Nobody gets to heaven without a letter of reference from the poor!”

Father Ron Rolheiser wrote these words 20 years ago. I just caught up to them a few days ago.  I scrapped what I was going to write so I could share what touched me.

 His starting point

The great prophets of Israel had, in effect,  coined this mantra: The quality of your faith will be judged by the quality of justice in the land. And the quality of justice in the land will always be judged by how “widows, orphans, and strangers” are faring while you are alive.

That phrase, “widows, orphans, and strangers”, was code for the three weakest, most-vulnerable groups in society at the time.

For the great prophets of Israel, ultimately, we will be judged religiously and morally on the basis of how the poorest of the poor fared while we were alive.

He unpacks significance for today

 That’s a scary thought which becomes scarier when we see how Jesus strongly endorsed that view.

We have in Matthew’s Gospel the famous text about the Last Judgment where Jesus tells us that, at the end of the day, when we stand before the great King on the day of judgment, we will be asked only one set of questions and they all will have to do with how we treated the poor:

  • Did you feed the hungry?
  • Give drink to the thirsty?
  • Welcome the stranger?
  • Clothe the naked?
  • Visit the sick?
  • Visit prisoners?  

I doubt that any of us would have the raw courage to preach this, just as it is written in the gospels, from any pulpit today.  And yet Jesus meant it. Nobody gets to heaven without a letter of reference from the poor.

The challenges he sees


The demand to live lives that reflect justice and real concern for the poor is an integral and non-negotiable part of Christian discipleship.

It’s not something that is grounded in some particular ideology which I can buy into or neglect, as long as I am living honestly and prayerfully in my private life.

It’s an essential part of the gospel, equal in demand to praying, going to church, and keeping my private moral life in order.

For a Christian, it is not enough just to be pious, good, and church-going. We need too a concrete letter of reference from the poor.


What that mantra of the prophets and Jesus’ teaching on the Last Judgment also teaches is that charity alone is not enough.

I can be a wonderfully charitable, kind, moral, and generous person in my own life and still be unfairly profiting from an historical, social, political, and economic system that is unduly rewarding me even as it is unfairly burdening and robbing others.

The things that I attain honestly through my own hard work and which I am very generous with in terms of sharing with others, can at the same time be the product of a system which is unfair to others.


  • Am I actually reaching out to the poor?
  • Do I have real “orphans, widows, and strangers” in my life?
  • Is my commitment to the poor something only in theory, an ideal that I uphold but something that never actually impacts the poor?

With Ruth Burrows he asks:

Does our rhetoric about the poor actually help them or does it just help us feel better about ourselves?

A single letter of reference from the poor is better than no letter at all.

Click below fo an early audio version of this Vincentian Mindwalk