The first reading today, from the prophet Amos, is a pointed exhortation against the oppression of the poor and economic injustice:
“Hear this, you who trample upon the needy and destroy the poor of the land! ‘When will the new moon be over,’ you ask, ‘that we may sell our grain, and the sabbath, that we may display the wheat? We will diminish the containers for measuring, add to the weights, and fix our scales for cheating! We will buy the lowly man for silver, and the poor man for a pair of sandals; even the refuse of the wheat we will sell!’
On that day, says the Lord GOD, I will make the sun set at midday and cover the earth with darkness in broad daylight. I will turn your feasts into mourning and all your songs into lamentations. I will cover the loins of all with sackcloth and make every head bald. I will make them mourn as for an only son, and bring their day to a bitter end…” (Amos 8:4-6, 9-10).
This is an exhortation echoed throughout the scriptures so strongly that oppressing the poor and defrauding workers of their just wages are two of the four sins that “cry out to heaven” (Catechism 1867). St. James reiterates the severity of this command in a way that should make us all pause:
“Come now, you rich, weep and howl for the miseries that are coming upon you. Your riches have rotted and your garments are moth-eaten. Your gold and silver have rusted, and their rust will be evidence against you and will eat your flesh like fire. You have laid up treasure for the last days. Behold, the wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out; and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts. You have lived on the earth in luxury and in pleasure; you have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter” (James 5:1-5).
This emphasis on economic justice and the poor continued in the early centuries of Christianity and the Church Fathers gave exhortations against the wealthy that fall right in line with St. James. Perhaps most notable is from St. John Chrysostom who said, “Not to enable the poor to share in our goods is to steal from them and deprive them of life. The goods we possess are not ours, but theirs.”
The Church has always taught that the poor are to be given preferential treatment (Catechism 2448). This is because Jesus explicitly identifies Himself with the poor when He makes the radical claim that whoever feeds the hungry and clothes the naked are feeding and clothing Him. Thus we are called to “recognize [Christ’s] own presence in the poor who are his brethren” (Catechism 2449).
All of this should cause us to pause and intentionally examine how we personally treat the poor. The Church commands that we see all our economic decisions as moral decisions. Do I pay attention to where I shop and how they treat their employees? Do I care where the products I purchase are made and if the laborers are treated humanely? Do I support politicians and policies that undermine the dignity of the poor and vulnerable?
I think if we answer those questions honestly that we will all find ourselves failing to live up to Christ’s expectations…and that’s good!Recognizing that we are sinners is the first step towards repentance. And while God clearly condemns the wicked, His mercy is always more abundant. We see this in the story of Zacchaeus the tax collector, a man who cheated and stole from the poor on a regular basis. But Zacchaeus repented of these sins and said to Jesus:
“‘Behold, half of my possessions, Lord, I shall give to the poor, and if I have extorted anything from anyone I shall repay it four times.’ And Jesus said to him, ‘Today salvation has come to this house because this man too is a descendant of Abraham. For the Son of Man has come to seek and to save what was lost’” (Luke 19:8-10).
This is echoed in the Gospel reading today where the Pharisees condemned Jesus for eating with sinners and tax collectors and Jesus responded with His famous line,“I did not come to call the righteous but sinners” (Matthew 9:13).
So let yourself be condemned by the first reading today. For it is when we recognize ourselves as sinners that we can truly repent. Then when you receive His presence at the Altar you will be able to recognize that same presence in the poor and oppressed.