December 12: “Cuando el Pobre” (When the Poor Ones)

And the crowds asked [John the Baptizer], “What then should we do?” In reply he said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what should we do?” He said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what should we do?” He said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.”

Luke 3:10-14

Comfort is mixed up with urgency again in this week’s lectionary. Zephaniah promises respite from the foreign invaders sweeping through Israel and Judah, while John warns that it’s time for his followers to get serious about turning their repentance into action (“you brood of vipers!”). There are simple actions that soldiers, tax collectors, and wealthy people can take to create a more just world — and in some places, those who are least able to afford those actions are already taking them.

The text and music of “Cuando el pobre” (“When the Poor Ones”) were written by José Antonio Olivar and Miguel Manzano, a pair of Spanish priests, for use in their Spanish-speaking Catholic congregations sometime after the Second Vatican Council. The hymn does not mention Jesus, but in its verses, it alludes to the description of the Last Judgment in Matthew 25, where Jesus says that those who helped the hungry, the thirsty, the sick, the imprisoned, and the stranger helped Jesus himself. There is a twist in this hymn, though: the people who help those in need are in need themselves. The thirsty pass the cup, the wounded heal, the poor are generous. The refrain may be a reference to the Emmaus Road journey in Luke, in which Jesus appears to two disciples as a fellow traveler. Multiple English translations of “Cuando el pobre” are in use across various Protestant hymnals today. If your congregation sings primarily in English, you may notice differences between these translations, some of which fit the melody better than others. 

In today’s gospel reading, the people ask John the Baptizer what they should do in the face of God’s sacred pruning. In response, John offers simple ways for everyone to help create a more just world. Even tax collectors and Roman soldiers can change how they behave toward others in their occupations. “Cuando el pobre” echoes this simple-yet-challenging turn toward just action. As a gentle melody folds sorrow and hope into the same breath, singers are invited into the work of God’s justice, following the leadership of some of society’s most marginalized people. Our engagement in God’s justice prepares the way of Christ, smooths the Advent highway, and reveals how deeply our world needs the fullness of Christ’s grace, mercy, and healing.

Bulletin version: “Cuando el pobre” (“When the Poor Ones”) was originally written in Spanish and resonates with the liberation theology of the twentieth century. Its words invite singers to observe generosity, kindness, and compassion among some of society’s most marginalized people before inviting singers to participate in the same spirit of generosity. Listen for similarities to John the Baptist’s message to the tax collectors and soldiers in today’s gospel.

Resources: You can learn more about this hymn in Paul Westermeyer’s Hymnal Companion to Evangelical Lutheran Worship (Augsburg Fortress, 2010), in C. Michael Hawn’s “History of Hymns: ‘When the Poor Ones’” (https://www.umcdiscipleship.org/resources/history-of-hymns-when-the-poor-ones), and in Diana Sanchez-Bushong’s “History of Hymns: ‘Cuando el pobre’” (https://www.umcdiscipleship.org/resources/history-of-hymns-cuando-el-pobre). 

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