A woman walks past a homeless man sleeping on a sidewalk. We are called to not turn our faces from the poor. OSV News photo/Bob Roller

In the face of the poor, we find the Lord Jesus

  • November 15, 2023

Editor’s note: below is a condensed version of Pope Francis’ message for the World Day of the Poor:

“Do not turn your face away from anyone who is poor” (Tob 4:7). These words help us to understand the essence of our witness. By reflecting on the Book of Tobit, a little-known text of the Old Testament, yet one that is charming and full of wisdom, we can better appreciate the message the sacred writer wished to communicate. We find ourselves before a scene of family life: a father, Tobit, embraces his son, Tobias, who is about to set out on a lengthy journey. The elderly Tobit fears that he will never again see his son, and so leaves him his “spiritual testament.” Tobit had been deported to Nineveh and is now blind and thus doubly poor. At the same time, he remains always certain of one thing, expressed by his very name: “The Lord has been my good.” As a God-fearing man and a good father, he wants to leave his son not simply material riches, but the witness of the right path to follow in life. So he tells him: “Revere the Lord all your days, my son, and refuse to sin or to transgress His commandments. Live uprightly all the days of your life, and do not walk in the ways of wrongdoing” (4:5).

We see immediately that what the elderly Tobit asks of his son is not simply to think of God and to call upon Him in prayer. He speaks of making concrete gestures, carrying out good works and practising justice. He goes on to state this even more clearly: “To all those who practice righteousness give alms from your possessions, and do not let your eye begrudge the gift when you make it” (4:7).

The words of this wise old man make us think. We are reminded that Tobit had lost his sight after having performed a work of mercy. …

For this act of charity, the king had deprived him of all his goods and reduced him to utter poverty. Still, the Lord had need of Tobit; once he regained his post as an official, he courageously continued to do as he had done. Let us hear his tale, which can also speak to us today.

“At our festival of Pentecost, which is the sacred festival of weeks, a good dinner was prepared for me and I reclined to it. When the table was set for me and an abundance of food was placed before me, I said to my son Tobias, ‘Go, my child, and bring whatever poor person you may find of our people among the exiles of Nineveh, who is wholeheartedly mindful of God, and he shall eat together with me. I will wait for you, until you come back’” (2:1-2).

How meaningful it would be if, on the Day of the Poor, this concern of Tobit were also our own! If we were to invite someone to share our Sunday dinner, after sharing in the Eucharistic table, the Eucharist we celebrate would truly become a mark of communion. If it is true that around the altar of the Lord we are conscious that we are all brothers and sisters, how much more visible would our fraternity be, if we shared our festive meal with those who are in need. …

That of Tobit is a remarkable story: a faithful husband and a caring father, he was deported far from his native land, where he suffered unjustly, persecuted by the king and mistreated by his neighbours. Despite being such a good man, he was put to the test. As sacred Scripture often teaches us, God does not spare trials to those who are righteous. Why? It is not to disgrace us, but to strengthen our faith in Him.

Tobit, in his time of trial, discovers his own poverty, which enables him to recognize others who are poor. He is faithful to God’s law and keeps the commandments, but for him this is not enough. He can show practical concern for the poor because he has personally known what it is to be poor. His advice to Tobias thus becomes his true testament: “Do not turn your face away from anyone who is poor” (4:7). In a word, whenever we encounter a poor person, we cannot look away, for that would prevent us from encountering the face of the Lord Jesus. ...

We are living in times that are not particularly sensitive to the needs of the poor. The pressure to adopt an affluent lifestyle increases, while the voices of those dwelling in poverty tend to go unheard. We are inclined to neglect anything that varies from the model of life set before the younger generation, those who are most vulnerable to the cultural changes now taking place. We disregard anything that is unpleasant or causes suffering, and exalt physical qualities as if they were the primary goal in life. Virtual reality is overtaking real life, and increasingly the two worlds blend into one. The poor become a film clip that can affect us for a moment, yet when we encounter them in flesh and blood on our streets, we are annoyed and look the other way. Haste, by now the daily companion of our lives, prevents us from stopping to help care for others. The parable of the Good Samaritan (cf. Lk 10:25-37) is not simply a story from the past; it continues to challenge each of us in the here and now of our daily lives. It is easy to delegate charity to others, yet the calling of every Christian is to become personally involved.

Let us thank the Lord that so many men and women are devoted to caring for the poor and the excluded; they are persons of every age and social status who show understanding and readiness to assist the marginalized and those who suffer. They are not superheroes but “next door neighbours,” ordinary people who quietly make themselves poor among the poor. They do more than give alms: they listen, they engage, they try to understand and deal with difficult situations and their causes. They consider not only material but also spiritual needs; and they work for the integral promotion of individuals. The Kingdom of God becomes present and visible in their generous selfless service. …

On this, the 60th anniversary of the encyclical Pacem in Terris, we do well to take to heart the following words of Pope St. John XXIII: “Every human being enjoys the right to life, to bodily integrity and to the means necessary for the proper development of life, including food, clothing, shelter, medical care, rest and, finally, the necessary social services. In consequence, every individual has the right to be looked after in the event of ill health; disability stemming from work; widowhood and forced unemployment; as well as in other cases when, through no fault of his own, he or she is deprived of the means of livelihood” (ed. Carlen, No. 11).

How much still needs to be done for this to become a reality, not least through a serious and effective commitment on the part of political leaders and
legislators. …

The Book of Tobit teaches us to be realistic and practical in whatever we do with and for the poor. This is a matter of justice; it requires us to seek out and find one another, in order to foster the harmony needed for the community to feel itself as such. Caring for the poor is more than simply a matter of a hasty hand-out; it calls for reestablishing the just interpersonal relationships that poverty harms. In this way, “not turning our face away from anyone who is poor” leads us to enjoy the benefits of mercy and charity that give meaning and value to our entire Christian
life. …