Charity: The Place of the Poor in the Biblical Tradition

Copyright Date: 2013
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 288
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    Book Description:

    It has long been acknowledged that Jews and Christians distinguished themselves through charity to the poor. Though ancient Greeks and Romans were also generous, they funded theaters and baths rather than poorhouses and orphanages. How might we explain this difference?

    In this significant reappraisal of charity in the biblical tradition, Gary Anderson argues that the poor constituted the privileged place where Jews and Christians met God. Though concerns for social justice were not unknown to early Jews and Christians, the poor achieved the importance they did primarily because they were thought to be "living altars," a place to make a sacrifice, a loan to God that he, as the ultimate guarantor, could be trusted to repay in turn.

    Contrary to the assertions of Reformation and modern critiques, belief in a heavenly treasury was not just about self-interest. Sifting through biblical and postbiblical texts, Anderson shows how charity affirms the goodness of the created order; the world was created through charity and therefore rewards it.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-18373-3
    Subjects: Religion, Sociology
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Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter (pp. [i]-[vi])
  2. Table of Contents (pp. [vii]-[x])
  3. CHAPTER ONE The Challenge of Charity (pp. 1-12)

    This book is, in many respects, a natural outgrowth of my previous publication,Sin: A History. In that work I argued that a major shift in thinking about human sin occurs at the end of the Old Testament period. The predominant metaphor for sin, which had been that of a weight that an individual must bear on his back, became that of a debt that must be repaid. This concept is classically expressed in Daniel 4:27, when King Nebuchadnezzar is told that he should be charitable to the poor in order to “redeem himself” from his state of spiritual debt...

  4. PART ONE Charity as an Expression of Faith in God
    • CHAPTER TWO Charity as Service to God (pp. 15-34)

      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...

    • CHAPTER THREE A Loan to God (pp. 35-52)

      Almsgiving became such a prominent feature of Second Temple Judaism because it not only fulfilled a religious obligation to help the needy but provided a means of declaring one’s belief in God. This will not be obvious to most readers and requires some unpacking. For those who have been raised in the church, belief in God is often thought of in terms of the creeds. Consider, for example, what the Nicene Creed says about Jesus Christ: “I believe in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only begotten son of God, born of the Father before all ages, God from God, Light...

    • CHAPTER FOUR Material Wealth and Its Deceptions (pp. 53-69)

      The concept of the treasury in heaven originates in a fundamental economic concern: how to prepare for the uncertainties of the future. One time-tested solution to this challenge is to accumulate a “rainy-day” fund that will tide one over during difficult times. Ben Sira clearly has this strategy in mind but inverts it radically when he teaches:

      Store up almsgiving in your treasury,

      and it will rescue you from every disaster;

      Better than a stout shield and a sturdy spear,

      it will fight for you against the enemy. (29:12–13)

      In these verses, it is not the storing of goods...

    • CHAPTER FIVE Deliverance from Death (pp. 70-82)

      In our previous chapter we examined the way in which the proverbial saying “almsgiving delivers from death” was understood in Ben Sira, Tobit, Enoch, and the Gospel of Luke. But we did not have the opportunity to ask precisely what deliverance from death might mean. For most Bible readers, the only possible understanding of this verse is the one that we saw in the parable of the rich fool (Luke 12:16–21). To be saved from death means to be saved from everlasting damnation and to enjoy the benefits of the resurrection of the body in the coming Kingdom of...

    • CHAPTER SIX Is Charity Always Rewarded? (pp. 83-103)

      A common assessment of Tobit is that the book reflects what biblical scholars have come to call the “Deuteronomic” retribution theology. What is meant by this is the penchant of the book of Deuteronomy to attribute a life of blessing to obedience to the Torah and a life of suffering to the reverse. At first glance, this characterization of the theology of Tobit seems accurate. For the last chapter of the book makes it clear that if you do good (that is, give alms), you will see the light of day; if you do evil, deepest darkness lies in waiting.¹...

    • CHAPTER SEVEN Charity and the Goodness of Creation (pp. 104-110)

      Before venturing into the second half of my book, I would like to step back for a moment and take stock of where we have come. This chapter will function as a conclusion and a summary synthesis of the first part of my argument and return to an issue that is frequently a source of great controversy: What do we make of charitable deeds that are, at least in part, motivated by self-interest?

      I began this book with a consideration of the unique role that charity to the poor played in the development of Judaism and Christianity in their formative...

  5. PART TWO Charitable Deeds as Storable Commodities
    • CHAPTER EIGHT Can Merits Be Transferred? (pp. 113-122)

      In the first part of this book, we treated the treasury in heaven in light of its opposite, the treasuries of wickedness, or, as Ben Sira puts the matter, deceptive treasuries. Our chief goal was to contrast the behavior of hoarding in order to secure one’s future with that of generosity. One theme we did not consider at any length was the treasury in heaven as a place where good deeds could be stored and later drawn upon to deliver one from death.

      As soon as we begin to make our way down this path we find ourselves entering a...

    • CHAPTER NINE Storing Good Works in Heaven (pp. 123-135)

      There are two principal places where the Gospel writers employ the concept of a treasury in heaven. The first is found in Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount (6:19–21), with an important parallel in Luke that we have already discussed (12:34). The second is found in the story of the rich young man who approaches Jesus and asks him what good deed he must do to acquire eternal life. This narrative is attested in all three of the Synoptic Gospels (Matt 19:16–30, Mark 10:17–31, Luke 18:18–30). We will begin our discussion with the Sermon on the Mount...

    • CHAPTER TEN Prayer, Fasting, and Almsgiving (pp. 136-148)

      We have seen that Matthew’s teaching on the treasury in heaven (6:19–21) concludes a unit concerned with the virtuous practices of almsgiving, prayer, and fasting (vv. 1–18). The treasury in heaven, on this understanding, is the place where the rewards from these particular deeds are stored. But does this imply that the primacy of almsgiving that we saw in Tobit and Ben Sira no longer holds? To answer this question we must begin with the significance of almsgiving within this particular triad of virtuous deeds.

      As we have already seen, there are three important moments in the book...

    • CHAPTER ELEVEN Sacrificial Giving (pp. 149-161)

      If giving alms is something like making a bank deposit to an account in heaven, then one might wonder how to maximize one’s capital. One option is to follow the example of Tobit and make regular contributions so that a generous nest egg might accumulate. For if one’s treasure is a hedge against an uncertain future, then there are very good reasons to keep your bottom line growing. And there is another advantage to regular donations to this account: the more regularly one contributes, the easier and more natural each donation will become. In this way one will be able...

    • CHAPTER TWELVE Deliverance from Purgatory (pp. 162-181)

      A few years ago the Methodist philosopher Jerry Walls wrote an article (“Purgatory for Everyone”) in which he encouraged his fellow Protestants to reconsider their aversion to the doctrine of purgatory.¹ He began by addressing a context with which everyone is familiar: listening to a homily at a funeral in which the pastor confidently asserts that a particular uncle is enjoying all the delights of heaven regardless of the type of life he might have lived on earth. On the one hand, it is easy to see the pastoral reasons that would generate such buoyant optimism about a family member...

  6. CHAPTER THIRTEEN Conclusion: Your Alms Are a Memorial (pp. 182-190)

    I have contended that charity was construed as a loan to God, which was then converted into a form of spiritual currency and stored in an impregnable divine bank. This idea is first attested in books of the Second Temple period and continues through the rabbinic and patristic periods. Only by the time that we reach the early Middle Ages do we see the conception begin to wane.¹ From this commercial metaphor we are able to understand why Daniel could advise King Nebuchadnezzar to give alms as a means of repaying his spiritual debts—it restocks a nearly depleted divine...

  7. Notes (pp. 191-214)
  8. Acknowledgments (pp. 215-216)
  9. General Index (pp. 217-219)
  10. Index of Ancient Sources (pp. 220-222)


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