A Preferential Option for the Vulnerable

by Herb Montgomery | March 30, 2018

City at night behind a fence

Photo by Zac Ong on Unsplash


“To have a preference is to have a greater liking for one alternative over another or others. This is not exclusive, but rather points to who should first have our solidarity.”


Jesus looked at him and loved him. “One thing you lack,” he said. “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” (Mark 10:21)

This week I want to discuss what liberation theologians such as Gustav Gutierrez call Jesus’ “preferential option for the poor.” Let’s consider a broader preferential option that includes all who are vulnerable: people who are vulnerable economically and also people vulnerable because of their race, gender, orientation, ability, age, gender identity and expression, their level of education, or any other basis for oppression.

I remember standing on the lawn of Baltimore’s city hall with my daughter when she was in sixth grade, the weekend after Baltimore police murdered Freddie Grey. She stood holding a sign she had made while I looked up at snipers who lined the upper ledges of the building surrounding that lawn.

As we lined to the speakers addressing the crowd, I saw that much of what was being said was not registering with her, but for me it was resonating deeply. With the clarity that only comes from experiencing oppression for oneself, speakers repeatedly drew the connection between economic and racial oppression in the U.S. and around the globe. It’s not enough to solve poverty for some people and exclude others from that solution, especially if your economic solutions exclude some based on their race or ethnicity. We can’t afford to solve economic exploitation for some if those solutions come at the price of exploitating others whom we deem as different. It’s also not enough to simply teach a preferential option for some who are poor. We must enlarge our preferential option to include all who are targeted and made vulnerable by the status quo.

But before we do that, let’s unpack what is meant by this phrase preferential option for the poor.

The Poor 

Although there are many different types of poverty, the “poor” in this phrase first addresses people who experience material poverty. We must be careful not to romanticize the reality of poverty. For most of those who are materially poor around the world, poverty means death. As Gustav Gutiérrez says, “It is death, death before one’s time.” For theists who believe in a God who is life, or the giver of life, this death, and thus this poverty, is contrary to a God who is life.

Material poverty can take different forms and result from many different causes. At its core, though, material poverty is an expression of marginalization. Many people view those who are materially poor as insignificant, objectify them, and consider them non-persons. This marginalization calls us to consider the connection between marginalization based on poverty and other forms of marginalization such as those based on gender, race, sexual identity/orientation, etc. Addressing the complex nature of poverty can include charity for  mitigating harm while we work toward a just society, but it is vital that we don’t stop at charity and think our work is done. We must also identify and resist the structures that create poverty, and we need philosophical, social, and scientific tools to analyze what makes people poor systemically and institutionally.

Option 

The word “option” in our phrase does not mean that it is optional, something we could do without. It implies that we can make an intentional choice from a range of possibilities. It means making a commitment to stand in solidarity with and work alongside the poor. This does not mean we become the “savior” of the poor or do-gooders. The “option” is to recognize that we reclaim our own humanity as others reclaim theirs, and we begin to see our connectedness. We live into that connection. We begin to see, love, and engage others as ourselves.

Preferential

To have a preference is to have a greater liking for one alternative over another or others. This is not exclusive, but rather points to who should first have our solidarity. Jesus taught this with this famous phrase, “Last shall be first. And the first shall be last.” (Matthew 20:16) He demonstrated this in his favor toward poor, hungry, weeping, and hated people in Luke’s sermon on the plain and the woes he proclaimed against their exploiters. Think of imbalanced scales. To rectify an imbalance one has to apply greater weight to the side that’s up in the air to bring the scales back to center. Jesus’ enemies also repeatedly critiqued his table fellowship with those who were socially marginalized. Jesus modeled a bias or preference that chose the side of the poor.

Let’s look at several examples in Mark and Luke.

In Mark, Jesus also calls the wealthy to follow him in his preferential option for the poor:

Jesus looked at him and loved him. “One thing you lack,” he said. “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” (Mark 10:21; cf. Matthew 19:21, Luke 18:22)

Jesus took the side of a poor widow over even the central structure of his society’s political and ideological life—the Temple:

But a poor widow came and put in two very small copper coins, worth only a few cents. Calling his disciples to him, Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others. (Mark 12:42-43; cf. Luke 21:2-3)

As Ched Myers explains, this widow was being “impoverished by her obligations to the temple cultus . . . The temple has robbed this woman of her very means of livelihood. Like the scribal class, it no longer protects widows, but exploits them” (in Binding the Strong Man, p. 321-322). Another author states, “Jesus condemns the value system that motivates her action, and he condemns the people who conditioned her to do it” (A. Wright; The Widow’s Mite: Praise or Lament? A Matter of Context, p. 262).

In Matthew, Jesus’ preferential option for the poor and vulnerable is the sign of confirmation to be shared with the imprisoned John the Baptist:

The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor. (Matthew 11:5; cf. Luke 7.22)

In Luke, it sums up Jesus’ entire ministry:

The Spirit of the Lord is on me,because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free… (Luke 4:18)

Jesus calls the Pharisees to embrace this option to the degree that everything else about their morality would depend on it:

But now as for what is inside you—be generous to the poor, and everything will be clean for you. (Luke 11:41)

In Mark, this teaching is given to a single wealthy person, but in Luke, Jesus’ call to sell excess possessions and redistribute wealth to the poor is a universal teaching for all of his followers:

Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will never fail, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. (Luke 12:33)

We see Jesus’ preferential option for the poor and vulnerable in his teaching and story on who is to be invited to the banquet:

But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind,…

The servant came back and reported this to his master. Then the owner of the house became angry and ordered his servant, ‘Go out quickly into the streets and alleys of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame.’ (Luke 14:13, 21)

In one of Jesus’ best known encounters, we meet a wealthy tax collector who embraces Jesus’ preferential option for the poor as his own ethic too:

But Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.” (Luke 19:8)

This preferential option for the poor and the vulnerable determined whom Jesus’ reign or kingdom of God belonged to:

Looking at his disciples, he said: “Blessed are you who are poor,

for yours is the kingdom of God. (Luke 6:20)

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5:3)

In Luke, Jesus refers to people who are materially poor, whereas in Matthew, the blessing is for the poor “in spirit.” One interpretation of this difference spiritualizes or privatizes what it means to be poor “in spirit.” It has arbitrarily been defined as an attitude of dependence or reliance on God as opposed to reliance on oneself. The fruit of this interpretation has been to divert attention away from the liberation of those who are materially poor. But Jesus isn’t holding up some spiritual poverty or dependence on God as a character quality to strive for in this passage, and that interpretation has too often been used to subvert Jesus’ call for us to stand in solidarity with materially poor people. Jesus is speaking, just like in Luke, to those the present structure has left poor in spirit. Note that Luke describes John not as poor in spirit himself, but as strong in spirit.

And the child grew and became strong in spirit; and he lived in the wilderness until he appeared publicly to Israel. (Luke 1:80, emphasis added.)

When Jesus describes those who are poor in spirit, he is describing those who are experiencing a poverty of the spirit or will to keep fighting against oppression. Their spirit has been broken. They are worn down. They have no more spirit with which to fight. Just this week, it was announced that the police who murdered Alton Sterling will not face any chargers. Repeated occurrences as this have a way of breaking ones will or spirit to keep trying. HealingJustice.org posted a quotation from @fancisca_porchas on social media this week and commented, “In the wake of no justice for #AltonSterling , this one goes out to @blklivesmatter & all allies. You don’t have to hold this political fight or all that pain alone. All of us are with you. Check on your people & show up for action this week, fam. The quotation read, “Organizers have to do so much spiritual work every day just to get up and fight the state, fight ferocious systems, and hold so much pain at scale.”  Jesus’s preferential option for the poor and vulnerable envisioned a world where the poor in spirit were given the kingdom (Matthew 5:3) This does not mean spiritually poor.

Just two verses later in Matthew 5:5, Jesus says, “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.” In our present world structure the meek are not given the earth but rather walked on, walked over, and bullied. Jesus calls us to create another kind of world where even the meek, the most vulnerable among us, are taken care of and ensured a safe world to call their home as well. A preferential option for the meek is what Jesus means by “poor in spirit.” Today’s world belongs to those who have a fighting, competitive spirit, a drive to succeed. But some have had their spirit so broken, so pushed down, they simply don’t have any spirit left to try. Jesus calls us to a preferential option that creates a world where those who don’t have anything left to give are taken care of as well

The passage between these two texts in Matthew is the verse,  “Blessed are those who mourn for they will be comforted.” Those who mourn are those whom the present structure so disenfranchises, disinherits, and marginalizes. Despite their present heartbreak and loss, this new world will bring reparative, restorative, and transformative comfort as they gain hope that another world is possible. Lastly, in verse 6 of Matthew 5 Jesus, speaking of this same demographic states, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.” This word “righteousness” is not persona or private. It’s not a meritorious credit that admits them to the afterlife. The verse describes those who hunger for righteousness or justice here, now.

The Hebrew concept of righteousness included distributive justice, structural justice, systemic justice, and societal justice. Those who hunger for this world to be put right are those Jesus calls us to a preferential option for, to ensure that they will be filled!

All Who Are Vulnerable 

All those who desire to genuinely follow Jesus must create communities that center the most vulnerable people at the table. Not only are the vulnerable to be seated at the table but the table is also to practice a preferential option for them. Examples today might include those who are vulnerable on the basis of their race, identity as LGBTQ, or their gender as a woman. Applying Jesus’ preferential option for the poor and vulnerable today means prioritizing these communities.

Jesus’ table is not one where where every person’s opinion is of equal worth and we simply agree to disagree and still get along. Such a table leaves the status quo untouched, doesn’t challenge the balance of power, and still leaves these communities vulnerable. Instead, Jesus’ table is a table where there is a preference for the vulnerable. As the saying goes, “The voice of the oppressed does not always call out for what is just, but we will not arrive at justice without listening to them.” This is what it means to practice a preferential option for the vulnerable: choosing the side of the most vulnerable.

Christians are called to look at the world from the perspective of the marginalized and to work with them in solidarity for justice. Practicing the preferential option for the poor today might include advocating for LGBTQ rights; opposing racial red lining still being practiced today (red-lining stops people of color from accessing home ownership); or organizing with young people who are repeatedly victimized by gun violence.

The good news is we can do this. We can choose to create a world that practices a preferential option for the vulnerable. In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus tells the story of a man who did just this.

When he found one of great value, he went away and sold everything he had and bought it. (Matthew 13:46)

This is the same “sell everything” language as we read previously—“sell everything you have and give to the poor” (Mark 10:21). It’s about selling out and going all-in toward a vision for a different kind of world, one that practices a preferential option for people who face oppression daily. It’s also about taking action and believing that another world is possible now. The man in Jesus’ teaching sold everything he had for the kingdom. And we can, too! In the words of someone I deeply respect, “You have to act as if it were possible to radically transform the world. And you have to do it all the time.” (Angela Davis; Southern Illinois University, February 13, 2014)

“Jesus looked at him and loved him. “One thing you lack,” he said. “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor . . . “ (Mark 10:21)

HeartGroup Application

University of Notre Dame’s Center for Social Concerns defines the preferential option for poor and vulnerable as looking “at the world from the perspective of the marginalized and [working] in solidarity for justice.”

  1. This week, take time to read their page on the preferential option for the poor and vulnerable. Engage the discussion and reflection sections.

2. Discuss as a group what a preferential option for the poor and vulnerable could look like for your HeartGroup.

3. Choose a way to put your ideas into practice.

Wherever you are this week, thank you for checking in with us.

Remember, another world is possible!

Keep living in love, survival, resistance, liberation, reparation, and transformation.

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see you next week.


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