In Charity: The Place of the Poor in the Biblical Tradition, University of Notre Dame theologian Gary A. Anderson challenges Protestants to take seriously the biblical commands—and promises—about giving to those in need.
Nineteenth-century evangelicals were noted for their devotion to the poor. (Wesleyan denominations such as the Free Methodist Church and the Salvation Army were born out of this passion). But when it came to the poor, 20th-century evangelicals needed a kick in the keister. Future CT editor Carl Henry did that with The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism (1947). So did Evangelicals for Social Action founder Ron Sider with Cry Justice: The Bible on Hunger and Poverty (1980), an overwhelming 220-page compendium of Bible texts.
With their help we learned that the Bible does not ignore poverty, hunger, and the poor. But despite the reawakening of evangelical social justice consciousness in the past few decades, we still need help reading the texts with biblical eyes.
Anderson's book offers a glimpse of what giving to the poor meant to Jews in the centuries before Jesus' birth. It doesn't provide the comprehensive survey that its subtitle might suggest, but it does plow a new furrow that will be helpful both to those who are called to preach about giving to the poor and to those who are called to give (all of us).
'He Who Is Kind to the Poor'
Anderson's new furrow begins in a field unfamiliar to most evangelicals. He examines the way intertestamental Jewish writers applied the message of Proverbs 19:17: "He who is kind to the poor lends to the Lord and will be repaid in full." During the Second Temple period, writers such as Ben Sira equate giving sacrifices at the temple with giving alms to the poor. Not only does Ben Sira give alms and temple sacrifices equal weight, he says that only by adding generosity toward the poor to the prescribed temple gifts will the faithful Jew's "blessing … be complete" (7:29-36).
Anderson argues similarly from the narrative structure of Tobit: offering Temple sacrifices and giving to the poor are equally demanded of the faithful Jew. Both are a form of giving to God, and in the case of almsgiving, the divine banker holds the gifts in a heavenly treasury and thus guarantees a reward for the faithful—if not in this life, in the day of final reckoning. Tobit teaches that when the faithful Jew is away from the Temple, almsgiving is the righteous alternative to Temple sacrifice. Thus at least 250 years before the Second Temple was destroyed (A.D. 70), a key Jewish thinker anticipated the problem that would face Jews when they could no longer sacrifice. After the Roman destruction of Jerusalem, Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai famously comforted one of his followers thus:
Be not grieved, my son. There is another equally meritorious way of gaining ritual atonement, even though the Temple is destroyed. We can still gain ritual atonement through deeds of loving-kindness. For it is written, "deeds of charity I desire, and not sacrifice" (Hosea 6:6).
This kind of thinking was perpetuated by prominent teachers in the early church: Hebrews labels "sharing what you have … sacrifices that are pleasing to God" (13:16). John Chrysostom equated the poor beggar on the street corner with the altar in the church. Believers, he advised, should sacrifice on both kinds of altar.
This should not surprise us given the way Jesus himself described feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and visiting those in prison as acts of charity to himself. If giving to the poor is giving to the Son of Man (Matthew 25:31-46), then such acts of charity are sacramental, these church fathers seem to be saying. That is, giving alms to the poor is one of the ways that we meet God. Just as the early church perceived Christ as present to the church through the bread of Communion, so also they understood Christ present in the poor. Basil of Caesarea also taught that it is God, and not just the beggar, who receives our alms. And Irenaeus of Lyon treats what we give God at the Christian altar and what we give the poor in the same terms: God does not need these gifts but he takes them to himself in order to reward us later.
The Treasurer in Heaven
There is a further notion at work here: aid to the poor is not just a gift to God, it is also a loan that he will repay. So says Proverbs 19. But in the Second Temple period, the idea arises that we can store up treasure in heaven by giving to the poor. This notion reverberates loudly in Jesus' teaching. He tells his followers to give alms in secret. Those who give with great display already have their reward, he says, but those who give secretly will be rewarded by the Father who sees in secret. After making similar comments about praying and fasting without drawing attention, he urges his followers to lay up for themselves "treasure in heaven" (Matt. 6:19-24). Here Jesus develops intertestamental Jewish thought by emphasizing that God rewards those who fast, pray, and give away from the public eye.
Similar language about treasure in heaven pops up in Mark 10, where Jesus tells the "rich young ruler" to sell his possessions and give them to the poor in order to have "treasure in heaven." Ironically, he points the young man to heaven by directing his gaze toward the poor.
In that passage, the subject shifts away from God rewarding private giving. After all, when a rich man gives everything to the poor, it is inevitably a very public event. Instead, Jesus here identifies giving to the poor with the way of the cross. Mark sandwiches this story between two passages in which Jesus shocks his followers by predicting his death and resurrection. In both contexts he states the now familiar paradox that "anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all." Giving to the poor becomes part of the paradoxical way of the cross: The only way to save our lives is to lose them (Mark 8:35).
Treasure in heaven implies a heavenly treasury in which wealth is deposited and from which the faithful follower will be repaid with interest. "No one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospel will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age: homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and fields—along with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life" (10:29-30).
That God rewards those who share with the poor and build up "treasure" with him is echoed outside the Gospels. In Acts, for example, we encounter two noted givers who receive special divine reward: Tabitha (Dorcas) who was noted for her ministry to the poor was the first Jesus follower to be raised from the dead, and the notably generous Cornelius, was the first Gentile to receive the Holy Spirit.
Problems for Protestants?
Anderson worries that Protestants will have a problem with this teaching about reward. Many, he believes, teach salvation by mental assent and are discomfited by any attempt to link salvation to good works. As a former Protestant, he is eager to straighten out those who want to denude faith of its behavioral components. The problem here is not the Protestant Reformers. When Luther's fellow Reformers thought he might be divorcing faith from action, he responded that "faith is a piece of hypocrisy if it does not produce works."
Anderson also believes that Protestant discomfort with good works has been reinforced by Immanuel Kant's dubious idea that "no act could be moral … if it was prompted by self-interest." Thus Protestants tend to avoid any talk about God rewarding us for doing good. But, says Anderson, to hitch the moral nature of the act to the moral status of our intentions is to miss what Proverbs was talking about. The focus in Proverbs 19, he says, is not on the moral status of the one who gives to the poor but on the moral nature of the universe in which we do our giving. It is God's universe of God's making, and it functions by God's laws. Acts have consequences and good acts have good consequences that will not be lost. God will ultimately repay the loan.
If we believe that God is who he says he is and that the world is the kind of place he intended it to be, then charitable actions are ways to believe. Good deeds are not simply a testimony to the believer's faith, but they are acts of believing.
Every loan is a way of exercising trust and faith, an act of belief that the debtor has the capacity and the good will to repay the debt. Lending to God also requires us to exercise faith. The root meaning of our word creditor, Anderson points out, is believer. And so when we give to the poor, we are believing God and his promises.
As a Catholic convert, Anderson is eager to show that this teaching about treasure in heaven is historically the basis for his church's teaching about the superabundant good works of the saints providing a treasury of merit from which God is able to transfer to make up the deficits of other believers. As such, it is also the precursor of the doctrine of Purgatory. That may have been the historical progression, but his biblical argument for the truth of these teachings is weak. There are biblical hints that God will treat some well out of his love for their ancestors or their neighbors. But that does not go very far to establish the idea that God will make withdrawals from the First Heavenly Bank of the Saints in order to top up the accounts of others. When Anderson points to biblical hints about the transferability of merit, not a single one is drawn from the New Testament. Certainly there is no warrant for any devotional practices that obscure the truth that salvation comes freely from God and is not in any way paid for by human effort.
Righteous Deeds in a Righteous Universe
Despite his pro-Catholic agenda, Anderson gives his non-Catholic readers important themes to think about. First, that the Christian life is a way of believing in the goodness of God's universe, of trusting its moral order and believing that God's justice does repay the good his people do. This is to shift the way we think about good deeds away from salvation and toward the way that faith embodies itself in action. Anderson quotes Efrem of Syria: "You issued the loan so as to believe." The act of charity is often a way of believing.
Second, almsgiving is a way of meeting Christ. When I came to work at Christianity Today in 1985, Baptist sociologist and evangelist Tony Campolo was being called a heretic for teaching the sheep-and-goats judgment parable of Matthew 25 too literally. Campus Crusade's Bill Bright cancelled Tony's speech at a joint Crusade-Youth for Christ event because there was noisy opposition from some Illinois pastors. (Let it be noted that YFC president Jay Kesler supported Campolo when Bright cancelled his talk.) Campolo claimed that Christ is mystically present in every person we encounter—particularly in the poor. The poor do not merely represent Christ, Campolo taught, but he is actually present to us through them. Former CT editor Kenneth Kantzer and I interviewed Campolo about the controversy for two hours. Eventually, Kantzer and several other theologians called Campolo confused and confusing but well-intentioned.
Having now read Anderson's (and Chrysostom's and Irenaeus's) argument that charity is sacramental, I wonder if CT shouldn't have more vigorously supported Campolo. The church speaks about the sacramental presence of Christ in the Eucharist in a variety of ways. We broadly recognize the truth of Christ's presence but (today, at least) are willing to embrace as orthodox those who hold a variety of beliefs about it. (The one thing that is not orthodox, I believe, is to say that Christ is not present in the Eucharist. The one thing that "This is my body" cannot mean is "This is not my body.")
Can we not—with a similar tolerance for a range of understandings—also find a way to recognize Christ's mystical presence to us through the poor and channel the power of that recognition into a renewed devotion to laying up treasure in heaven?
David Neff is the former editor in chief of Christianity Today.
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