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Perspectives

from the Secretary General

Mindful of the Poor

by Msgr. Robert L. Stern

About twenty years after the resurrection of Jesus, a controversy arose in the Christian community of Antioch about requirements for new members. Some Christians of Jewish background insisted observance of the Mosaic law was required for salvation; the Christians of pagan background disagreed.

The community decided to send Paul, Barnabas and some others to Jerusalem to talk to the apostles and elders about the issue. Chapter 15 of the Acts of the Apostles tells us they set only a few minimums for new Christians, not the whole Mosaic law.

But Paul’s report on the meeting, in his letter to the Galatians, mentions an important requirement for all Christians, not referred to in Acts, “...to be mindful of the poor.”

This mandate drove Paul for the rest of his life. He spoke of it in his letter to the Romans; in his first letter to the Corinthians, he urged, “each of you should set aside and save whatever one can afford” for the poor.

His second letter to the Corinthians praised the Macedonians, “for in a severe test of affliction, the abundance of their joy and their profound poverty overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part.

“For according to their means, I can testify, and beyond their means, spontaneously, they begged us insistently for the favor of taking part in the service to the holy ones, and this, not as we expected, but they gave themselves first to the Lord and to us through the will of God.”

Paul urged the Corinthians also to excel in charity, “...not by way of command, but to test the genuineness of your love by your concern for others.”

He spelled it out for the Corinthians — and for us — giving reason after reason to be generous:

  • “For you know the gracious act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that for your sake he became poor although he was rich, so that by his poverty you might become rich.”
  • “...not that others should have relief while you are burdened, but that as a matter of equality your surplus at the present time should supply their needs, so that their surplus may also supply your needs, that there may be equality.”
  • “Consider this: whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows bountifully will also reap bountifully.”
  • “...God loves a cheerful giver.”
  • “The one who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will supply and multiply your seed and increase the harvest of your righteousness.”
  • “...you are glorifying God for your obedient confession of the gospel of Christ and the generosity of your contribution to them and all the others...”

Last October, Pope Benedict described Paul’s collection for the poor of Jerusalem as “a completely new initiative in the area of religious activities: it was not obligatory, but free and spontaneous; all the churches that were founded by Paul in the West took part.”

Almost two thousand years later, we still have desperately poor people with us — and “to be mindful of the poor” is still a defining characteristic of the followers of Jesus.

Two months ago, I was in Eritrea, a fiercely independent country in the Horn of Africa. Tens, perhaps hundreds, of thousands of people there are starving — meager rainfall, failed crops, no money.

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Tags: Pope Benedict XVI Poor/Poverty Eritrea