There was a thing that struck me yesterday as I was listening to the proclamation of the Gospel. It stewed about in my head, so I needed to look up the reading. Here is the text from the beginning of the eleventh chapter of St. Matthew’s Gospel:

When John the Baptist heard in prison of the works of the Christ,
he sent his disciples to Jesus with this question,
‘Are you the one who is to come,
or should we look for another?’
Jesus said to them in reply,
‘Go and tell John what you hear and see:
the blind regain their sight,
the lame walk,
lepers are cleansed,
the deaf hear,
the dead are raised,
and the poor have the good news proclaimed to them.
And blessed is the one who takes no offense at me.’

Jesus healing the paralytic

In that litany of signs, the first thing that struck me was the implication that poverty is an illness to be undone, an evil to be corrected. Like blindness, paralysis, leprosy, deafness, and even death, poverty is addressed by the king of kings, by God Himself as a wrong to be righted.

That says several things to me. First, it tells me of what concern Our Lord has for the poor. It is not some saccharine drivel to say that Jesus cared most especially for the poor. He ranks His ministry to them on par with the healing of the blind and the raising of the dead. That’s some high octane love.

 I know some like to point out that wealth has its place in the kingdom too, and I don’t doubt that it does, but let’s not pretend that the Master takes a kind of neutral stance between the poor and the wealthy. He doesn’t. He is most especially concerned for the poor, which leads me to the second thing.

Poverty is an evil. Thus I don’t think Christ is talking about the willfully poor, i.e. those who have chosen detachment from the world. That is not the poverty Christ is talking about, the disease that is poverty. My sense is that His poverty is the grinding, life-threatening poverty that perpetuates itself and holds its captives tightly against its wheezing breast. Or to put it in a more contemporary and perhaps irreverant way, it is not the bohemian lifestyle of our youth today who buy clothes that are worn and frayed because it is “a statement,” because they like being dirty and outcast. Dorothy Day had something to say about this:

“There is a Bohemianism of the religious life among young people as well as Bohemianism in the labor movement, and it too smacks of sentimentality. The gesture of being dirty because the outcast is dirty, of drinking because he drinks, of staying up all night and talking, because that is what one’s guests from the streets want to do, in participating in his sin from a prideful humility, this is self-deception indeed!” pg. 255 The Long Loneliness

Yes, what a deception. As ragged as some of our young like to make themselves appear, you will notice, of course, that they have the finest media accoutrements available: the latest iPod and the most recent editions of video games. They also spend remarkable amounts of money on primping themselves, that’s men and women by the way, not just women. But I digress…

Heal the Blind

The last thing that strikes me, though, about the above passage from the Gospel is that while the other evils are cured, Christ finds only the time to proclaim the Good News for the poor. I mean, wouldn’t the symmetry have been better maintained if he had said,

the blind regain their sight,
the lame walk,
lepers are cleansed,
the deaf hear,
the dead are raised,
and the poor are granted socio-economic stability?

Poverty is like these other diseases, but it is most unlike them in that Christ does not seek to “cure” it. Rather, to the poor the Good News is proclaimed. This is somehow sufficient.

Now, some would rightfully object that I am way off base here. Some might argue that the real meaning is that the proclamation of the Good News equates to socio-economic bliss. That’s how we need to understand the Good News, i.e. a social utopia. They would say that it is precisely to overthrow the structures of sin that the Jesus of history came. He was a political revolutionary, martyred for the cause of liberation for the common man. But if the economic balance of things were what he meant by the proclamation of the Good News, then why is this not plain, and why is this not the sense of the phrase elsewhere?

When we look to the rest of the New Testament, we find that it is St. Luke who uses the phrase most often. He has a parallel passage to the above in chapter 7, but there are several instances of its use. The first of these is when the angel Gabriel speaks to Zechariah. He tells him that he brings him the good news of Zechariah’s child who will prepare the people for the Lord. It is Gabriel too that uses the phrase when addressing the shepherds who are then told of the coming of the anointed one. Later in Luke we find the phrase associated with the kingdom of God. It is in chapter 8 and 16 that it becomes the “good news of the kingdom of God.” In Acts St. Luke includes the phrase several times, but now it is the “good news about the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus,” “the good news of Jesus,” “the good news of peace of Jesus Christ,” “the good news that what God promised to the fathers.”

I take this all to mean that the Good News is Jesus who is the Word. He is the Good News. He has presented himself to the poor, and this is the fulfillment of the prophecy. But how is this to be understod with the healing of the blind, deaf, lame, dumb, leprous, and dead?

To my mind, this tells us that through the proclamation of the Good News the poor will be relieved of the evil of poverty. You see, Christ cannot simply relieve one of poverty as he can with the physical evils of death and leprosy. There is nothing within the poor man that is not functioning correctly. Poverty is a result of the injustices extent within the society. To “cure” poverty would be to have all men behave justly, which would mean denying them the capacity to choose unjustly, which is the loss of any meaningful freedom.

Jesus and Blind Baritmeaus by Carl Bloch

But that’s just it. It is only through an introduction to Christ that men will move beyond themselves in freedom to the point of choosing the just over the unjust even when it is painful to do so. By being in relationship with the Word, who is the Good News, society can be transformed, the revolution can occur so as to bring about a more just society that can, one day, “cure” poverty.

As always, I come back to the centrality of the encounter with Christ. This is the proper approach and not that one which requires socio-economic redistribution right now regardless. That is to say that, the effort to make the Good News into a battle cry for root and branch global, political reform is to place us at the center of the news thus displacing the very Christ who wants that we give them Himself.

Hope for the poor is in Christ Jesus, in their and our encounter with Him, and not in the promises of political parties or community organizations that pledge caring attention to the needs of the poor. Christ, the Good News, reveals to us ourselves and thus our real needs…needs detached from news cycles and election years. This is why Popes Paul VI, John Paul the Great, and Benedict XVI all say that the social doctrine is evangelizaton and evangelization fulfills the social doctrine.

So… you want to help “cure” poverty? Get to know Christ, bring Him to the poor, and let Him direct you in your service to them. Do that, and not only will you relieve their suffering, but you might even heal the blind and cure the lame.