By CACKIE UPCHURCH, Director of Little Rock Scripture Study | Published May 26, 2016 | En Español
This is the sixth column in a 13-part series.
When Father James Brockman, SJ, died in 1999, his funeral Mass was here in the Diocese of Little Rock. At the time, he had been serving as director for the Office of Hispanic Ministry. He had previously served in Central America and was considered an expert on the life and writings of Archbishop Oscar Romero. Father Jim was a brilliant and, at the same time, simple man who loved serving the poor.
When the church filled with the strains of Psalm 34 at his funeral, the refrain came alive for many of us in a new way: “The Lord hears the cry of the poor. Blessed be the Lord.”
When God hears, God acts. The church pews were filled with dignitaries and with those who were living on the fringes. Through Father Jim, God did indeed hear the poor and acted on their behalf. They loved him in return, and because of him they knew God’s love in their own lives.
Hearing the cry of the poor is a way of describing God’s mercy. One of the earliest testimonies of God hearing the poor is found in the early chapters of Exodus. The Israelites were in bondage and finally cried out — they could take no more.
“God heard their moaning and God was mindful of his covenant with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. God saw the Israelites, and God knew …” (Exodus 2:24). That’s when God called on Moses to present to Pharaoh the divine mandate to free his people.
Most of the prophetic literature in our Bibles is a testament to God’s finely tuned sense of hearing. In the midst of major geo-political shifts of power in the ancient Near East, Israel and Judah were often too busy playing politics to attend to the requirements of their covenant with God.
As a result, their fidelity to God was tested and their ability to act with justice toward the poor was found wanting. When the poor cried out for God’s mercy, who could God call on to act on their behalf?
Sometimes the prophets, speaking for God, would recount the misdeeds of God’s people and place their sin before them. Consider this example: “There is no fidelity, no loyalty, no knowledge of God in the land … therefore the land dries up, and everything that dwells in it languishes” (Hosea 4:1, 3). This was not for the purpose of simply shaming them but of calling them into a stance of repentance and conversion.
“Come, let us return to the Lord, for it is he who has torn, but he will heal us; he has struck down, but he will bind our wounds” (Hosea 6:1). Only when they realized their own poverty were they open to repentance and to receiving the mercy they also needed to share.
At one point in history, when the nation of Judah was defeated by the Babylonian forces, many of the most influential Jews around Jerusalem were sent into an exile that lasted 70 years.
A portion of the book we know as Isaiah reflects the period when the exile was coming to an end and the children and grandchildren of the original exiles would be allowed to return to Jerusalem. “Sing out, heavens, and rejoice, earth … for the Lord comforts his people and shows mercy to his afflicted” (Isaiah 49:13). The time for chastising was over, now was the time for comfort and encouragement.
The prophet Isaiah appealed to the imagination of those whose exile was ending with the image of a mother and her child. If God’s people could not believe they were worthy of rescue or if they felt they had been forgotten while off in Babylon, the prophet assured them otherwise in Isaiah 49:15-16:
“Can a mother forget her infant,
be without tenderness for the child of her womb?
Even should she forget,
I will never forget you.
See, upon the palms of my hands I have engraved you.”
Yes, the Lord hears the cry of the poor. The expectation for those in covenant with God is that they — we — would do likewise. In the end, when friends gather, as they did for Father Jim’s funeral, their voices may bear testimony that once again God has heard and acted with mercy through us.
Can you think of someone you know whose life gives testimony to how God used them to respond to those in need? What characteristics do you notice in that person’s life?
In what parts of our society do you believe the voices of the poor may be crying out to be heard in a special way at this time?
Prayerfully read through Psalm 34. When you think of “the poor” or “the afflicted” in our time, who are they? Substitute their names or faces when you read through a second time and lift up their needs to God.
Read the assurance God God’s love found in Isaiah 49:15-16. What obstacles do we sometimes place in the way of receiving such loving mercy?
This article was originally published in Arkansas Catholic May 14, 2016. Copyright Diocese of Little Rock. All rights reserved. This article may be copied or redistributed with acknowledgement and permission of the publisher.