Charity as the Christian Virtue: Labor Day Love

In some traditions the primary aim of Christianity is holiness and, depending on how one understands the term, moves the Christian into the realms of separation from sin, obedience to God’s will, or utter rigor (zealotry) in all matters of conscience. It might be asked how it was possible for holiness rose to the top of Christian virtues if one examines the NT in its Jewish context where it was charity (material compassion toward the poor, the orphan and the widow). One need not, of course, say either holiness or charity, and a balance might be in order here, but the point is this: earliest Christianity in its Jewish context saw charity as the highest of virtues. So did Jesus in the Jesus Creed and Paul in 1 Cor 13. Holiness is not the fulfillment of the law; love is.

Screen Shot 2016-08-20 at 12.46.42 PMNotice this from Gary Anderson’s exceptional book Charity:

In his book on generosity in the Greco-Roman world, Paul Veyne asks his readers to imagine themselves in an airplane flying over the ruins of a large Roman city. The public buildings erected by means of charitable bequests include the public theater, the baths, and various basilicas devoted to governmental functions. So enormous are the visible remains of these great institutions that the observer might conclude that they cover more ground than that allotted to domestic housing. If, on the other hand, we flew over a great medieval city, the picture changes considerably. Instead of theaters and baths, one sees the roofs of convents, hospices, orphanages, and soup kitchens for the poor. Charitable activity left
an enormous and visible footprint on the design of the evolving Christian city (15).

Christianity differed from the Greco-Roman world in its focus — not on donations but on donations to the poor. Further, Christian benevolence to the poor emerges from one’s theology, the gospel and from the goodness and graciousness of God. But Anderson is quick to point out another important element (not focused on Veyne above): in charity Christianity and Judaism were very much on the same page.

Giving alms — charity — was according to one rabbi equal to keeping all the commandments of the Torah. Notice then how Jesus reduces Torah to love, and how love and charity are connected in both traditions.

There is a theology of charity in Judaism, and traces of it are found in Jesus and the NT in the term “reward,” where giving to the poor is giving to God — it is a service to God and it connected to sacrifice and atonement — and at the same time is sending those acts into a treasury of merit in the presence of God.

Anderson focuses on the great story of Tobit in the apocryphal books where sacrifice at the altar in Jerusalem corresponds to charity to the poor both in Jerusalem but also in the diaspora. (Read Tobit 1 below.) Hence, the use of Hos 6:6 (also used by Jesus) is important: “deeds of mercy I have desired, not sacrifice.” To give to the poor was to give to God; to give to God was transfer funds from earth to heaven (25).

Important to Anderson is that a theology of charity like this is rooted in Deuteronomy 26 (read below the Tobit text below). Tithes were given both to God and to the poor; the tithe was a “sacred portion” and the tithes were stored locally and used locally.

The thematic Bible verse is Proverbs 19:17: “Whoever is kind to the poor lends to the LORD, and will be repaid in full.”

Tobit 1

Tob. 1:1    This book tells the story of Tobit son of Tobiel son of Hananiel son of Aduel son of Gabael son of Raphael son of Raguel of the descendants of Asiel, of the tribe of Naphtali,  2 who in the days of King Shalmaneser of the Assyrians was taken into captivity from Thisbe, which is to the south of Kedesh Naphtali in Upper Galilee, above Asher toward the west, and north of Phogor.

Tob. 1:3   I, Tobit, walked in the ways of truth and righteousness all the days of my life. I performed many acts of charity for my kindred and my people who had gone with me in exile to Nineveh in the land of the Assyrians.  4 When I was in my own country, in the land of Israel, while I was still a young man, the whole tribe of my ancestor Naphtali deserted the house of David and Jerusalem. This city had been chosen from among all the tribes of Israel, where all the tribes of Israel should offer sacrifice and where the temple, the dwelling of God, had been consecrated and established for all generations forever.

Tob. 1:5   All my kindred and our ancestral house of Naphtali sacrificed to the calf that King Jeroboam of Israel had erected in Dan and on all the mountains of Galilee.  6 But I alone went often to Jerusalem for the festivals, as it is prescribed for all Israel by an everlasting decree. I would hurry off to Jerusalem with the first fruits of the crops and the firstlings of the flock, the tithes of the cattle, and the first shearings of the sheep.  7 I would give these to the priests, the sons of Aaron, at the altar; likewise the tenth of the grain, wine, olive oil, pomegranates, figs, and the rest of the fruits to the sons of Levi who ministered at Jerusalem. Also for six years I would save up a second tenth in money and go and distribute it in Jerusalem.  8 A third tenth I would give to the orphans and widows and to the converts who had attached themselves to Israel. I would bring it and give it to them in the third year, and we would eat it according to the ordinance decreed concerning it in the law of Moses and according to the instructions of Deborah, the mother of my father Tobiel, for my father had died and left me an orphan.  9 When I became a man I married a woman, a member of our own family, and by her I became the father of a son whom I named Tobias.

Tob. 1:10   After I was carried away captive to Assyria and came as a captive to Nineveh, everyone of my kindred and my people ate the food of the Gentiles,  11 but I kept myself from eating the food of the Gentiles.  12 Because I was mindful of God with all my heart,  13 the Most High gave me favor and good standing with Shalmaneser, and I used to buy everything he needed.  14 Until his death I used to go into Media, and buy for him there. While in the country of Media I left bags of silver worth ten talents in trust with Gabael, the brother of Gabri.  15 But when Shalmaneser died, and his son Sennacherib reigned in his place, the highways into Media became unsafe and I could no longer go there.

Tob. 1:16   In the days of Shalmaneser I performed many acts of charity to my kindred, those of my tribe.  17 I would give my food to the hungry and my clothing to the naked; and if I saw the dead body of any of my people thrown out behind the wall of Nineveh, I would bury it.  18 I also buried any whom King Sennacherib put to death when he came fleeing from Judea in those days of judgment that the king of heaven executed upon him because of his blasphemies. For in his anger he put to death many Israelites; but I would secretly remove the bodies and bury them. So when Sennacherib looked for them he could not find them.  19 Then one of the Ninevites went and informed the king about me, that I was burying them; so I hid myself. But when I realized that the king knew about me and that I was being searched for to be put to death, I was afraid and ran away.  20 Then all my property was confiscated; nothing was left to me that was not taken into the royal treasury except my wife Anna and my son Tobias.

Tob. 1:21   But not forty days passed before two of Sennacherib’s sons killed him, and they fled to the mountains of Ararat, and his son Esar-haddon reigned after him. He appointed Ahikar, the son of my brother Hanael over all the accounts of his kingdom, and he had authority over the entire administration.  22 Ahikar interceded for me, and I returned to Nineveh. Now Ahikar was chief cupbearer, keeper of the signet, and in charge of administration of the accounts under King Sennacherib of Assyria; so Esar-haddon reappointed him. He was my nephew and so a close relative.

Deuteronomy 26

Deut. 26:1   When you have come into the land that the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance to possess, and you possess it, and settle in it,  2 you shall take some of the first of all the fruit of the ground, which you harvest from the land that the LORD your God is giving you, and you shall put it in a basket and go to the place that the LORD your God will choose as a dwelling for his name.  3 You shall go to the priest who is in office at that time, and say to him, “Today I declare to the LORD your God that I have come into the land that the LORD swore to our ancestors to give us.”  4 When the priest takes the basket from your hand and sets it down before the altar of the LORD your God,  5 you shall make this response before the LORD your God: “A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous.  6 When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labor on us,  7 we cried to the LORD, the God of our ancestors; the LORD heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression.  8 The LORD brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders;  9 and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey.  10 So now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground that you, O LORD, have given me.” You shall set it down before the LORD your God and bow down before the LORD your God.  11 Then you, together with the Levites and the aliens who reside among you, shall celebrate with all the bounty that the LORD your God has given to you and to your house.

Deut. 26:12   When you have finished paying all the tithe of your produce in the third year (which is the year of the tithe), giving it to the Levites, the aliens, the orphans, and the widows, so that they may eat their fill within your towns,  13 then you shall say before the LORD your God: “I have removed the sacred portion from the house, and I have given it to the Levites, the resident aliens, the orphans, and the widows, in accordance with your entire commandment that you commanded me; I have neither transgressed nor forgotten any of your commandments:  14 I have not eaten of it while in mourning; I have not removed any of it while I was unclean; and I have not offered any of it to the dead. I have obeyed the LORD my God, doing just as you commanded me.  15 Look down from your holy habitation, from heaven, and bless your people Israel and the ground that you have given us, as you swore to our ancestors—a land flowing with milk and honey.”

Deut. 26:16   This very day the LORD your God is commanding you to observe these statutes and ordinances; so observe them diligently with all your heart and with all your soul.  17 Today you have obtained the LORD’S agreement: to be your God; and for you to walk in his ways, to keep his statutes, his commandments, and his ordinances, and to obey him.  18 Today the LORD has obtained your agreement: to be his treasured people, as he promised you, and to keep his commandments;  19 for him to set you high above all nations that he has made, in praise and in fame and in honor; and for you to be a people holy to the LORD your God, as he promised.

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than fifty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.