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)


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.

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