Christianity 201

June 6, 2012

On the Nature of Benevolence

Today, for C201 post #800, we’re featuring the writing of fellow-Canadian, Jamie Arpin Ricci, who recently blogged an excerpt from his book, The Cost of Community: Jesus, St. Francis & Life in the Kingdom (InterVarsity Press) available at your local Christian bookstore. To read what follows at source, which we always strongly encourage, click over to Of Love and Charity.

Recently I took part in a lively discussion about the word “charity”.  While the intended use of the word in the discussion was referring to “voluntary giving of help, typically money, to those in need”, someone else mentioned that the word “charity” is often used as an explicitly theological term meaning love- specifically agape, the unconditional love of God and/or the love we are called to hold for all others.  I argued that the use of “charity” to refer to “love” is the result of the Vulgate translation of agape- a likely use to differentiate it from sexual love. However, etymologically, “charity” has primarily been used to reference benevolence to the poor.  I contend that the very small segment of Christian usage of the term as love does not accurately represent the words original and most common usage, historically or today.

Be that as it may, the intersection of love and charity became the heart of the discussion.  Jesus said:

“When you give to the needy, do not let you left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is don in secret, will reward you” (Matthew 6:3)

So how should we understand these secret works of righteousness? Interestingly, the Greek word used for “acts of righteousness” is not the same word in every manuscript. Some ancient manuscripts that include this passage use the same word for “righteousness” as the one in the Beatitudes, the righteousness/justice we are to hunger and thirst for. Other manuscripts, though, use an entirely different word meaning “almsgiving” or simply “gifts to the poor.” After shooting off a few e-mails to some Bible scholar friends of mine, I learned that while the best manuscripts use the former meaning (that is, they refer to works of justice), the reason the other meaning is used at times is because the primary “act of righteousness” in the Judaism of Jesus’ day was almsgiving.

The use of both Greek words suggests that Jesus was referring to the Jewish practice called tzedakah, a Hebrew word that loosely means “charity” but has as its root the Hebrew word for justice (tzedek). Rooted in the gleaning laws of their agrarian past, the complexities of the developing economy led to a more sophisticated set of guidelines and requirements about giving to the poor.  However, consistent throughout that development was the central fact that such giving was always to be done anonymously. What we can glean, then, is that while Jesus is commenting broadly on works of justice, most of his listeners would have thought immediately of tzedakah. And given that Jesus continues by directly addressing the practice of almsgiving in the following section, this connection is obviously intentional.

The connection between righteousness/justice and providing for the poor must not be missed or minimized. Its long history in Judaism and Christianity, and Jesus’ clear affirmation of its continued practice, should be more than enough to make us mindful of its significance for the church. As we have explored earlier, it is not uncommon these days for Christians to believe that God calls us to care for the spiritual needs of others, with material needs being of secondary priority (and often a distant second at that). Some even go so far as to say we are not called meet the material needs of the poor at all. However, most would simply minimize such charity as a secondary, less important aspect to the higher spiritual calling of saving souls.

We cannot miss that Jesus makes no such division or distinction between the spiritual and material needs of humanity. The righteousness and justice we are called to hunger and thirst after, and the shalom we are called to create in the world—even in its brokenness—is absolutely concerned with the whole person, in- deed all of creation. The disintegrative nature of sin is being reversed by the work of Christ’s redemption, moving us toward the intended wholeness of creation, reflected in the nature of the Garden of Eden before sin. It was good! Our commitment to Christ and his mission, then, must be equally devoted to the restoration of the whole person and the whole creation.

When we understand the dynamics at work here, we see that Jesus is not teaching anything new in respect to the requirement of giving to the poor (and acts of justice in general), nor are his warnings about doing so to be seen as righteous by those watching us. This was something all good Jews knew to avoid. Something clearly distinguishes Jesus’ admonition. He is not forbidding us from doing works of righteousness before others (which would indeed be a contradiction of his earlier mandate in Matthew 5:13-16), but rather he is warning us against doing such works for the purpose of being seen by others. Once again, Jesus is forcing us to examine the intentions of our heart, for the true nature of our righteousness is found there, not in the act itself. We must live in the tension between the interior formation of our hearts and the ethical behavior it gives birth to. We should not be surprised that this was such a common problem in his day. After all, which of us does not like getting praised for our good works? This is a universal temptation that we all face.

~Jamie Arpin-Ricci

 

Jamie was featured previously here at C201 on January 2nd, 2011 with an article entitled The Biblical Concept of Godly Leadership.

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