C atholic social teaching holds a “preferential option for the poor”, which means that people who lack basic means deserve special attention and love. They hold a kind of pride of place. Only look at how obsessed the media are with the rich and powerful for a reminder of the strangeness of this teaching. But the roots of the Church’s option for the poor are rooted in God’s option for the poor.
As we look at the features of Isaiah’s great prophecy about the “raising of the mountain of the house of the Lord”, we see the shocking promise that God will make the poor trample the mighty. In the vision of God’s mountain, Isaiah 26:6 says of the “lofty city” of the powerful is “trampled underfoot by the needy, by the footsteps of the poor.”
This is not simply vengeance—as if the poor finally get to stick it to the proverbial man. Rather the elevation of the poor to tread upon the mighty represents a uniquely biblical paradox. God manifests his uncreated divine power in and through those who are weak. God needs nothing outside of Himself, which mean He is utterly free to love the poor. In fact, he is so utterly without extraneous need that he raises the poor to share in his nonviolent governing of the universe. Love for the needy reveals the divine needlessness.
But why insist on the poor trampling the mighty? Again, remain with the tension of Isaiah’s image of the poor and powerless walking upon the ruins of the mighty city that for so long oppressed them. It’s the paradox of the great but humble King David, who after defeating his enemies and his rival Saul, sings to God, “You save lowly people” (2 Sam. 22:28).
The same obtains in the Catholic devotion to the “Child Jesus”: he holds earth in his hand, governing it all, yet he remains a child. Because of the non-violence of God’s effortless creative power, the “mighty poor” is an apt image of divine presence. The “smallness” of God conquers the world as easily as the “greatness” of God.
The “style” of God is marked by the preferential option for the poor. It’s an instinct to respect those who seem to have no power or influence. Why? Because the poor will tread on the heads of the mighty. We love the poor because they are destined to reign over the mighty.
The more we allow ourselves to be small and humble, the more we join the ranks of the triumphant poor, who will reign on God’s holy mountain. So keep climbing!