The least of these – 23 November 2020
On a very cold winter day, women and children are queuing for free bread. They are wearing patched clothing, and carrying empty baskets and pails. These empty vessels indicate their lack of basic provisions and empty stomachs. One single, disembodied hand is passing a loa of bread out to them, from within the pillars of the building on the left. This is yesterday’s bread; now stale, the baker is giving it away only because he cannot sell it. The need of the people far outstrips the provision of this meagre charity.
The setting, Karl Johan Street in Oslo, is almost deserted, A policeman, wearing a heavy coat and fur hat, walks in the distance, down the middle of the icy street, detached from the scene. With no people to dispense alms, the poor have to search for what they need.
The painting, The Struggle for Survival, (1889) is by the Norwegian naturalist artist, Christian Krohg. Here he depicts poor people who are demanding and have agency. They push for attention because they are hungry. It is not sufficient to construct an image of the poor as passive, those to whom good and charitable works are done. The painting places their needs before the viewer, and a response is required.
“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink?’
We may think of the poor simply as the beneficiaries of our occasional volunteer work, or of impromptu acts of generosity that appease our conscience. However good and useful such acts may be for making us sensitive to people’s needs and the injustices that are often their cause, they ought to lead to a true encounter with the poor and a sharing that becomes a way of life.
Let us, then, take as our example Saint Francis and his witness of authentic poverty. Precisely because he kept his gaze fixed on Christ, Francis was able to see and serve him in the poor. If we want to help change history and promote real development, we need to hear the cry of the poor and commit ourselves to ending their marginalization. At the same time, I ask the poor in our cities and our communities not to lose the sense of evangelical poverty that is part of their daily life.
Pope Francis, 2017