I knew a close-knit family of 5 personable children, and as they got older, they would kid their mother about having a favorite. Of course, she would deny it and forcefully declare she loved each of them equally. But anyone knowing the family would attest that there was some sneaky favoritism. And unsurprisingly, it was for the one who had the hardest time in school, the one who didn’t make the honor roll. In subtle ways, she made extra allowances for her and could be sharp in her defense whenever anyone even hinted at her classroom troubles.
So the mother really did love all of her children deeply. But in addition, she had a mostly disguised preference for the one who didn’t get as much acclaim in school. You could say her love was constant and universal, but that didn’t preclude a special tenderness for the one who was least recognized scholastically.
In his letter, St. James touches on a similar point in the way he contextualizes God’s love. He asks who usually gets the attention when a crowd walks into a banquet hall? Is it the person with the latest clothes and fashionable jewelry, or the shabbily dressed, undistinguished looking guest walking in through the back door? James holds that it’s the flashy, rich looking ones who get noticed and are given the front seat, while the ordinary Joe or Jill is shunted off to the side, almost as if invisible.
Then, James changes the scenery — making the room into God’s banquet hall. There, things reverse and the overlooked, poor person is acknowledged and given an honored seat at the table. James follows this up with his assessment, “God chose those who are poor in this world…to be heirs of the Kingdom.” Couldn’t it sound as if James is claiming that God has a preference for the poor?
This is where that example of that mother of five comes in. It isn’t a question of her loving the one child more than the others. Rather, it is a matter of having a special eye for the one who in some respect has the least. You might characterize her love as “separate but equal.” All are equally loved, but one is given special attention because in at least in this one area, she is the least gifted.
We’re familiar with the phrase “Preferential Option for the Poor.” It’s been running through different teachings and Church documents in recent decades – and indeed is solidly based in our Scriptures and the life of Jesus.
Some people have understood it to mean that God, in Jesus, prefers the poor over the rich, loves the downtrodden more than the prosperous. Here’s where that mother’s instincts can be helpful. Her love is for all, is universal. But she has a special eye for the one who is struggling.
That’s the sense of “preferential option for the poor,” noticing those who in one way or other tend not to be noticed, who are usually placed in the corner. God’s love is universal. But God’s love specially hones in on those way in back of the line, the invisible ones, the overlooked. And that invisibility could stem from many things – being elderly, handicapped, LGBTQ, dark-skinned, low income, an illegal immigrant, a refugee, uneducated, a prisoner, etc.
Jesus pays special attention to the outsiders – the lepers, the disabled, the shunned Samaritan, the children, the outcast. And so many of Jesus’ followers have lived out this preferential (but not exclusive) option for the poor — certainly Sts Louise and Vincent and all those who today follow their Way. All have this radar for the one who was overlooked, for that shabbily dressed man or woman, poor in one way or other. These servants do what they can to escort the overlooked up to the front – or better, up to the table there to take a seat there with the other honored guests.
The famous Last Judgment scene has Jesus sitting on the throne and deciding who does and who doesn’t enter his Father’s Kingdom. His criteria: “What you did for the least of my brethren, you did for me.”
Following that Mother’s instincts, a fuller more focused way to phrase it might be: “What you did for any of my brethren, you did for me . But what you did for the poorest of them, you did especially for me — I, the poor Christ, who not only holds the poor of this world close to my heart, but indeed lives in them.”