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.

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