Charity: The Place of the Poor in the Biblical Tradition

Charity: The Place of the Poor in the Biblical Tradition

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by Gary A. Anderson

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It has long been acknowledged that Jews and Christians distinguished themselves through charity to the poor. Though ancient Greeks and Romans were also generous, they funded theaters and baths rather than poorhouses and orphanages. How might we explain this difference? In this significant reappraisal of charity in the biblical tradition, Gary Anderson… See more details below


It has long been acknowledged that Jews and Christians distinguished themselves through charity to the poor. Though ancient Greeks and Romans were also generous, they funded theaters and baths rather than poorhouses and orphanages. How might we explain this difference? In this significant reappraisal of charity in the biblical tradition, Gary Anderson argues that the poor constituted the privileged place where Jews and Christians met God. Though concerns for social justice were not unknown to early Jews and Christians, the poor achieved the importance they did primarily because they were thought to be “living altars,” a place to make a sacrifice, a loan to God that he, as the ultimate guarantor, could be trusted to repay in turn. Contrary to the assertions of Reformation and modern critiques, belief in a heavenly treasury was not just about self-interest. Sifting through biblical and postbiblical texts, Anderson shows how charity affirms the goodness of the created order; the world was created through charity and therefore rewards it.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
The award-winning author of Sin: A History provides another must-read for lay reader and scholar alike, especially those in critical dialogue on how Judeo-Christian biblical values influence the role of the state in caring for the vulnerable. The Greco-Roman empire didn't identify the poor as a priority of the gods. In fact, Roman emperor Julian noted that charity was the defining marker of Christian and Jewish identity, not pagan. How did giving alms and caring for the poor become such a central religious concept? Anderson unpacks the book of Tobit and other biblical literature to reveal a complex and radically countercultural story of how service to the poor became the most privileged way to serve God. "Charity," he argues, "was construed as a loan to God, which was then converted into a form of spiritual currency and stored in an impregnable divine bank." Given the current economic crisis and the low esteem in which our financial industry is held, perhaps "storing up treasure in heaven" by depositing wealth into the hands of the poor is a less volatile economic strategy that offers greater long-term security for all. (Aug.)
Matthew Levering

“Gary Anderson brilliantly illuminates the true place of almsgiving in the biblical and post-biblical tradition. His extraordinary, bold book changes entire fields of Christian theology and biblical scholarship once and for all.”—Matthew Levering, University of Dayton
Markus Bockmuehl

“Characteristically learned and wide-ranging, this book is a fascinating and timely call to revisit inherited assumptions about the sacramental connection between grace and charity.”— Markus Bockmuehl, University of Oxford
Christian Century - Matthew L. Skinner

“Wide-ranging and engaging”—Matthew L. Skinner, Christian Century
Christian Century - Greg Carey

“Ambitious . . . formidable . . . remarkably lucid."—Greg Carey, Christian Century

“Unquestionably learned [and] insightful . . . an encouraging work of interreligious scholarship.”—John P. Langan, America
Christianity Today - Award of Merit

Won an Award of Merit for the 2014 Christianity Today Book Award competition in the category of Biblical Studies.
The Tablet - Hilmar M. Pabel
“[Anderson's] study . . . persuasively emphasises the spiritual and theological value of charitable works and may deepen the commitment of readers to embrace ‘all peoples and all needs’ within the divine economy of charity.”—Hilmar M. Pabel, The Tablet
Religion News Service

Named one of the 10 Best Religion Books of 2013 by Religion News Service
America - John P. Langan

“Unquestionably learned [and] insightful. . . . An encouraging work of interreligious scholarship.”—John P. Langan, America
Jon D. Levenson

“Accessible, engaging, yet impressively learned, Charity will reward a wide range of readers—religious and secular, Jewish and Christian, scholarly and lay alike. Enthusiastically recommended!”—Jon D. Levenson, Harvard University
First Things - Michael C. Legaspi

“With rich detail and sophisticated analysis, Anderson makes clear that despite superficial similarities, biblical care for the poor is a much more robust and ambitious undertaking than charity’s diminished modern forms.”
—Michael C. Legaspi, First Things
American Academy of Religion - Awards in Excellence

Finalist for the 2014 American Academy of Religion Awards for Excellence in the Study of Religion, in the textual studies category.
Review of Biblical Literature - Timothy J. Sandoval

“Of interest to a wide range of readers . . . intellectually rich . . . engaging . . . [an] expert and stimulating work.”—Timothy J. Sandoval, Review of Biblical Literature
The Catholic Biblical Quarterly - Bonnie Thurston

" . . . Most engaging book both for Jewish-Christian and Roman Catholic-Protestant biblical and theological dialogue. It evinces engaged and laudable wrestling with biblical theology. The book is challenging and charming, full of riches that do profit. If you liked Sin, you will love Charity."—Bonnie Thurston, The Catholic Biblical Quarterly
Walter Brueggemann
Praise for Sin:

“Astonishing . . . compelling. . . . This book merits wide and sustained attention. . . . There are few books available that offer as many generative insights as this one.”—Walter Brueggemann, Christian Century

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The Place of the Poor in the Biblical Tradition



Copyright © 2013 Yale University
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-300-18133-3


The Challenge of Charity

Once upon a time there was a peasant woman and a very wicked woman she was. And she died and did not leave a single good deed behind. The devils caught her and plunged her into the lake of fire. So her guardian angel stood and wondered what good deed of hers he could remember to tell to God; "She once pulled up an onion in her garden," said he, "and gave it to a beggar woman." And God answered: "You take that onion then, hold it out to her in the lake, and let her take hold and be pulled out. And if you can pull her out of the lake, let her come to Paradise, but if the onion breaks, then the woman must stay where she is." The angel ran to the woman and held out the onion to her. "Come," said he, "catch hold and I'll pull you out." He began cautiously pulling her out. He had just pulled her right out, when the other sinners in the lake, seeing how she was being drawn out, began catching hold of her so as to be pulled out with her. But she was a very wicked woman and she began kicking them. "I'm to be pulled out, not you. It's my onion, not yours." As soon as she said that, the onion broke. And the woman fell into the lake and she is burning there to this day. So the angel wept and went away.

—Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov

This book is, in many respects, a natural outgrowth of my previous publication, Sin: A History. In that work I argued that a major shift in thinking about human sin occurs at the end of the Old Testament period. The predominant metaphor for sin, which had been that of a weight that an individual must bear on his back, became that of a debt that must be repaid. This concept is classically expressed in Daniel 4:27, when King Nebuchadnezzar is told that he should be charitable to the poor in order to "redeem himself" from his state of spiritual debt slavery. The idea became quite prominent in the New Testament as is reflected in the words of the Our Father: "Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors" (debts, not trespasses, being the literal translation of the Greek original). Though I spent a couple of chapters outlining the importance of almsgiving in the Judaism of the Second Temple period (from the late sixth century BCE [or BC] until the late first century CE [AD]), the amount of material at hand was far larger than I could do justice to. In this book I will examine in far greater depth the origins of almsgiving as a highly privileged religious act within the nascent religions of Judaism and Christianity. When I began this project, I had hoped to carry the investigation into the early rabbinic and patristic period, but that proved to be much too ambitious. The material mushrooms in the early Christian era, and a much lengthier second volume would be required to deal with it fully. I will leave that project to another more able hand in early Christian sources. The present book will stick to the Bible and the early history of its interpretation, subjects that I happen to know quite well.

A significant number of books and articles have appeared in recent decades on the subject of early Jewish and Christian almsgiving. I have benefited tremendously from the fervent interest this topic has occasioned. But two things in particular have been underplayed in this rich literature. First, the predominant focus of scholars has been on the practice itself. As a result these studies have often been social-historical in nature. My own interests, however, are more theological. What concerns me is what the writers of this period thought almsgiving told us about the identity of God and the peoples who claimed to worship him. Though this is clearly the dominant interest of our textual sources as well—ancient Christians and Jews wrote so extensively about almsgiving because they thought the practice said something crucial about the character of God and the world he created and sustains—it has been surprisingly understudied. The other element that is lacking is a proper appreciation for the way in which rabbinic and patristic conceptions of charity are grounded in the Second Temple Jewish sources from which they emerge—in particular, the books of Tobit and Ben Sira and the Synoptic Gospels. In this book I intend to redress these two holes in our present knowledge.

The absence of a theological focus in current treatments of almsgiving is probably traceable to two problems. The first concerns the fact that almsgiving funds a treasury in heaven, a treasury that can pay down the debt owed on one's sins. Because this is a fundamental aspect of nearly every ancient work on the subject, it leads many to worry that almsgiving is grounded in the self-interest of the donor. As a result, many morally sensitive persons find it difficult to take this theological proposal seriously. The second challenge follows from the presumption that if almsgiving funds a heavenly treasury, then the hand of the poor provides a privileged port of entry to the realm and, ultimately, being of God. In short, there is a deeply sacramental character to the act. The poor become a necessary and indeed nonnegotiable point of access to the Kingdom of God. This idea, as I will explain below, was hotly contested during the Reformation and led to the overturning of many charitable practices that had been part of the Christian tradition for more than a millennium. Since the field of biblical studies has been shaped to a large degree by Protestant sensibilities, it should not be unduly surprising that traditionally Catholic understandings of the sacramental character of charity would be overlooked by such scholars, either by intention or simply by ignorance. Let me begin with the first problem.

Charity and Self-Interest

Many people find the construal of charity as a means of funding a heavenly treasury something of an embarrassment. It is troubling that assisting the poor seems to be motivated by blatant self-interest. More than one person has wondered whether these texts do not lead inexorably to the rhetoric of the so-called "prosperity Gospel," which preys on the gullible by claiming that tithing will allow one to buy a BMW and pay off one's mortgage all at the same time. Most people are far more comfortable with the teaching of the ancient Jewish sage Antigonus of Socho (second century BCE), who said: "Be not like servants who serve their master on condition of receiving a gift."

But lest we come to a premature judgment, let's examine more fully the scriptural bases of this tradition. They derive for the most part from the book of Proverbs, a central pillar in what biblical scholars are wont to label ancient Israel's "wisdom" literature. To interpret any proverb well, one must be sensitive to the context in which it is to be applied. The challenge for the reader of these wisdom sayings is to determine the specific dimension of human life that they are trying to address. For our purposes the most important proverb of all reads: "The treasuries of wickedness provide no benefit, but almsgiving delivers from death" (Prov 10:2).

The question that stands behind this proverb is how we ought best save for the future—a question that has concerned human beings for centuries. Imagine that by some happy accident you have become heir to an enormous sum of money. Rather than giving in to the urge to spend it immediately, you ponder how these funds might be invested to provide an endowment for the future. In front of you are two advisers: one is a conventional financial analyst who urges you to invest in a broadly diversified set of index funds that would stand an excellent chance of providing you with a secure retirement at the age of sixty-five. The other person is a religious saint, or tsaddiq, who argues that God created the world out of charity and as a result true prosperity depends on finding a way to ride with those currents. Fund your heavenly treasury by being generous to the poor, he advises. Though it is technically correct that this religious person would be building on your natural inclination for self-preservation, the act of funding such a treasury could hardly be considered self-interested in the simple sense of the term. Compared with what the financial analyst can promise, imitating the generosity of God would seem to be fraught with far greater risk. Lending to God in this fashion might better be conceived of as a means for the religious believer to enact what he professes, putting his money where his mouth is.

I would like to suggest that this way of reading these proverbs provides us with a deeper set of insights about the world than that of Antigonus of Socho. For however salutary it may be to serve a master without thought of a reward, most of us would want to know what kind of master we are called to serve who would merit such dedication. There is a deeper human desire to know and believe that the world is a place formed and guided by charity, that giving to one's neighbor is not just a Kantian "duty" but a declaration about the metaphysical structure of the world itself. Charity, in short, is not just a good deed but a declaration of belief about the world and the God who created it.

Why is it, one might ask, that the life of Mother Teresa moved so many people?—and not just Christians, but Muslims, Hindus, Jews, and even nonbelievers. I would suggest that her popularity rests in the fact that she enacted the sort of faith that most can only dream of. But I would also want to contend that it is not just her faith that attracts our admiration, but the statement that her life makes about the nature of the world. Though all appearances would suggest that it is the financial markets that make the world go round, saints like Mother Teresa make a powerful counterclaim. In serving the poor, they not only provide concrete material help to the down and out, but they reveal to us the hidden structure of the universe.

Steven Pinker, a professor of psychology at Harvard, wrote an article in the New York Times Magazine to express dismay that the world showers such esteem on Mother Teresa in light of the far greater good that Bill and Melinda Gates have done. Gates, Pinker writes, "crunched the numbers and determined that he could alleviate the most misery by fighting everyday scourges in the developing world like malaria, diarrhea and parasites." Pinker never explained how he knows that the Gateses established their foundation on such utilitarian considerations. Perhaps the Gateses' motivations were quite different.

But whatever the case might be, utilitarian value is not the only index for measuring the accomplishments of charity. For however much the Gateses might give away, their daily life remains, by and large, unaffected. They remain, in spite of this enormous donation, one of the wealthiest couples in the world. Mother Teresa, on the other hand, gave up everything to serve the poorest of the poor.

Pinker wisely concedes that it is unlikely that his praise for the Gateses will win them more admirers than those of Mother Teresa. But, he claims, this is not because of the profundity of her sacrifice but because "our heads can be turned by an aura of sanctity, distracting us from a more objective reckoning of the actions that make people suffer or flourish" (emphasis mine). Mother Teresa, he asserts, "was the very embodiment of saintliness: white-clad, sad-eyed, ascetic and often photographed with the wretched of the earth." But this is an amazing reduction of the supreme gift she gave her followers. In Pinker's eyes, the world has been taken in by mere appearances: her simple white vestments and the "photo-ops" in which she appears with the poorest of the poor. Amazingly, he lacks any insight as to the true gift she has given the world.

When Mother Teresa started her religious order, the entire premise of the organization was the gift of one's total self to the poor. She refused on principle to establish any kind of endowment that would have relieved the sisters of the order of a total reliance on God and of identifying completely with the poor whom they served. Every day she and her sisters put the success of their work in the hands of God. One well-educated Indian professor of sciences, when asked about her admiration for Mother Teresa, said: "I am an unbeliever, but I feel I need an anchor. Mother Teresa is an anchor."

Whether we are believers or unbelievers, I think it is fair to say that most of us want an account of human goodness that goes deeper than utilitarian calculation. We want to believe that the world is good and, at least in the long run, rewards a life of charity. The holy men and women of the synagogue, church, and mosque help us to do just that. And that is the deep reason why the financial metaphor of funding a treasury in heaven became so significant for ancient Jews and Christians. The important point was not so much what they would gain from charity but what acts of charity say about the character of the world God has created.

Charity as Sacrament

By far the most important text for the early church is found in Matthew 25. It begins at the moment of the last judgment, when all the nations are gathered around the Son of Man and he separates the sheep from the goats. To those at his right he says: "Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me." The righteous are taken completely by surprise and cannot imagine when they had attended to Christ in such a fashion. Christ explains: "Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me." Two points should be gleaned from this text: first, charity to poor has the power to deliver one from eternal damnation (recall the epigraph to this chapter from The Brothers Karamazov), and second, charity acquires such power because one meets Christ through this concrete action of showing mercy. For early Christians this was not just a metaphor; the church proclaimed that one actually encountered the presence of God in the poor. This is evident from the famous story of St. Martin of Tours. One day, as he approached the city Amiens, he was confronted by a beggar. Seeing his ragged condition, Martin was touched and promptly drew his sword, cut his cloak in two, and gave half to the shivering man. That night, he beheld Christ in a dream, and to his astonishment Christ was wearing the portion of his cloak that he had donated out of mercy. In some versions of the story, when Martin woke up the next morning he found the cloak miraculously restored. Portions of the cloak subsequently became highly revered relics that reminded worshipers of this act of mercy and probably prompted them to act similarly toward the needy they encountered.

As the practice of charity took hold in both synagogue and church, it quickly became much more than an affair of righteous individuals. Confraternal organizations took root that assumed responsibilities for various classes of needy individuals. This will come as a surprise to many in our own day who think of organized programs of relief for the poor as the domain of government. But before the early modern period, lay confraternities assumed this role. An enlightening account of the effectiveness of these efforts can be gleaned from Maureen Flynn's excellent book Sacred Charity: Confraternities and Social Welfare in Spain, 1400–1700. These confraternal organizations were diverse, some dedicating themselves to the sick (mentally and physically) and to wayfarers, others to orphans, and still others to young women bereft of a dowry. Perhaps the most famous of all of these is the hospital, an institution unknown in the Roman world and one that owes its existence to the religious virtue of charity. Even today, the legacy of these institutions can be seen. In Judaism, for example, one thinks of the hevrah kadisha, or burial society, that is in charge of attending to the remains of the dead. Many members of this confraternity raced to lower Manhattan after the terrorist attack of September 11, 2001. And in almost any city within the United States one can glean from the names of the various hospitals that some originated (and sometimes are still operated) on religious grounds.

Excerpted from Charity by GARY A. ANDERSON. Copyright © 2013 Yale University. Excerpted by permission of Yale UNIVERSITY PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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