The Lord hears the cry of the poor
30th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Doug McManaman
Reproduced with Permission

These are such important readings, but they are so easily misunderstood. The Responsorial psalm is beautiful: The Lord hears the cry of the poor. That is so true. But it is flanked by two very important readings, the first reading from Sirach, and the gospel.

My ministry as a Deacon, as I might have mentioned, is to those who suffer from mental illness, and most of my time in ministry is spent downtown at a very old mental health center. And that vocation is one of the greatest gifts that the Lord has given me. I hate to employ an old cliché, I really do, but I have to be honest; when I drive away from that institution after being there for an entire night, I often become acutely aware that these people, with the weight of their suffering that they have to carry, have done more good for me than I have done for them. I’ve always had an aversion to that cliché, perhaps because it has been employed insincerely so often, I don’t know. But I promise you that this is really the case. I tell one of my patients with paranoid schizophrenia that he is going to have a very large mansion in heaven, and that I will probably be his gardener, if I’m lucky. And he laughs, but although I don’t mean that literally, there is a deeper truth in there that I want him to understand.

It is true that no one is sinless. We all have sin on our soul. But in a few of her profound reflections, Blessed Mother Theresa of Calcutta spoke of innocent suffering. I was struck by that notion the first time I heard it. Twenty years later, I am more convinced of the reality of innocent suffering than when I first heard it. There are people whose terrible suffering is not the result of any immoral decisions they made. There are people who have killed—killed their own parents, even—but were found not criminally responsible by virtue of their mental illness, and they really do grieve with deep sorrow, they weep with real tears at what happened at their hands.

These people are not psychopaths. A psychopath is not mentally ill. He is completely in touch with reality, he’s just plane evil. But a young man or woman, for example, who suffers from a serious mood disorder and has psychotic episodes, or who is a schizophrenic, etc., that’s not a problem with a person’s character, that’s a mental illness, a brain disease. And I can’t think of a greater suffering than what many of these patients have had to endure.

But not all suffering is innocent suffering, and this is where the Church and her saints will part company with those social activists who have been heavily influenced by Marxism. Many activists will often depict the poor as victims, oppressed by a cold and hostile establishment. They will even talk like that here in Canada, a country that does so much on the social level, in terms of helping people get back on their feet. I’m not saying that we don’t have more to do or that aspects of this country’s approach cannot be criticized, but the more I learn about what this country does for those who are determined to get back on their feet, the more impressed I am.

But an ideology, like Marxism or a modified version of it, can bring a person comfort, because it enables him or her to interpret the world through the lens of that ideology. That is why it is difficult for some people to discard the ideology, even when it obviously distorts and misrepresents the reality of the world we live in. I think most of us see that the reality here in Canada at least, is not so simple—the social establishment is not some oppressive monster, and that the poor are not always victims. Some in my family have done social work, and they used to tell me of the visits they’d make to young couples applying for welfare. In many cases, the fridge would be well stocked with beer, while the baby is crawling around without diapers, because they can’t afford them. Or, take note of how many satellite dishes there are on the balconies of apartments that are government subsidized. Some people have their priorities backwards, and sometimes they make choices that are not always in the best interests of their children.

We certainly have to be careful not to judge the heart of any particular individual. For example, as a deacon, I don’t know who is mentally ill as a result of drug use and who is not. Most of the people I visit have never done drugs. And even if I knew whose illness was brought on by drug abuse, I remain in the dark about the degree of responsibility of this or that particular person. I can’t judge them, because I don’t know the finer details of their history, and so it’s best not to judge at all and just love them regardless.

But I do know that there are students who are very fortunate to have a fully funded education with state of the art technology, etc., and yet who choose to skip class when others choose not to, who choose to smoke marijuana, despite the love and support they receive from their school administration, guidance, behavior resource, and many of their teachers. I have been teaching for 23 years, and I’ve seen a lot of students make very bad decisions, despite the tremendous support and expense that went into that support. These people may very well end up on the streets, and it is just not true to reality to speak of them as victims of an unjust and oppressive establishment, especially if they end up in an institution that treats, at the tax payers’ expense, the illness that was brought on by the brain damage caused by their drug use.

This is not the biblical understanding of “the poor”. The poor referred to in the Responsorial Psalm, the ones whom the Lord hears, are those who cry out to God because they have become aware of their utter helplessness and need for God. The poor are indeed those who suffer innocently, but the poor can very well be those who have screwed up their lives as a result of the bad choices that they’ve made in life, but who have finally come to acknowledge that and who now cry out to God to forgive them and to come to their aid. And the poor can be those who have a very large income, but who are very aware of their utter dependency, their frailty, their own sinfulness and who call out to God either to forgive them, or to strengthen them, or to use them in whatever way the Lord sees fit.

That’s in the first reading: “The LORD is a God of justice, who knows no favorites. Though not unduly partial toward the weak, yet he hears the cry of the oppressed.”

That includes the rich man who feels the oppression of his own sins, and it includes all those who feel the suffering oppression that comes to them as a direct result of their own faith and love for the Lord and their love for the Church. The reason is that this kind of suffering comes to them as a result of their love for God; for if we truly love God above all things, we’re going to find it difficult to live in a world that does not. That’s why the Second Beatitude is: “Blessed are those who mourn; they shall be comforted”. If you love God, you will mourn as a result of seeing so many people more than willing to deny Christ in subtle ways and sell their souls in order to keep their jobs, or to make their lives easier.

The first reading continues: “The one who serves God willingly is heard; his petition reaches the heavens. The prayer of the lowly pierces the clouds; it does not rest till it reaches its goal, nor will it withdraw till the Most High responds, judges justly and affirms the right, and the Lord will not delay.”

But not all those who live below the poverty line are poor in spirit, nor do all of them call upon the Lord in a spirit of mourning. The blessing that comes from my ministry to those with mental illness is that the ones I visit regularly have a profound sense of their radical need for God, a profound sense of their poverty of spirit. That’s why I ask them, when I leave, to keep me in their prayers, and to pray especially for the world—, precisely because the Lord hears the cry of the poor. I think they’re in for an indescribably joyful surprise when they learn how much good their prayers, offered in suffering, have done for the world.

And some of you sitting here might be suffering in secret, for whatever reason. The good news today is that the Lord hears your cry. Your prayer is powerful, and the Lord has said in this first reading that it pierces the clouds and does not rest till it reaches its goal. Your prayer will not withdraw from the presence of God till He responds, judges justly and affirms the right. So do not despair in the midst of your suffering, just trust, and continue to pray for us, because the Church depends on you.