Arch Bishops Message

For a Christian, service to the poor and needy is not an optional matter. In a way it is his\her first and greatest religious duty. We have it from the mouth of Jesus himself. Once a Pharisee, an expert in Jewish law, asked Jesus a question to test him. “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest? He said to him, you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the greatest and first commandment. And the second is like it: You shall love your neighbour as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets” (Mt. 22:35-40). When that lawyer wanted to test Jesus further and asked him who his neighbour was, in answer Jesus told him the parable of the Good Samaritan. Through that parable Jesus made two things very clear: first, that the dynamic form of love is service or in simple words, love in action is service; second, that neighbour is not merely someone who lives next door or someone who belongs to my religious tradition, but any needy person, irrespective of his/her sex, colour, creed and nationality (See Luke 10:25-37)

I said that in a way service to the poor and needy is a Christian’s first and greatest religious duty. I deliberately used the phrase ‘in a way’ because, strictly speaking and in the order of priority, rendering loving service to God is our first and greatest duty. But God is Spirit and we cannot see him with our physical eyes. So what service can we render him? Jesus gives us the answer. In St. Mathew’s Gospel we hear Jesus saying: When you fed the hungry, clothed the naked, gave water to the thirsty, took care of the sick, welcomed the strangers and visited the prisoners, you did it to me. And when you neglected them, then you neglected me (see Mt 25:35-43). These words of Jesus make it abundantly clear that service rendered to the poor and needy is service rendered to God.

According to the Bible, service to the poor and needy is a sure way to salvation. Once a rich young man came to Jesus and said: “Teacher what must I do to have eternal life?” Jesus said to him, “If you wish to be perfect, go and sell what you own and give the money to the poor...then come and follow me” (see Mt 19:16-21). Eternal life is for those who care and share. The Bible says that on the judgment day, people will receive eternal life or eternal death based on the response they have given to the poor and needy. Those who have met the needs of the poor and needy will inherit eternal life in heaven while those who have neglected them will receive eternal punishment in hell. St. John of the Cross, a great Christian mystic, puts it well: In the evening of your life you will be judged by love.” He is speaking about a love that is made fruitful in service. One of the landmark councils of the Church, Vatican II, says: “The Christian who shirks his temporal duties towards his neighbour, neglects God himself, and endangers his eternal salvation” (G.S 43).

Service to the poor and needy is not only the way to a heaven beyond this world but also the way to enjoy heaven in this world. Heaven is where God is. To see God or Christ in another, to love and care for another, is already to be in heaven. Life lived in awareness of the presence of God is a foretaste of heaven. When we turn our backs on the needs of others, we fail to recognize Jesus, and we are in hell at that moment, for hell is not to love. To put it more clearly, heaven and hell are not simply ultimate destinations on the other side of death. In any moment of our life, heaven and hell can touch us.

Service to the poor and needy is so central to Christianity that it can be used as a yardstick to measure the depth of one’s religious life or spiritual life. An authentic Christian, for that matter a true follower of any religious tradition, cannot but attend to the needs of the poor and need. In the First Letter of John we hear John say: “Those who say, I love God, and hate their brothers or sisters are liars; for those who do not love their brothers and sisters whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen” ( 1 Jn 4:20). St. James tells us very bluntly that a faith that does not impel people to undertake works of mercy and love is a bogus faith, a dead faith. He says: “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? …If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill, and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead” (James, 2:14-17). Service is the touchstone of our faith and love.

Jesus, the incarnate God, came as the one who serves. This is what he said about himself: ”…the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mt 20:28). He described his mission as service to the poor and to all those who are struggling to live a full and dignified human life. In the Synagogue at Nazareth Jesus said: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour” (Lk 4:18-19). If the Lord himself claimed the poor as his own and worked for their salvation, then his followers have no choice but imitate him.

There is a misconception that rendering service to the poor and needy is a one-way traffic. We give and they receive. We are puffed up with feelings of pride and superiority and we expect them to be grateful to us. But the fact is that they too give us much. They challenge us to be fully human. They stir our conscience and help to bring out the best in us. The increase or decrease in the number of poor people, marginalized people, oppressed people, victims of injustice, etc., will tell us if our human family is heading towards self-destruction or towards the Kingdom of God. For both Quantum theory and mystical experiences of religious people force us to see the universe as a web or network of relations between the various parts of a unified whole. Whatever damage we cause to one part of the universe affects the whole. This is also true of the human family. If one suffers, we all suffer; if one hurts, we all hurt. It is in interest of one and all that we serve the poor and the needy.

Raphy Manjaly
Archbishop of Agra

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