the willingness to reach across religious and cultural divides to help any human being in distress (Luke 10: 30—7). He left no room for a self-absorption that may not even notice the pain of others. Jesus' message fuelled the kind of commitment to the sick, the poor, and others in need symbolized by the figure of St Laurence (see Ch. 1). It fuelled also the powerful words St John Chrysostom addressed to rich Christians in Constantinople:

Consider that Christ is that tramp who comes in need of a night's lodging. You turn him away and then start laying rugs on the floor, draping the walls, hanging lamps on silver chains on the columns. Meanwhile the tramp is locked up in prison and you never give him a glance.Make your house beautiful by all means but also look after the poor, or rather look after the poor first. Adorn your house if you will, but do not forget your brother in distress. He is a temple of infinitely greater value. (Homily 50. 4)

The words of Jesus from Matthew 25 and Luke 10, along with his parable of the rich man and the poor Lazarus (Luke 16: 19—31) have influenced and disturbed the moral conscience of Catholics and other Christians for two thousand years.

This moral message provided an important stimulus for the development of hospitals. St Basil of Caesarea (d. 379) founded what was perhaps the first Christian hospital. Innumerable doctors, nurses, and administrators have followed his lead, not least Catholic women who belonged to religious institutes founded specifically to care for the sick and the terminally ill.231 They have 'come to the help' of the sick as enjoined by Jesus' message (Matt. 25: 36). Many others have realized that one should add to the list in Matthew's text those who are ignorant and in need of education. Part at least of the astonishing commitment by Catholics and other Christians to the work of educating children and older persons has been fired by the sense of Jesus saying to them: 'I was ignorant and you taught me.'

In an eloquent passage the Second Vatican Council recalled Christ's parable of the rich man who failed to care for the poor man, Lazarus, and spoke of the 'inescapable duty to make ourselves the neighbour' of all and 'to come to their aid in a positive way', whether the neighbour 'is an aged person abandoned by everyone, a foreign worker despised without reason, a refugee, an illegitimate child.or a starving human being' (Gaudium et Spes, 27). The ethical motivation in this section is clearly twofold: not only obedience to the message of Jesus, who practised and encouraged a 'fundamental option for the suffering', but also an unconditional respect for the human person, who has been created in the image and likeness of God.

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