Jesus defined discipleship as consisting in prayer, fasting and giving alms. The three great Abrahamic religions, Judaic, Christian and Islamic, all call for giving of alms to the poor. Alms giving is one of the Five Pillars of Islam. It is the practice of charitable giving based on accumulated wealth, and is obligatory for all who are able to do so. It is considered to be a personal responsibility for Muslims to ease economic hardship for other Muslims.
Alms giving for the Jews is described in the Book of Deuteronomy (14: 28-29). The Israelite farmers were instructed every three years to bring one third of their harvest to the city gates and leave it there for those who had no land on which to grow food. That included the Levites who served in the Temple, as well as widows, orphans and immigrants. “Do this,” they were told, “so that the Lord your God might bless you in everything you do.”
The Hebrew prophets expanded the theme of charity or alms giving to include justice. They did so as the Kings of Israel and Judah, beginning with Solomon, impoverished the Israelite farmers with taxes on their harvests and, if they failed to pay, their lands were confiscated (1 Kings 12). Speaking through Isaiah (1: 15-17) God admonishes the wealthy Israelites, “Even when you pray for a long time, I won’t listen.
Your hands are stained with blood. Wash! Be clean! Remove your ugly deeds from my sight. Put an end to such evil; learn to do good. Seek justice: help the oppressed; defend the orphan; plead for the widow.” For the prophets true worship of God depends not just on prayer and sincerity of heart, but also on the care for the poor.
Jesus’ ministry of preaching and healing was fully within this prophetic tradition of care for the poor. He even made a preferential option for the poor the condition for entrance into the reign or Kingdom of the Father (Matthew 25:31-46). Jesus identifies himself with the poor. He will bless those who gave him to eat, to drink, who were hospitable to him, who were sick and cared for him, who clothed him or visited him in prison. When asked when they did so, they will be told, “I assure you that when you have done it for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you have done it for me” (Matthew 25:40). Alms giving and care for the poor are more than acts of individual piety. Addressing the needs of the poor is to care for the very Body of Christ.
The Gospels and Epistles of the New Testament are very clear on the importance of care for the poor. Spiritual writer Ron Rolheiser notes that one out of every ten lines in the Christian Scriptures deals directly with the physically poor and the call of God for one to respond to them. In the Gospel of Luke that becomes every sixth line and in the epistle of James that commission is there, in one form or another, every fifth line.
As described in Acts of the Apostles (2: 42-47) the first disciples prayed together, celebrated the Eucharist in their homes, shared their resources and distributed them to those who were in need. Later when it became evident that the needs of the Greek-speaking widows were not being met, the Apostles created a group called “deacons” (diakonos “those who serve”) to insure that all in need would be cared for.
Such charitable arrangements seemed to work well as long as the communities were small and familial. As the church grew in economic and political influence under the Roman Emperor Constantine, it found itself, as did the prophets, faced with issues of injustice that charity or alms giving did not address. The demands of the empire for taxes in the form of food and labor reduced many peasants to dependence on wealthy patrons for their protection and survival. This was the case in North Africa where Augustine was Bishop of Hippo in the fourth century. He observed that wealthy landowners were exploiting the labor and taxing the production of sharecroppers on their estates. The wealthy were making charitable gifts to the church, but continued with their unjust labor and tax practices. This is the context in which Augustine challenged them with the warning, “Charity is no substitute for justice withheld.”
Augustine did not deny the gospel demand for charity and alms giving. He drew upon the Hebrew prophets to remind his congregation, and us by extension, that alms giving includes acts of charity as well as the practice of justice.
The tandem role of charity and justice was brought home to me this past week at a meeting at First Presbyterian Church in San Antonio. The Office of Presbyterian Disaster Relief called a meeting of churches and voluntary organizations to discuss how best to respond to the needs of refugee mothers and children being processed through the residential Center in Karnes City. More than 125 people attended. Among the churches were representatives of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, the Methodist Church, the Disciples of Christ, Baptist Child and Family Services (BCFS), the Mennonites, the Roman Catholic Church, religious orders of nuns, and, of course, the Presbyterian Church. Non-governmental organizations included school districts, the Red Cross, universities, child advocacy groups, and RAICES, a pro bono law firm that represents many refugees before immigration judges.
In the discussion that followed the presentations charity and justice were at play. While the immediate physical needs of the refugees are being met, one participant noted that “socks and underwear” would always be welcomed. Justice was played out in the plea from the lawyers. They asked that volunteer mentors come forward to track the children as they leave the detention centers. Existing laws protect them, but only if they are applied on a case-by-case basis.
Once gathered together, the Spirit revealed itself in the deliberations of the group. Avenues of charitable giving and ways to serve justice opened up. People from different churches and agencies net worked and ways of mutual collaboration emerged. As Presbyterians, we trust in the wisdom of the group when we unite in prayer and ask for guidance on how best to serve the needs of our neighbors. We also stand in the Judeo-Christian tradition that holds if justice is well served, charity will be less necessary.
The prophet Micah (6:8) summed up God’s mandate for justice and charity this way, “He has told you, human one, what is good and what the Lord requires from you: to do justice, embrace faithful love, and walk humbly with your God.”