Imagine yourself in an airplane flying over the ruins of a large Roman city. What will first strike your eye are the public theater, baths, and various basilicas devoted to civic functions. All of these buildings were funded by wealthy patrons of the city. If we change directions and fly over a medieval city, the picture will alter considerably. Instead of theaters and baths, we see the roofs of convents, hospices, hospitals, orphanages, and soup kitchens. Charity to the poor and suffering has left an enormous, visible footprint on the design of the evolving Christian city.
Though the social scientist might be tempted to understand the buildings of the two towns as serving one purpose—the redistribution of wealth—this conclusion would be false. Generosity in a Christian context differs considerably from its pagan counterpart. What makes the charitable works of the church distinctive is their religious grounding and their singular focus on the poor. In contrast, Greco-Roman benefaction has little interest in helping the lower social classes and does not think of such donations as having a religious function. Homes for the elderly, orphanages, and hospitals are institutions that appear suddenly in the late Roman era and always in the wake of the expansion of the Christian church. New words, in fact, had to be invented in both Latin and Greek to identify these charitable organizations—a sure sign that they had no precedent. They are the fruits of this new religion.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. The profound transformation of public life wrought by Christian charity did not come out of nowhere; it was an inheritance the church received from the synagogue. It would be difficult, in fact, to overemphasize the status of charitable deeds in the Jewish tradition. One way to gauge its evolving importance is simply to consult a Hebrew dictionary. As any student of biblical languages will know, the word for commandment in Hebrew is mitsva. During the biblical period the meaning of this word was centered on the idea that God had given a set of rules to Moses at Mount Sinai that Israel was expected to observe. Each one of the rules—whether it concerned matters of ritual purity, kosher regulations, or instructions regarding ethics and morals—could be identified as a mitsva. In postbiblical Jewish texts, however, the term undergoes a radical transformation. It develops the secondary meaning of “charity.” Thus the well-known expression bar mitzvah, whose primary meaning is “one obligated to keep the commandments,” could also mean “a generous person.” Charity toward the poor had become the commandment that towered above all others. One rabbinic text puts it succinctly: Giving alms is equal to keeping all the commandments in the Torah.
Naturally the question should arise: What accounts for this extraordinary interest in and commitment to charity? The answer is startlingly simple: Charity achieved the prominence it did because it had become the favored means of worshipping God. In Jewish terms charity was a form of avodah, that is, cultic service. Putting a coin in the hand of a beggar was like dedicating a fatted calf to the altar. The sacramental character of charity cannot be overstated. Charity to the poor was not simply a kind thing to do. Nor was it to be reduced to a program aimed at a more equitable distribution of wealth (though this element was not lacking).
This point is worth underscoring. 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 or service to mind) has some beneficial but still secondary effects (love for the poor or 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.
The comparison of almsgiving to a sacrificial offering is basic to the religious worldview of Ben Sira, the author of the biblical book of Sirach (or Ecclesiasticus as it sometimes is known). This second-century-B.C. Jewish sage teaches us that
The one who keeps the law makes many offerings;
one who heeds the commandments makes an offering of well-being.
The one who returns a kindness offers choice flour,
and one who gives alms sacrifices a thank offering. (35:1–2)
It is worth noting that a thank offering is simply a special type of an offering of well-being, and that choice flour, because it is the most inexpensive of the sacrificial objects one can bring, is something that can be brought many times. What Ben Sira teaches us is that acts of charity toward the poor became the equivalent of temple sacrifice, the most prestigious form of religious obedience in the Torah.
The theology that begins in Sirach has an extraordinary afterlife in both the church and the synagogue. One visible testimony to its longevity can be seen in medieval art. Consider, for example, a painting from about 1400 by Andrea de Bartolo of Siena. This painting is now on display at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., and has been slightly mislabeled Joachim and the Beggars (see cover). One can, indeed, see Joachim (father of the Virgin Mary) 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 are correlative activities.
Though Joachim and Anna lived in biblical times, their piety is not just of antiquarian interest. We find the correlation between almsgiving and service of the altar to be a standard theme in other medieval paintings that depict contemporary Christian life. Take, for example, an image from a Book of Hours in the collection at the Walters Art Gallery (see page 13). The central thematic concern of this painting is the freeing of souls from purgatory. Yet at the center of this image, we see a priest who has ascended the steps of an altar in order to offer the eucharistic sacrifice, while immediately to the right a man distributes goods to the poor. The point is clear: You can’t understand one action apart from the other. They constitute a metaphysical unity.
There is a clear connection between such images and a well-known homily of St. John Chrysostom (fourth century A.D.), in which he begins by acknowledging the honor that his congregation shows toward the altar in his church. The altar is worthy of such veneration, he explains, “because it receives Christ’s body.” But this is not the only altar to be found in Antioch. “Whenever 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.”
It is easy to miss the punch of what Chrysostom is trying to communicate here. Recall that in the same century Julian “the Apostate” wrote an oft-cited letter urging his pagan priests in Galatia to be charitable to the poor. “It is disgraceful,” he observed, “that the impious Galileans [i.e. Christians] support not only their own poor but ours as well.” But in spite of Julian’s herculean efforts, the program never got off the ground. This is because the concept of being kind to the poor had no grounding in pagan religion. Not even an imperial decree could make up for this deficit. Charity flourished in the church, on the other hand, because it had a deep sacramental foundation. Chrysostom’s words are not merely rhetorical; they describe the place occupied by the poor in the early church.
In order to appreciate the church’s position on charity we need to consider the concept of the altar. Though most of us have been raised to think that God is beyond any sort of material need, the concept of an altar requires that we temporarily suspend these assumptions in order to understand the anthropomorphic language of the Bible’s authors. If the temple is the place where God “dwells,” then the altar is where his savory food is prepared. At the altar one can “send” meat, grain, and oil to the divine realm.
So what happens when we take this anthropomorphic image and carry it over to almsgiving? If the altar is able to convey food to God, then the hand of the poor, similarly, must be able to transfer funds from earth to heaven. Jewish beggars in late antiquity used to address their potential patrons with the words zeki bi—literally, “acquire a merit through me,” or, more periphrastically, “make a deposit to your heavenly treasury through me.” In speaking this way they were simply repeating a common wisdom tradition that had already appeared in the books of Sirach and Tobit. The idea of a “heavenly bank” was born, and along with it the idea that making a deposit to this bank was like making a loan to God.
This image was popular among early Jews and Christians because of its close correlation with the religious life itself. To be obedient to the covenant obviously requires a high degree of faith in God. As every creditor knows, to give someone a loan also requires a high degree of trust (“creditor” comes from the Latin word credere, “to believe”). Ben Sira was not naïve about such matters when he informed his students that “many will regard their loan as a windfall and cause trouble to those who help them” (29:4). Though they speak deferentially when requesting money, they become indignant when repayment is due. As a result, Ben Sira concluded, “many refuse to lend, not because of meanness, but from fear of being defrauded” (29:7).
If these warnings are true of borrowers even in the best of circumstances, then one would expect Ben Sira to be even sterner about making loans to the truly down-and-out. But his stance is just the opposite. He advises his students to disburse their funds without a moment’s forethought. “Lose your silver for the sake of [the poor],” he exhorts, and “lay up your treasure [in heaven],” for there “it will profit you more than gold” (29:10–11). A puzzling piece of advice from someone so sober-minded about the risks that attend a loan. Whence this confidence?
The answer lies in what the Jewish tradition calls a midrash—that is, a commentary on a portion of the scriptural text. In this particular tradition, Rabbi Gamaliel is approached by a Roman citizen and questioned about the rationality of his holy book. Can it be true, this gentile asks (quoting Deuteronomy 15:7, “loan liberally and be ungrudging when you do so”), that your God commands you to give to the poor without a moment’s hesitation? Someone who conducted his affairs in this fashion would be out of money within days and in need of assistance himself! To which Rabbi Gamaliel responds:
“What if a man appeared out of nowhere and asked you for money, would you give him it?”
He replied, “No!”
“But what if he brought you a deposit?”
He replied, “Of course!”
“Okay, but what if he brought you a commoner to cosign [literally, to stand surety]?”
He replied, “No.”
“But what if the governor himself cosigned?”
He replied, “By all means!”
“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’ [Proverbs 19:17].”
It would be difficult to exaggerate how important this verse from the book of Proverbs was for Judaism and Christianity (and eventually Islam). Among early Christian writers, this saying became one of the most cited sources in support of charitable giving. Indeed, the references are so numerous and diverse in approach that one could write a dissertation on the history of the interpretation of this one verse. Though I can’t do justice to all the evidence here, one text deserves special mention because it is a near contemporary to our rabbinic tale. It originates from the pen of St. Basil (fourth century A.D.), one of the most formidable theologians of the early church and a man who spent a good part of his life in Caesarea, Cappadocia. *
Basil begins by observing that when one assists the poor, one both offers a gift and issues a loan. It is a gift, Basil explains, “because of the expectation of no repayment, but a loan because of the great gift of the Master who pays in his place.” Basil goes on to say that though God has received mere “trifling things through a poor man,” he will, in the end, “give great things in return.” This is a remarkable text, for it underscores the sacrificial character of charity. One might think that the poor man alone benefits from charity and that God, residing in heaven, takes note of the good deed done to another and prepares the appropriate reward. But Basil says something quite different. It is not merely the poor but God himself who receives these “trifling things.” God resides—even becomes incarnate—in the destitute. The vertical nature of this exchange recalls what we learned earlier from the words of the Jewish beggar: “Acquire a merit in heaven through a gift to me.”
It is precisely the portrayal of the poor man as a point of linkage between heaven and earth that leads Basil to cite Proverbs 19:17 and to echo the words of Rabbi Gamaliel. Basil puts this question to his congregation: “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 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.”
Rabbi Gamaliel and St. Basil were well aware of the counterintuitive nature of the claims they were making. For ancient persons did not instinctively view the world as ordered to the flourishing of those who were generous. For them, 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. Jews and Christians took such an interest in charity because of what it implied about the nature of the created order.
This brings us to a concern that many will share: Does the church revere the practice of charity solely because of the reward that God has promised? This sounds disturbingly close to the “prosperity gospel,” which preys on the gullible by claiming that tithing will allow one to buy a BMW and pay off one’s mortgage all at the same time. Most people are far more comfortable with the teaching of the ancient Jewish sage Antigonus of Socho (second century B.C.): “Be not like servants who serve their master on condition of receiving a gift.”
Here it is helpful to examine the scriptural bases of this tradition. They derive for the most part from the book of Proverbs, a central pillar in what biblical scholars often refer to as ancient Israel’s “wisdom” literature. To interpret any proverb well, one must be sensitive to the context in which it is to be applied. The challenge for the reader of these wisdom sayings is to determine the specific dimension of human life that they are trying to address. For our purposes, the most important proverb could be paraphrased: “Treasures gained by hoarding provide no benefit, but generosity to the poor delivers from death” (Proverbs 10:2).
The question that stands behind this proverb is: What’s the best way to save for the future?—a question that has concerned human beings for centuries. Imagine that you have somehow come into an enormous fortune. Rather than giving in to the urge to spend it all immediately, you ponder how it might be invested to provide an endowment for the future. In front of you are two advisers: one a conventional financial analyst who urges you to invest in a broadly diversified set of index funds that would stand an excellent chance of providing you with a secure retirement at the age of sixty-five; the other a saint or tsaddiq who argues that God created the world out of charity and as a result true prosperity depends on finding a way to follow God’s own example—to ride, as it were, with the current of creation. Fund your heavenly treasury by being generous to the poor, he advises. Though it is technically correct that this religious person would be appealing to your natural inclination for self-preservation, the act of funding such a treasury could hardly be considered self-interested in the simple sense of the term. Compared with following the financial analyst’s advice, 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, a way for him to put his money where his mouth is.
The notion of a heavenly treasury discloses to us something about the character of God and the sort of world he has created. Human beings have a deep desire to know and believe that the world is a place formed and guided by charity. The notion of a heavenly treasury teaches us that giving to one’s neighbor is not reducible to a Kantian “duty.” It is a declaration about the metaphysical structure of the world. Charitable works are not just a good deeds; they are a proclamation of the gospel. If one swims with the currents of the world God has ordered providentially, one will be rewarded a hundred fold (see Mark 10:30).
Why is it, one might ask, that the life of Mother Teresa moved so many people?—and not just Christians, but also Muslims, Hindus, Jews, and even nonbelievers. I would suggest that her popularity rests in the fact that she enacted the sort of faith embodied in our proverb. But I would also want to contend that it is not just her faith that attracts our admiration, but the statement that her life makes about the nature of the world. Though all appearances would suggest that it is the financial markets that make the world go round, saints like Mother Teresa make a powerful counterclaim. In serving the poor, they not only provide concrete material help to the down-and-out; they also reveal to us the hidden structure of the universe.
Steven Pinker, a professor of psychology at Harvard, wrote an article in the New York Times Magazine lamenting that the world showers such esteem on Mother Teresa in light of the far greater good that Bill and Melinda Gates have done. Gates, Pinker writes, “crunched the numbers and determined that he could alleviate the most misery by fighting everyday scourges in the developing world like malaria, diarrhea, and parasites.”
Pinker never explains how he knows that the Gateses established their foundation according to such utilitarian considerations. Be that as it may, utilitarian value is not the only index for measuring the effects of charity. However much the Gateses might give away, their daily life remains, by and large, unaffected. They remain, in spite of this enormous donation, one of the wealthiest couples in the world. Mother Teresa, on the other hand, gave up all she had to serve the poorest of the poor.
Pinker wisely concedes that it is unlikely that his praise for the Gateses will win them more admirers than Mother Teresa has. This, he claims, is not because of the profundity of her sacrifice but because “our heads can be turned by an aura of sanctity, distracting us from a more objective reckoning of the actions that make people suffer or flourish” (emphasis mine). Mother Teresa, he asserts, “was the very embodiment of saintliness: white-clad, sad-eyed, ascetic and often photographed with the wretched of the earth.” In Pinker’s eyes, the world has been taken in by mere appearances: her simple white vestments and the “photo-ops” in which she appeared with the poorest of the poor.
This is an amazing reduction of what Mother Teresa offered to her followers and admirers. When she started her religious order, the entire premise of the organization was the gift of one’s total self to the poor. She refused on principle to establish any kind of endowment that would have relieved the sisters of having to rely entirely on God, or made it harder for them to identify completely with the poor whom they served. Every day she and her sisters put the success of their work in the hands of God. One well-educated Indian professor of sciences, when asked about her admiration for Mother Teresa, said: “I am an unbeliever, but I feel I need an anchor. Mother Teresa is an anchor.”
Whether we are believers or unbelievers, I think it is fair to say that most of us want an account of human goodness that goes deeper than purely utilitarian measures of success. We want to believe that the world itself is good and, at least in the long run, rewards a life of charity. And that is the deep reason why the financial metaphor of funding a treasury in heaven became so significant for ancient Jews and Christians. The important point was not so much what they would gain from charity but what acts of charity say about the character of the world God has created.
Funding for this essay has been provided by a grant from the Henry Luce Foundation.
*This article has been updated to reflect a correction to the geographical location of Caesarea.