Home > Uncategorized > God’s Preferential Option for the Poor
  1. February 18, 2010 at 10:47 am

    The only real worry I’d have about this way of framing the preferential option is that it might undercut the sense that the preferential option is against the rich—i.e., not an uncritical and paternalistic benevolence, but a critical threat of “woe to the rich.”

    • Todd Walatka
      February 18, 2010 at 11:13 am

      I think this hits directly on the tension: preserving the conflictual nature of the option without making God’s love exclusive to one group of people. Calling it an “option for” (with the implication of an “option against“) gets at the former; “care” gets at the latter (as well as pointing us to the situation of need). God loves the poor and the rich and will continue to love the poor when they are no longer poor. But, in the midst of a situation of sinful inequality, an essential part of love is caring for the poor so that they will no longer be poor.
      In some sense “preferential” points us to the non-exclusivity of the option as well. Of course, it has also been critiqued for reducing the conflictual nature of the option.

  2. Todd Walatka
    February 18, 2010 at 11:38 am

    I also think context is very important here. Pope is trying to step back and look more closely at precisely what we mean by preferential option or love. His aim is to defend the preferential option but with as much rational precision and coherence as possible. Is it really theologically precise to say that God loves the poor more than others? More than the poor person when that person is no longer poor? When that person enjoys union with God in heaven? At some point, saying God “loves more” is too imprecise. “Care” for those in need gets at what we mean by God’s preferential love in this case.

    However, if in another context someone uses “care” for the purpose of weakening the option for the poor (i.e. we only have to care for the poor)then don’t have precision but ideological avoidance.

  3. Cass
    February 18, 2010 at 2:02 pm

    Todd, The Good Samaritan and the Last Judgment, I see. But, Lazarus and Dives? God’s loving care for Lazarus ‘so that he would no longer be poor’ consisted in leaving him to literally rot and starve to death on the doorstep of plenty. Does Pope, Gutierrez or JPII shed any light on how this coincides with the temporal-political ends liberation theology has in view?
    It makes me really unhappy to–again–seem to heckle. But, I personally have a deep-set preferential option/love for Lazarus, whom I consider The Quintessential Saint. While I’m iffy on LT. So, I just can’t help inquiring as to the basis of this–to me–rather surprising claim.
    (If it makes it any easier for you to condescend to help, I beg you to look upon me as ‘the poor’ with respect to book-learning in academic theology.)
    in X.

    • Cass
      February 18, 2010 at 2:41 pm

      Wait. I think I sort of get it.
      Lazarus and Dives is a story not directly about God’s preferential love, the way the Good Samaritan might seem to be, where Providence steps in, by way of a human player, to make things right; rather it is Warning. That one really is a Woe to the Rich story.
      I’m still not sure I read it as a LT tract. But I think I get the connection now.
      Still, that strikes me as a queer and roundabout expression of love. Doesn’t it strike you that way?

      • Todd Walatka
        February 18, 2010 at 7:30 pm


        Thanks for the good challenges. I’ll try to respond as best I can. At some point I think we come to the difficulty of theodicy (if God really is against this suffer, is all knowing, and all powerful, why wait?). Clearly part of the answer involves the fact that we oppress others and we must respond; but this is only partially satisfying and I don’t have much more of an answer. I’ll respond here more to the question of how to read passages like the parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man:

        I think that the key to understanding much of the New Testament on these matters is to have the eschatological (and at times apocalyptic) context in mind. The story of Lazarus seems to me to be a sort of illustration of the Lucan beatitudes: Blessed are poor, their’s is the Kingdom, blessed are those who hunger, they will be satisfied; woe to the rich, they have already received their fill. It is an eschatological promise: when God acts to bring about the fullness of the Kingdom, there will be a distinct preference for the poor (a similar eschatological emphasis, although focused on our conduct here and now is found in Matt 25:31ff). So, as your last comment points out, these passages point to God’s preferential option but in the form of warning and promise.

        Liberation theology would take these promises as a call to action as well. Just as we draw close to Christ here and now (and not only eschatologically), we are called to make the conflictual reversals of fortune a reality here and now to the extent we can. Thus, we can’t read the story of Lazarus in such a way that we just leave it up to God (even if our ultimate hope is in God); such a reading that would go directly against other passages, including the parable of the Good Samaritan.

  4. andrewlp
    February 19, 2010 at 3:24 am

    I’d like to read Pope’s article at some point, to get a sense of what he means by “care.” My initial thought is that this sounds like a “bourgeois-ification” of liberation theology. Now, if possible, I don’t mean that as a strongly negative value judgment. Let’s just say it’s a descriptive claim. In a situation of extreme poverty, in which certain actions and attitudes of the wealthy are the cause of this poverty, the question of God’s preferential option has little to do with care and more to do with God taking sides. This doesn’t mean that God doesn’t love the rich. It does mean, however, that God might be angry with them and demand that they change their whole way of life. Not just by caring for the poor, but by selling what they have and giving it to them, in such a way that society is restructured.

    • Todd Walatka
      February 19, 2010 at 7:22 am

      I admit that “care” can seem too weak and could be used ideologically.

      “the question of God’s preferential option has little to do with care and more to do with God taking sides.”

      One could also say that real “care” for the poor involves taking sides against those people and structures which cause their poverty. “Care” is the response of love to someone in need. A real response means an attmept to eliminate what causes suffering and need, not just a temporary alleviation or soothing. “Caring” for an abused woman obviously involves healing her wounds but her needs go far beyond this. Obviously, “care” in the abstract doesn’t seem to get at this enough.

      I think “care” gets at the form of God’s love for the poor: it is love that focuses particularly on need. It brings greater precision to the notion of the preferential option by describing what we mean by “love” in this case. But it doesn’t bring out the conflictive side of this love in a situation of oppression as well as other phrases. Which of course means that it may not be as effective when the goal is the spur people into action on behalf of the oppressed.

      Its pretty clear in Pope’s article, however, that “care” should not at all be taken a weakening of the call for deep solidarity with the poor and the need for the change of structures.

  5. Cass
    February 20, 2010 at 2:07 am

    Todd :Cass,
    Thanks for the good challenges. I’ll try to respond as best I can.
    I think that the key to understanding much of the New Testament on these matters is to have the eschatological (and at times apocalyptic) context in mind.
    …we are called to make the conflictual reversals of fortune a reality here and now to the extent we can. Thus, we can’t read the story of Lazarus in such a way that we just leave it up to God (even if our ultimate hope is in God); such a reading that would go directly against other passages, including the parable of the Good Samaritan.

    • Cass
      February 20, 2010 at 3:23 am

      Thank you for your patient and courteous and helpful response! It was a noble act of condescension and it really did help me. And now I shall repay it with a final heckle. If the below marks simply a deep ideological divide between us, it requires no response. If I’m wrong, then I’m the fool. Perhaps reflection on what you’ve said so far in years to come will work a final change on my outlook.

      As to the signal importance of bearing in mind eschatalogical context when examining revelation, we are at one.

      I fully suppose that one initial impulse underlying much of liberation theology is an absolutely valid impulse toward mercy.

      The doubts and reservations that remain with me with respect to LT, per se, (so far as I understand it) center on “sinful inequality” (far above) and “reversals of fortune”. Two other impulses seem to me also in play: one toward leveling; anti-authoritarian and anti-hierarchical. The other toward “Eat the Rich. Why? Because I’m hungry and he looks like good eating.” The surface irony being that those two impulses are in conflict not only with the status quo of the world we live in on any given Sunday, but also with each other.
      The deeper irony being that–so far as I can see–they are in conflict also with “the eschatological context.”
      God bless!

  6. Todd Walatka
    February 20, 2010 at 2:33 pm


    You’ve raised a number of issues. Here’s my best shot:

    There are debates regarding the language of “sinful” structures or inequality. Of course, those who reject the notion of that structures can be sinful would still call such structures unjust and/or oppressive. Whatever the language, the recognition of such structures demands action and structural change on behalf of the oppressed. As for the “reversal of fortunes,” this seems quite biblical, even if it should generally be read in terms of the genre of prophetic literature in the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament.

    Most liberation theology is clearly “anti-authoritarian” and “anti-hierarchical”. They write out of societies in which authoritarian governments are rightly resisted. There is also the sense of faith in popular movements and popular religion (at least among some). I think the general response to the “rich” is a call to conversion and change, although strong resistance (including revolution) is clearly not ruled out. The rich are called to enter into solidarity with the poor (indeed, most liberation theologians come from the “rich” rather than the “poor”).

    As for the “eschatological context,” there has to be a way to balance what is promised and what we do here and now based upon that promise. Liberation theology will generally push pretty hard regarding what we can accomplish here and now in relation to what will be accomplished eschatologically (“build the Kingdom”). But I think there is also simply the sense that we are meant to be given life now. In John, eternal life starts now. Thus, all aspects of eschatological salvation should be reflected here and now even if not in their fullness.

  7. Cass
    February 21, 2010 at 2:03 am

    Thanks again for this. I have in mind to try a “best shot” of my own, centered on a reading of the Lazarus and Dives story, that might serve as a response of kinds. But your–welcoming, well-written, and intriguing!–blog is not the place for that. If/when I do put something together, I’ll send you a link, in hopes that you will give it a read and comment/critique as you see fit.
    In any case, I am truly grateful for the chance to overhear and take a small part in this conversation. It has me thinking, deeply, about things that matter. I hope some lasting good will come of that.
    Yours in Christ.

  8. Todd Walatka
    February 21, 2010 at 11:14 am

    Definitely give me a link to your response. I look forward to reading it!

  9. February 25, 2010 at 6:08 pm

    I think another excellent parabolic example is the prodigal son. Not only does the father show favor to the apparently lesser son, but the good son even provides a foil for accusing the father of unfairness. Certainly the need of the prodigal son is on the surface of a different sort than the need of the world’s poor and oppressed, but I think it is plausible to think that the same theological fact is behind both.

    • Todd Walatka
      February 28, 2010 at 8:20 am

      It is interesting to appeal to the prodigal son here. In my mind, this would be more of figural exegesis. As you note, the basic reading of the parable would not lead us to something like the preferential option for the poor. Use of the parable of the prodigal son, I think, would need to be grounded upon other clearer narratives and with an explicit sense that one is pushing the story past the “literal sense”.

  1. February 22, 2010 at 4:26 am

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