On Christian charity

I’ve had some harsh words here in the past about how Christians actually behave with respect to their supposed values of charity and generosity. While I was writing this last secular morality post about charitable giving, though, I got to thinking about what the Bible actually says about helping those who are less fortunate. It’s one of these things where you might expect Jesus (or, the words attributed to him) to have been pretty clear.

In Matthew 25, Jesus tells his disciples about how when the Son of Man comes, he will separate the good “sheep” from the bad “goats,” inviting the sheep to the kingdom of heaven and banishing the rest. How will he make this distinction?

Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink?And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you?And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’

Naturally, the goats on his left are the ones who “did not do it to one of the least of these” at some point in time. You might well wonder, what happens to the people who sometimes fed the hungry, etc., and sometimes did not? They would seem to fall into both categories. Are you only a bad goat if you never help the needy, or will you be sent to eternal punishment if you ever pass up a single opportunity to do so? … But that’s not really my point here. Details aside, this passage is often cited to show that Christianity teaches generosity toward the less fortunate.

When I think of verses about the poor and the needy, though, the Beatitudes are some of the first that come to mind. You know, “blessed are the meek” and all that. There are different versions in the books of Matthew and Luke, unsurprisingly, but we may as well take a look at how they’re recounted in Luke 6:

And he lifted up his eyes on his disciples, and said:
“Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.
“Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you shall be satisfied.
“Blessed are you who weep now, for you shall laugh.
“Blessed are you when people hate you and when they exclude you and revile you and spurn your name as evil, on account of the Son of Man! Rejoice in that day, and leap for joy, for behold, your reward is great in heaven; for so their fathers did to the prophets.
“But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.
“Woe to you who are full now, for you shall be hungry.
“Woe to you who laugh now, for you shall mourn and weep.
“Woe to you, when all people speak well of you, for so their fathers did to the false prophets.

Initially, it might seem like the same message. It’s always “the least of these” who are described as blessed here. But doesn’t it say that the people who are poor, hungry, weeping, and hated are the ones who get the great reward in heaven, while those who are doing well now will suffer in the future (implied: in the afterlife)? If that’s the case, then helping the needy would deprive them of their eternal reward! You don’t want to give money to the poor, feed the starving, console the sad, or befriend the unpopular — because as soon as they cease to be poor, starving, sad, or unpopular, they lose their chance of going to heaven.

Perhaps what you’re supposed to do is help the needy just enough that their pain is temporarily and slightly eased, but not so much that their overall situation actually improves. (Hey … maybe that was the thinking behind Mother Teresa’s ministry in Calcutta.) When you add to the mix Jesus’ teaching that you should “sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven,” this whole approach looks like it’s advocating some weird, global game of hot potato, where no one wants to own any wealth so that they can be deemed good enough by the Christian god. “Here, take all my money!” “No, I don’t want it, you take it!” “Eeek! Don’t give it to me!”

Of course, the vast majority of Christians don’t actually donate all their wealth. A notable contingent of Christians spread the message that we can and should actually increase our wealth through religious devotion. Prosperity theology may be too far out there for many people, but the idea that it’s okay to have some money and possessions (or even that there’s nothing wrong with wanting to be middle class) is very mainstream and quite reasonable. So, who’s wrong here? Nearly all the Christians in the world? Or Jesus, as the Bible recorded him?

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  1. I never thought of this before – this is an excellent point. It’s a good moral from a secular standpoint, but why would Jesus want the needy to be helped if doing so would diminish their heavenly reward?

    I suppose a Christian could always say that Jesus told his followers to help the poor, but without any expectation that they would actually do it.

  2. Aristarchus

     /  July 7, 2011 at 10:43 pm

    I think the reason this contradiction is there is that the writers of the Bible never thought of charity as a way to make poor people into non-poor people. If you fed a beggar or tended to a sick pauper at your church, they would still be poor, and that’s the sort of charity that was common at the time. The modern fascination with things like scholarships and large foundations that can really transform poor African villages is an entirely different way of seeing charity. Even the modern idea of social mobility would never have crossed their minds. Whether you were poor or not was mostly a question of which family you were born into. It’s completely understandable. (Unless of course you’re claiming it’s the teachings of an omniscient being capable of seeing the future and understanding the possibility that society would change… but that would just be crazy.)

  3. grizzlybaker

     /  July 8, 2011 at 3:16 am

    The Bible contradicting itself? GASP! It must be a translation error.

    But seriously, interesting point. There are two simultaneous goals here, and you, like Asimov and his Laws of Robotics, have found a point where those two goals actually contradict.

    I actually brought up a similar point to one of my teachers when I was in high school. The teacher, a lay Franciscan, was saying much the same about the virtues of being poor while also saying how good it was to donate. I pointed out that, if a rich man were to donate (say) 10% of his income to the poor, wouldn’t he be doing a lot more good than someone else donating themselves into poverty once? He handwaved it.

  4. There’s no contradiction involved here. If we persuade people to give up most of what they have — or take it away forcibly if necessary — then their incentive for productive work goes down and they adopt a subsistence lifestyle. Pretty soon everyone’s equally poor, and anyone who gets a brief windfall can easily find someone who needs it more than they do.

    This is actually the way in which many tribal communities work, notably traditional Australian Aboriginals: any member with a remunerative job is obliged to support a circle of unemployed relatives which expands until the extra income is all absorbed.

    It is also the kind of future the Green movement appears to have in mind for us after it dismantles the carbon economy.

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