Lactantius devotes several sections of the Divine Institutes (6.11-12) to an analysis of Roman benefaction and to a sketch of a Christian alternative. He writes that it is “a great work of justice to protect and defend orphans and widows ho are destitute and stand in need of assistance; and therefore that divine law prescribes this to all.” In the Roman empire, “all good judges deem that it belongs to their office to favour them with natural kindness, and to strive to benefit them.”

Yet the care of orphans and widows is especially incumbent on Christians “since we have received the law, and the words of God Himself giving us instructions.” Pagans “perceive that it is naturally just to protect those who need protection, but they do not perceive why it is so.” God wants everyone, no matter how destitute, to face life and death “with promptitude and boldness,” knowing that God will care for him.

Romans gave benefits to one another for advantage, and thus did not see the use of “burying of strangers and the poor,” since they “measured all their duties by utility.” Though they had an “inkling of the truth,” the could not see “any advantage” in a benefit to the dead. Death was the impenetrable boundary of benefaction.

To care for the poor is, for Lactantius, a form of worship: “to undertake the care and support of the sick, who need some one to assist them, is the part of the greatest kindness, and of great beneficence; and he who shall do this will both gain a living sacrifice to God.” God promises to make good on the offering: “that which he has given to another for a time he will himself receive from God for eternity.”

More on: History

Articles by Peter J. Leithart

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