The Importance of Charity in the Bible: Deception and the Parable of the Rich Fool

This is the final post in a short blog series through Gary Anderson’s book, Charity: The Place of the Poor in the Biblical Tradition. Though I don’t believe everything that Anderson argues, the book had enough insights that I wanted to share it with my readers. You can read part one here. You can read part two here

Photo Credit: Karl-Heinz Kasper Flickr via Compfight cc

The Deceptions of Wealth

In the last article I mentioned that Anderson thinks a big obstacle to charity is that we feel financially insecure if we give our money away. Why? Because money deceives us. It gives us a false sense of security. So we horde it, hoping for security and joy.

We falsely believe that money provides security. Of course, we don’t see money as deceptive. We think it is morally neutral. Anderson writes, referencing the character from Tobit:

“Ben Sira does not believe that money is necessarily evil. As Bradley Gregory observes, what is morally significant is how one values it. But at the same time money is not an inert substance, indifferent to the one who possesses it. Rather, wealth exerts an almost eerie power over its possessor such that it is nearly impossible not be possessed by it.” (kindle location 1069)

A wealthy person can be generous. But it’s hard to be truly generous when wealthy. Money can steal your soul; it can make a strong claim on your attention and affections. But you are often not aware of it doing so.

Anderson concludes:

“Having money is tantamount to a spiritual ordeal whose outcome is determined by whether one has the courage to give it away.” (kindle location 1076)

So not only is money not a neutral object, but money can end up being a spiritual test for us. Our money tests where our faith is, where we put our security and hope. We will be much more willing to give the money away if we don’t have our faith, security, or hope in it.

What if you saw your money as a spiritual test or ordeal, testing your courage and faith to give it away? This is what we see in one of Jesus’s better-known parables: the Parable of the Rich Fool.

The Rich Fool (Luke 12)

Anderson’s exegesis of the Parable of the Rich Fool might be the most eye-opening part of his book. In fact, his exegesis is not just of that parable, but he shows how much of Luke 12 comes together to provide a rich view of money and almsgiving, a view that Anderson labors in his book to support.

Anderson wants to us to see Luke 12 in its full context. He writes:

“To interpret the parable of the Rich Fool properly it is important to see how it fits into its larger literary context. Jesus gives two important teachings in this section: first, he addresses the gathered crowd with a parable about the Rich Fool (unit B) who hoarded his money, and then he turns to his disciples and exhorts them not to worry about what they will eat or wear (C). Though these two units are different in focus, Jesus brings them together in his conclusion (D).” (kindle location 1155)

Go ahead. Read Luke 12 and notice these sections:

  • Unit B: Luke 12:13-21
  • Unit C: Luke 12:22-31
  • Unit D: Luke 12:32-34

One thing I appreciate about Anderson’s treatment about the rich fool is that it provides a convincing explanation of the failure of the rich fool. Why was the rich man foolish? The scriptures provide very little that we would consider foolish. There is no description of a lavish lifestyle or a relentless greed; we get no details about the needy or poor being ignored like Jesus’s earlier parable in Luke about the rich man and Lazarus. Instead, we only learn that the rich man had build more storage for goods and rested comfortably in his savings (in a state similar to what we would call “retirement”).

Reread the parable if you have not read it recently. Luke 12:13-21 says:

13 Someone in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.”

14 Jesus replied, “Man, who appointed me a judge or an arbiter between you?” 15 Then he said to them, “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; life does not consist in an abundance of possessions.”

16 And he told them this parable: “The ground of a certain rich man yielded an abundant harvest. 17 He thought to himself, ‘What shall I do? I have no place to store my crops.’

18 “Then he said, ‘This is what I’ll do. I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones, and there I will store my surplus grain. 19 And I’ll say to myself, “You have plenty of grain laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry.”’

20 “But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?’

21 “This is how it will be with whoever stores up things for themselves but is not rich toward God.”

So what is the problem with the rich fool? The two sections that follow the parable — Units B and C — explain

Before we look at that, notice a couple of things about the parable:

  • In verse 20, God’s criticizes the rich fool because his stored goods will worthless when he dies.
  • In verse 21, Jesus says that what is true of the rich fool is true of everyone who stores up treasures for themselves. The problem that Jesus is pressing is how and why we store up treasures for ourselves.
  • In verse 21, the solution to the foolishness is being rich, but being “rich toward God.”

So we need some explanation that ties these three threads together. So let’s look at Luke 12:22-31.

Don’t Worry

In Luke 12:22-31, Unit C, Jesus says:

22 Then Jesus said to his disciples: “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat; or about your body, what you will wear. 23 For life is more than food, and the body more than clothes. 24 Consider the ravens: They do not sow or reap, they have no storeroom or barn; yet God feeds them. And how much more valuable you are than birds! 25 Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to your life? 26 Since you cannot do this very little thing, why do you worry about the rest?

27 “Consider how the wild flowers grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you, not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. 28 If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today, and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, how much more will he clothe you—you of little faith! 29 And do not set your heart on what you will eat or drink; do not worry about it. 30 For the pagan world runs after all such things, and your Father knows that you need them. 31 But seek his kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well.

Jesus’s comments that follow the Parable of the Rich Fool address his disciples’ relationship to money and possessions. They should not worry. Which means that in the parable, Jesus is probably addressing a person’s relationship to money and possessions, a relationship that can often turn to stress and worry. If fear is one of our greatest obstacle when it comes to helping the needy, then it makes sense for Jesus to address this fear in addressing the disciples’ relationship to money. Anderson writes:

“The second address, given to the disciples alone, goes a little bit deeper. Since they have given up everything to follow Jesus (unlike the individuals in the crowd, whose attachment to Jesus is not so all-consuming), they have ample reason to worry about the future. It is one thing to put false hopes in accumulated wealth, quite another to give it all away and greet the future without a penny to your name. Jesus assuages the disciples’ fears by returning to the imagery of the storehouse.” (kindle location 1178)

So, in addition to Jesus tells the disciples not to worry about money and clothing, he explains to them why they shouldn’t. As Anderson writes in the quotation above, Jesus explains it by using the “imagery of the storehouse” (or the treasury). But to see this, we have to see Jesus’s conclusion.

Jesus’s Conclusion

After Jesus addresses their relationship to money and possession, he concludes his teaching. His conclusion is important for our understanding of the Parable of the Rich Fool. Jesus concludes the parable in a way that makes sense of our earlier observations about the parable. In Luke 12:32-34, Jesus says:

32 “Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom. 33 Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will never fail, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. 34 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

Notice a few things about this conclusion:

  • Jesus concludes by addressing the disciples’ fears and assuring them that they will receive the Kingdom.
  • In verse 33, Jesus encourages giving to the poor. (While the Parable of the Rich Fool does not directly mention the man’s charity to the poor or lack thereof, this shows that the parable has to do with charity to the poor.)
  • In verse 33, Jesus’s command to give to the poor is explicitly connected with storing up “treasure in heaven” that we will always have access to.

Anderson further observes about these verses and their connection to the parable:

“For at the end of that parable, Jesus made a contrast between those who “store up treasures for themselves” and those who are “rich toward God.” The term that is used to describe the destination of one’s alms in our summary statement, “[unfailing] treasure” (thesauros, v. 33), is the same word that describes the fool’s hoarding of his resources, “who store up treasure for themselves” (thesaurizo, v. 21). Because being “rich toward God” is the opposite of laying up treasures for oneself, it must refer to the act of distributing goods to the poor. Moreover, the contrast between storing treasure for oneself as opposed to God recalls the antimony that was so basic to the way in which Proverbs 10:2 was read in both Ben Sira and Tobit.” (kindle location 1163)

So Anderson points out that the same for is used for the incorrect storing up of money on earth and the Jesus-approved method of storing up riches: giving to the needy.

This connection shows us the issue with the rich fool. There is no indication that he was greedy or ignored the plight of the poor. Those aren’t what make him foolish. He is foolish because he found his security in his stored goods. What gave him his sense of security in the future? God? No! His storehouses full of goods. So the problem was his misplaced sense of security.

What is interesting, though, is that the rich man is a fool not because he had riches or because he had stored up riches. The problem is (i) the type of riches he has and (ii) where he had stored up the riches. Jesus teaches his disciples that they should aim for the wealth that comes from helping the poor and that he stored up the wealth in his barns rather than the heavenly storehouses.

But why was the rich fool tempted to trust in his storehouses of earthly riches rather than a heavenly treasury of riches? Because he wasn’t thinking enough about the world to come, the world he’ll inhabit when he dies. Anderson writes:

“But he has forgotten to ponder the world to come. What value will wealth have for him there? Better to be rich toward God through charity than to have “stored up” (thesaurizo) many goods for oneself.” (kindle location 1213)

So the Rich Fool is not thinking enough about the world to come; he doesn’t realize the benefits that charity can have. He could store up for himself eternal treasure instead of his temporary, worthless-in-eternity treasures.

Conclusion

The Parable of the Rich Fool is, I think, a good place to end my overview of Gary Anderson’s book. Most of the main threads of his book come together in this parable: the false security that money gives; the treasury of heaven; the eternal value of giving to the poor; the way one’s faith is displayed in one’s generosity (or lack thereof).

Many Christians, myself among them, are ignoring the full biblical teaching on money. We are comfortable largely emulating our culture’s relationship to money. But Jesus himself taught that giving to needy Christians is giving to him. And he further taught that, in some way, giving to the poor wasn’t a loss of our treasures but a deposit of those treasures into a heavenly treasury.

The full biblical teaching on charity is convicting, because it speaks not just to our moral failings but also to the psychological reasons for those failures. Giving to the poor secures us more than storing up our money, since our charity lays up treasures for us in heaven, treasures that benefit us for eternity.

How many doctrines have we Chrsitians built around a verse or two? Anderson gives us more than one or two verses for a strong, full-blooded, and convicting view of charity.

The Importance of Charity in the Bible: Worship and Loaning to God

I am continuing a short blog series through Gary Anderson’s book, Charity: The Place of the Poor in the Biblical Tradition. Though I don’t believe everything that Anderson argues, the book had enough insights that I wanted to share it with my readers. You can read part one here.

Photo Credit: Karl-Heinz Kasper Flickr via Compfight cc

Charity and Worship

The early church’s charity was connected to its worship. We discussed this in my earlier article. Charity to the poor wasn’t just another good deed, indistinguishable from other good Christian acts. It was a special religious act. But modern Christians often do not see charity to the poor in this way. Anderson writes:

“Most religious persons consider charity to the poor a natural outgrowth of their faith, something like the correlation between a good education and success in a career. In both cases what is primary, service to God/service to mind, has some beneficial but still secondary effects, love for the poor/advancement in society. But this is precisely what I don’t mean when I say that providing for the poor is avodah. By the close of the biblical period, service to the poor had become the privileged way to serve God.” (Kindle Location 297)

We need to see charity in a better context. We need to see helping the poor as a religious act. Anderson references a Christian artwork, Joachim and the Beggar, which depicts the connection between almsgiving and worship. Anderson writes:

“In Christian tradition, Joachim is the father of the Blessed Virgin Mary and is considered to be a very pious Jew. One can, indeed, see Joachim distributing goods to the poor. Nonetheless, the labeling is incomplete because it fails to mention that Joachim’s wife, Anna, who is standing right beside him, is donating a jar of grain to the priest. Through the hands of this couple, God is served in two ways: by a direct gift to the temple and by the giving of alms. Service to the altar and the poor is a correlative activity.” (Kindle Location 389)

Early Christian preachers used this theological connection to urge their congregations towards almsgiving. John Chrysostom told his congregation that a poor believer on the streets is like an altar, a place you can worship God. Quoting sections of Chrysostom’s comments, Anderson writes:

“But this is not the only altar to be found in Antioch. “Whenever then you see a poor believer,” out on the streets of Antioch after Mass has ended, “imagine that you behold an altar. Whenever you meet a beggar, don’t insult him, but reverence him.” (Kindle Location 408)

In fact, Chrysostom used this theological insight to confer a certain dignity on the poor. If giving to a poor is an act of worship, then the poor should be revered as a place we encounter God.

I know, we still need scriptural support for this, but what if Chrysostom is correct? Our view of the poor would change radically. Helping the poor would be a blessing to us, not a burden. We would not see them as failures, losers, or drags on society. Instead, in helping the poor, we encounter our Creator.

From Tithe to Worship

What Scriptures link charity to the poor and worship? One place to see this is the Old Testament connection between tithing and charity. Then, when we see that tithes and worship are connected, we can see the connection between tithes and worship. This connection is what developed so that Chrysostom could call a beggar an altar for the worship of God.

Anderson writes about Deuteronomy’s teachings on tithing:

“According to Deuteronomy, one must bring a tithe to the sanctuary during years one, two, four, and five of a seven-year cycle (14:22–27). That tithe was to be consumed by the donor and his family in Jerusalem during the days of the festivals. In addition, a portion of that tithe was to be shared with the Levites, who had no arable land of their own. In years three and six, this regular festival tithe was replaced by a tithe for the poor.” (Kindle Location 435)

Now look at Deuteronomy 14:22-29:

“22 Be sure to set aside a tenth of all that your fields produce each year. 23 Eat the tithe of your grain, new wine and olive oil, and the firstborn of your herds and flocks in the presence of the Lord your God at the place he will choose as a dwelling for his Name, so that you may learn to revere the Lord your God always. 24 But if that place is too distant and you have been blessed by the Lord your God and cannot carry your tithe (because the place where the Lord will choose to put his Name is so far away), 25 then exchange your tithe for silver, and take the silver with you and go to the place the Lord your God will choose. 26 Use the silver to buy whatever you like: cattle, sheep, wine or other fermented drink, or anything you wish. Then you and your household shall eat there in the presence of the Lord your God and rejoice. 27 And do not neglect the Levites living in your towns, for they have no allotment or inheritance of their own.
“28 At the end of every three years, bring all the tithes of that year’s produce and store it in your towns, 29 so that the Levites (who have no allotment or inheritance of their own) and the foreigners, the fatherless and the widows who live in your towns may come and eat and be satisfied, and so that the Lord your God may bless you in all the work of your hands.”

There is a connection between tithes and giving to the needy. On the third and sixth years (“every three years”), all the tithes were to be stored in the towns rather than the temple or tabernacle. Why? So that the Levites without allotment or inheritance would have would have food. But also so that the “foreigners, the fatherless and the widows” could eat. These groups of people would often be in need. So the tithes in the third and sixth years were partly charity for the poor.

But we still need to see the connection between this third and sixth year tithe and worship. After all, maybe the tithes for those years wouldn’t be considered an act of worship. But Deut. 26:12ff portrays the tithes on these years as worship:

“12 When you have finished setting aside a tenth of all your produce in the third year, the year of the tithe, you shall give it to the Levite, the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow, so that they may eat in your towns and be satisfied. 13 Then say to the Lord your God: ‘I have removed from my house the sacred portion and have given it to the Levite, the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow, according to all you commanded. I have not turned aside from your commands nor have I forgotten any of them. 14 I have not eaten any of the sacred portion while I was in mourning, nor have I removed any of it while I was unclean, nor have I offered any of it to the dead. I have obeyed the Lord my God; I have done everything you commanded me. 15 Look down from heaven, your holy dwelling place, and bless your people Israel and the land you have given us as you promised on oath to our ancestors, a land flowing with milk and honey.'”

The tithe on the third and sixth years — the tithe given to the widows, orphans, and foreigners — is still referred to as a “sacred portion.” Anderson writes:

“It is striking that this text continues to refer to the tithe as a “sacred portion”—language normally reserved for donations to the altar—even though it is never taken to Jerusalem.” (Kindle Location 462)

So you can see the connection between worship and giving to the poor. What was normally “sacred” and given to the altar is still sacred when given to the needy. Charity and worship are connected. But even more is connected to the tithe. Deut. 14:29b says the following as a motivation for giving the tithe to the poor and needy:

“and so that the Lord your God may bless you in all the work of your hands.”

Deut. 26:15 includes in the prayer to God, prayed when giving the sacred portion, an appeal that God bless His people as He had promised them. It’s not explicit, but I think you can begin to see something that is more clearly seen in other passages: what is given to the poor ends up being returned to the giver as a blessing from God.

A Loan to God

At the end of the last section, I brought out the nascent connection between giving to the poor and receiving blessings from God. Anderson thinks that the Bible portrays charity to the poor as a loan to God, not merely as worship. The connection goes something like this: tithes were an offering to God, and the priest “transferred” that offering to God; likewise, giving giving a tithe to the poor was an offering to God, and the poor “transferred” that to God. But what is God going to do with the money? Return blessings to the giver.

Why think this? We could see it in the Mark 10 story of the Rich Man. Jesus tells the rich man in Mark 10:21:

“And Jesus, looking at him, loved him, and said to him, ‘You lack one thing: go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.'”

If he gives to the poor, he will have treasure in heaven. We could understand that as a spiritualized phrase that just means salvation. But the idea of a treasury in heaven has Old Testament roots. Instead, Jesus tells the rich man that God will give him treasure in return if he donates to the poor. (This interpretation need not view the treasure in heaven strictly as physical blessings.) This would make charity to the poor similar to a loan to God: you give to God by giving to the poor, and God eventually repays you.

We see this in Proverb 19:17:

“Whoever is generous to the poor lends to the Lord, and he will repay him for his deed.”

Generosity to the poor is a loan to God; God will repay. This understanding is brought out in a midrash from the rabbinic tradition. It says:

“Well then, isn’t the scriptural commandment logical: If you will issue the loan when the governor cosigns, how much more willing should you be when ‘He who spoke and made the world’ agrees to cosign. For scripture says, ‘Whoever is kind to the poor lends to the LORD, and will be repaid in full'” (Prov 19:17). (Kindle Location 515)

And some early Christians saw matters this way. John Chrysostom wrote:

“If one of the rich men in the city would promise you payment on behalf of another, wouldn’t you accept his pledge?” The implied answer, as in the midrash, is undoubtedly ‘Yes!’ Who wouldn’t make a loan that was guaranteed by a man of means? This leads Basil to his main point: ‘Yet you don’t accept God as surety for the gift you would give to the poor.’ In exasperation over this lack of faith, Basil urges his audience to show faith in God and open up their pocket books: ‘Give the money, since it is lying idle, without weighing it down with additional charges, and it will be good for both of you. There will be for you [the donor] the assurance of the money’s safety because of [God’s] custody; for [the poor] who receives it, there is the advantage of its use. And, if you are seeking additional payment, be satisfied with that from the Lord. He Himself will pay the interest for the poor. Expect kindly acts from Him who is truly kind.'” (Kindle Location 534)

So giving to the poor is a loan to God, who, since He is the Creator and Sustainer of the world, can guarantee repayment. If giving to the poor is a loan to God, then what reasons can you give for not being generous towards the poor?

Your Faith and Your Loan to God

To answer that last question, many of us share a reason with the biblical people for not giving money to the poor: we don’t want to lose money. Giving to the poor leaves less money for us. We are more vulnerable to financial problems. But sometimes we don’t give money to the poor because we worry that the poor person will take advantage of our generosity. Maybe the beggar is exaggerating his or her need, or maybe the beggar will use the donated money for drugs or alcohol. That money would then be lost because it is wasted.

In our world, the generous are worse off because they gave.

Anderson writes:

“For ancient persons did not instinctively view the world as ordered to the flourishing of those who were generous. For them, just as for many evolutionary biologists, the world often manifested itself as ‘red in tooth and claw.’ It took a considerable amount of faith to act as though things were different.” (Kindle Location 565)

The ancients were no more trusting than we are. So it was just as hard for them to believe that giving money away to others would bring us blessings, not more financial difficulties. Being charitable was probably more difficult for the ancients than for us. They had fewer resources than we do and were more financially vulnerable than us. But they were still encouraged to give.

In these cultures, aid to the poor was often given through loans. So loaning money to the poor was quite the risk, because of everyone they were the least able to repay the loan. In fact, Anderson references a teacher who had an even more radical demand than that his students be generous. He writes:

“The demand is far more radical: Ben Sira exhorts his students to lose their money on behalf of the poor. No pretense is made that the funds will be returned.” (Kindle Location 865)

Of course, no pretense is make that the funds would be returned by the needy person. But it does seem that it would be returned in the form of blessings from God. But even though charity meant risking money, it was still a “privileged” religious act. Anderson writes:

“Paradoxically what constitutes an almost certain loss of wealth in earthly terms becomes the privileged means of securing it in heaven. Ben Sira introduces an idea that will emerge as a key theme in the preaching of Jesus—the treasury in heaven.” (Kindle Location 871)

So how were people motivated to give in the face of possible loss of the money? Two ways:

1. Expressions of Faith

People were encouraged to see charity to the poor, though a risk, as an expression of faith. It communicated something about what you believed about God and the world He created. Anderson writes:

“What is to be carefully noted in this passage is the supernatural dimension of showing monetary kindness to others. By issuing a loan into the headwinds of the upcoming year of remission—an ‘irrational’ act if there ever was one—the pious Israelite demonstrates his faith that God will reward in like manner.” (Kindle Location 898)

He says about the teacher referenced earlier:

“What Ben Sira does not explicitly say, though it can be clearly inferred, is that his teaching can be trusted only to the degree that one has faith in God.” (Kindle Location 939)

This is a challenging insight. God commanded us to give to the poor without worrying about whether we will be repayed because God is going to repay us. So the extent that you trust God is demonstrated by how much you’ll trust him in giving to the needy. Anderson puts it this way:

“Or to put it another way, the safety of the divine treasury is a dependable notion only for those who have a deep faith in God. If it were otherwise, everyone would be in a race to share their goods with the poor. Almsgiving, it turns out, becomes an extraordinary index of the faith (Glaube) of the believer (Gläubige) through his financial generosity as a creditor (Gläubiger).” (Kindle Location 942)

It isn’t just your generosity that displays your faith in God. Your willingness to lose money displays your faith.

2. Storing Up Treasures in Heaven

But the ancients had another motivation for giving to the poor, even when the loan to the poor might not be returned. I have already mentioned this, but the view of a treasury in heaven also motivated their generosity. If you believed that, in some sense, the money you gave to the poor was “stored” for you in heaven and would be returned to you someday, then generosity would not be a risk. So the Scripture authors motivate charity despite the risk of loaning money to the poor by denying that charity is even a monetary risk. The money is going to be returned. Anderson writes:

“Paradoxically what constitutes an almost certain loss of wealth in earthly terms becomes the privileged means of securing it in heaven. Ben Sira introduces an idea that will emerge as a key theme in the preaching of Jesus—the treasury in heaven.” (Kindle Location 871)

Conclusion

So we have seen in this extensive survey of some of the arguments in Anderson’s book that the biblical theology of money and generosity. The theology undergirding this view of helping the poor is powerful and calls us to deeper reflection on our commitment to the poor. If Anderson is right about these biblical teachings and concepts, then much about the American Christian’s view of money, charity, and the poor needs to change.

In the next article, I’ll conclude this summary of Anderson’s book by looking at his compelling analysis of the Parable of the Rich Fool.

The Importance of Charity in the Bible: Metaphysics and Rewards

At the recommendation of a friend who is deeply involved in poverty relief, earlier this year I read Gary Anderson’s, Charity: The Place of the Poor in the Biblical Tradition. The book’s development of the Bible’s teachings on poverty relief is insightful and convicting. I took a few college students through the material, so I wanted to turn my notes into a short series for this blog. Not everything in the book was convincing, but enough was to make the book’s material worth revisiting in these articles.

Photo Credit: Karl-Heinz Kasper Flickr via Compfight cc

Ignoring Scripture

Gary Anderson’s central insights challenge how many Christians view helping the poor. Anderson doesn’t cover sociology, economics, or political theory; his focus is biblical teachings. The richness of the biblical view, though, has been ignored by many Christians. It is ignored, in part, because we are often not attentive to certain phrases. Or, when we pay attention to them, we reduce them to merely figurative language because of our fears of works righteousness. For example, in the famous story of the rich ruler in Mark 10, Jesus tells him:

“One thing you lack,” he said. “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” (v. 21 NIV)

I’ve taught on this passage a half-dozen times. When I’ve paid attendion to the phrase, “treasure in heaven,” I’ve often reduced it to salvation. But I’ve ignored a connection that the text brings out clearly: being charitable to the poor is what gives the man treasure in heaven. I skipped over the connection between charity and treasures in heaven. And the connection shows up elsewhere in the Bible. Our concerns over “works righteousness” in evangelical Christianity makes us nervous to connect a person’s works with rewards in heaven. But however you work this into your view of justification, you at least have to deal with Jesus’s connection between charity to the poor and treasure in heaven.

The Purpose of the Book

Anderson writes about the purpose of his book:

“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.” (p. 2)

Anderson doesn’t simply argue that Christians should give to the poor. Every Christian knows that. But he argues in the book that charitable acts have a “special status.” They aren’t just other acts of righteousness, but should have a place of honor in our lives. Would an observer of your life believe that helping the poor is an important part of your life? Would your life undoubtably show that charity is a “highly privileged” activity within your own life?

One value of Anderson’s book is the healthy pressure it can put on a Christian or a church. As we look at biblical passages that display the value of charity, ask yourself if the this value is reflected in your life and in your church?

The Metaphysics of Helping the Poor

Throughout the book, Gary Anderson returns often to the claim that charity is a declaration about the nature of God and the nature of the world he made. Most Christians I know don’t think about charity this way. We see it as a religious duty, obedience to God’s commands, or even just an expression of Christian love. Anderson would not deny any of those. But he thinks charity is much more than that. He writes:

“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.” (p. 2)

Or, as Anderson puts it most succintly:

“Charity, in short, is not just a good deed but a declaration of belief about the world and the God who created it.” (p. 4)

So what does Anderson mean? Through this article and my next two, I hope you’ll see the full explanation of his claim. But most of you have enough knowledge of Christianity to understand his central point. If you give money away, even when it is a threat to your financial security, out of the trust that God has promised to reward you, then you displaying your belief that:

  1. A God exists who will reward you for your generosity; and
  2. This world is set up to ultimately benefit the generous not the stingy.

And Anderson thinks that your use of wealth and charity are such displays.

An Interesting Implication

I understand that you need to see the Bible verses and the arguments to support this. But momentarily accept that Anderson is correct. If our generosity towards the poor is a statement about God and the type of world He created, what is your generosity displaying about God? What is your church’s generosity saying about God?

Many of us have to admit, I think, that our (lack of) generosity declares loudly that we don’t really believe that a god exists who will reward our generosity. Anderson says this in a challenging way:

“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.” (p. 5)

I’ve always been amazed with the examples of faith in Hebrews 11. All the people mentioned lived such lives that, if God didn’t exist, their lives would be foolish. Is our charity at such a level that if the Christian God doesn’t exist, then our handling of money would be foolish? Does your faith lead you to acts of charity that nonbelievers would mock? If a greater reward did not come, would your generosity look financially foolish?

The Reward of Charity

But what reward do the scriptures promise for charity? To see the reward that we receive from charity, we need to look at two verses that Anderson expounds.

Proverbs 10:2

Anderson’s argument from Proverbs 10:2 loses some of its force because he uses his own translation of the verses. In Proverbs 10:2 in the NIV says,

Ill-gotten treasures have no lasting value, but righteousness delivers from death.

Anderson claims that in various periods in the biblical times, almsgiving was such an important and honored religious practice that the word “righteousness” was often used to refer specifically to almsgiving.

So Anderson argues that in Proverbs 10:2 “righteousness” is really reference to almsgiving. So Anderson translates Proverbs 10:2 in this way:

“The treasuries of wickedness provide no benefit, but almsgiving delivers from death” (Prov 10:2).” (p. 3)

Anderson calls this the most important proverb for “our purposes” (p. 3). If Anderson’s translation is accurate, then think about what this proverb teaches. If you sense an implied parallel between “treasuries of wickness” and “almsgiving,” you get a sense from this verse that can be captured in the following paraphrase:

“Storing up wickedness provides no benefit, but storing up almsgiving delivers from death.”

Almsgiving somehow protects from death. If we understand this to be a spiritual death, then we get the idea that almsgiving somehow saves from spiritual death. We will return to this notion in a later post in this series.

Matthew 25:31-46

To get a better of a theology of charity, Anderson thinks we should turn to Matthew 25:31-46, of which he writes:

“By far the most important text for the early church is found in Matthew 25.”

Go read Matthew 25:31-46 if you are not familiar with it. It is part of an extended message that Jesus gave his disciples towards the end of Matthew. In it, he envisions the Day of Judgment. The Son of Man separates the sheep from the goats. Jesus describes the sheep–the righteous–as those who clothed, visited, and fed him when he was in need. The goats–the unrighteous–are those who neglected Jesus when he was in need.

The goats, understandably, say to Jesus (mirroring a question the righteous had already asked about themselves):

‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’ (v. 44b)

And Jesus’s response was (again, mirroring his response in his exchange with the righteous):

He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’ (v. 45)

Jesus ends this section with this haunting phrase:

“Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.” (v. 46)

So what does this mean for almsgiving? What are the implications for charity? Helping the poor is, somehow, an encounter with the Son of God, a divine encounter. Additionally, Jesus states a connection between charity and salvation and the lack of charity and damnation. As Anderson writes:

“first, charity to poor has the power to deliver one from eternal damnation…, 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.” (p. 6)

What would happen if we really believed that we were meeting and serving God in serving the poor? What would happen if we really believed there was a strong connection between charity and salvation?

From what we have seen so far, I think we can see why Anderson says this:

“The poor become a necessary and indeed nonnegotiable point of access to the Kingdom of God.” (p. 3)

What does it mean for the poor to become a “nonnegotiable point of access to the Kingdom of God”? It means what a straightforward reading of Matthew 25 says. If we ignore the needs of the poor, we do not have access to the Kingdom of God. If, in compassion, we meet the needs of the poor, we have access to the Kingdom of God (along with an encounter, in some sense, with Jesus).

The Effects of the Reformation

One of the more provocative claims early in Anderson’s book is that the Protestant Reformation caused Christians to drop a richer understanding of charity. Why? Remember that a charitable act towards the poor is supposed to (i) be an encounter with God, and (ii) deliver one from (spiritual) death.

But the Reformation rejected both of these aspects because there was a concern that it was too sacramental and too close to works-righteousness. Anderson writes:

“The distinctively sacramental sense of Matthew 25 was uniformly rejected.” (p. 8)

Later on the same page, he writes:

“The charitable deed lost, in the sixteenth century, its central role making God present to the believer and became simply a sign of the underlying personal faith of the believer.” (p. 8)

We Protestants need to wrestle with what Anderson says here. We often see charity (and many other good deeds) as mere signs that we have “saving faith” — the type of faith necessary for salvation.

But is this the correct way to for us to see charity? Should charity have a privileged place in our Christian lives? Is charity for the poor more than just a sign of our faith, but an act in which we encounter God?

These are the types of questions we need to think about as we work through Anderson’s material in the next two articles.