“Les Misérables” is a popular musical that was also made into a movie in 2012. The musical, movie and also several plays are adaptations of Victor Hugo’s book by the same title. In English, the title is translated as “The Wretched,” “The Miserable Ones” or “the Poor Ones.” The work describes the plight of those who have had hard times in life. Some were hungry, some were treated unjustly, some were lonely, homeless, unemployed or destitute.
The triumphant finale of the musical points with hope to a future where the poor will be saved and led to a new home where their present plight is banished:
Do you hear the people sing
Lost in the valley of the night?
It is the music of a people
Who are climbing to the light.
For the wretched of the earth
There is a flame that never dies.
Even the darkest night will end
And the sun will rise.
They will live again in freedom
In the garden of the Lord.
They will walk behind the plowshare
They will put away the sword.
The chain will be broken
And all men will have their reward!
The words capture a theme well familiar to us as Catholics. We believe that this world will be transformed into a new world, a New Jerusalem, where the chains that bind us will be loosed and all the suffering we experience in this life will be transformed.
We are reminded today of the God’s concern for the poor and afflicted: his people, who suffer. He has a great concern for them and a love “beyond all telling” for them.
Jesus witnesses to and personifies this love. In his earthly ministry, he reached out to the poor, the sick, the outcasts, the sinners, the tax-collectors and the unwanted. We read, time and time again in the pages of the Gospels, of Jesus’ love. He was so committed to the poor that he emptied himself completely on the cross. In his resurrection, he raises up all who are bowed down and bestows on them the promise of life.
Jesus’ concern for the poor is rooted in and flows from the Father’s compassion for the poor. When Jesus is asked what is the greatest of the commandments, he replies quoting the Shema from the Book of Deuteronomy: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.”
Then he adds that the second greatest commandment is like the first and quotes Leviticus 19:18: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” In this summation of the Law, Jesus binds the love of God with love of neighbor. This is the Law given by God to Israel. The two are so tightly bound together that they cannot be separated. St. John will reflect on this writing: “We love because he first loved us. If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ but hates his brother, he is a liar; for whoever does not love a brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen. This is the commandment we have from him: whoever loves God must also love his brother.”
In the Lucan version of this Gospel passage, Jesus is further asked, “Who then is my neighbor?” He replies with the story of the Good Samaritan. The love of God is experienced in love of neighbor, especially the poor, afflicted and needy.
The first reading for today’s liturgy, from the Book of Exodus, emphasize the Lord’s concern for the alien and the poor. So strong is the concern that the Lord says if they are violated or mistreated His vengeance will come upon the perpetrator. Other parts of Scripture as well emphasize the Lord’s concern for the suffering. Proverbs 21:13 reads, “Those who shut their ears to the cry of the poor will themselves call out and not be answered.”
Psalm 34 sings the praises of the Lord who hears the cry of the poor: “My soul will glory in the Lord; let the poor hear and be glad. Magnify the Lord with me; and let us exalt his name together. I sought the Lord, and he answered me, delivered me from all my fears. Look to him and be radiant, and your faces my not blush for shame. This poor one cried out and the Lord heard, and from all his distress he saved him” (Ps 34:3-5).
St. Paul extols the church in Thessalonica for their faithfulness and love of God, even amid great affliction. The people remained steadfast in their love turning from the worship of idols “to serve the living and true God and to await his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus, who delivers us from the coming wrath.” The praise of the church is for their faithfulness to the Lord. The communion inspires us today to the same faithfulness in the love of God and neighbor.
The love that God has for us, especially for the poor and needy, is reflected in the two-fold command of love of God and neighbor. From the Christian standpoint, we share in this love through union with the Son of God. In this communion we enter into the life of divine love. Through this communion, God reaches out to others to share in this love. He uses the faithful followers of his son to carry on the work of love.
Last Sunday was World Mission Sunday where we recognize and support the church’s missions around the world, who probably provide more aid and assistance to the poor than any other body on Earth. Today we are reminded that we too share in this mission of love. Christ works in us to bring relief to the suffering, the oppressed, the hungry, the thirsty, the imprisoned, the outcast and the jobless right in our own families, neighborhoods, and society. In the words of St. Theresa of Avila:
“Christ has no body now but yours. No hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes through which he looks compassion on this world. Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good. Yours are the hands through which he blesses all the world. Yours are the hands, yours are the feet, yours are the eyes, you are his body. Christ has no body now on earth but yours.”
Msgr. Joseph Prior is pastor of Our Lady of Grace Parish, Penndel, and a former professor of Sacred Scripture and rector of St. Charles Borromeo Seminary.
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