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Charity: The Place of the Poor in the Biblical Tradition

by gary a. anderson

yale, 232 pages, $30

In the last few years there has been a subtle shift in our social and political discourse. While an earlier generation commenced a War on Poverty, we now deploy our military metaphors in the fight for equality. Framed this way, the moral issue is not, strictly speaking, the plight of the most vulnerable among the 99 percent. It is rather the spectacular difference between their lives and the lives of the 1 percent, or, as Thomas Piketty would have it, the widening gap between the rate of return on assets and general economic growth. The imperative is justice, not generosity; the motive outrage, not compassion.

Few would deny that economic inequality, described recently by President Obama as the “defining challenge of our time,” deserves sustained and serious attention. Yet the focus on equality suggests that the problem is preeminently technical and political: the fair acquisition and distribution of wealth. The challenge is only moral to the extent that it overcomes vices like greed and indifference, which are said to stand in the way of progress and reinforce an unequal status quo.

What is missing here is reflection on why helping the disadvantaged is ultimately, somehow, the right thing to do. When we venture into this deeper question, we encounter words that now seem hopelessly outmoded: “charity,” “the poor,” and “almsgiving,” to name only a few. These words evoke a culture several steps removed from our combative egalitarianism. But they also hold the key to understanding why charity is good and what is at stake in our treatment of the poor.

Those seeking a deeper understanding of contemporary debates will benefit tremendously from a new book by leading biblical scholar and Notre Dame professor Gary Anderson. At first glance, Charity: The Place of the Poor in the Biblical Tradition appears to be rather modest and unassuming. It is, after all, a scholarly work about ancient attitudes toward almsgiving. It draws its principal inspiration from two apocryphal or deuterocanonical works, books apparently on the margins of the biblical tradition. When one thinks of biblical books with contemporary significance, Tobit and Sirach do not exactly leap to mind.

But make no mistake. Anderson’s book thrusts boldly at the foundations of the modern moral project. With rich detail and sophisticated analysis, Anderson makes clear that despite superficial similarities, biblical care for the poor is a much more robust and ambitious undertaking than charity’s diminished modern forms: benevolence, altruism, philanthropy, social justice, and so on.

Anderson treats the two justifications for charity most common today. The first is utilitarian: Charity is good because it decreases suffering, and it should be practiced insofar as it contributes to the happiness and well-being of an ever greater number of people. While it is easy to approve of the benefits bestowed on the nations by mega-philanthropists like Bill Gates, utilitarianism does not go very far in explaining why we should seek the happiness of others in the first place. If the answer is “because it optimizes my own happiness” or “just because,” then charity is either egoistic or arbitrary.

Secondly, charity may be understood simply as a moral duty. On this view, the principle of fairness requires us to help others. Immanuel Kant, for example, saw altruism as a necessary consequence of two fundamental aspects of human nature: the drive toward moral perfection (the good will) and the fact that reason only legislates or approves those actions that can be universalized (the moral law). Charity, then, emerges out of the individual’s rational quest to fulfill his moral nature.

In the Bible, charity is not simply about good results (decreased suffering) or good motives (to do one’s moral duty). Rather, charity in the biblical tradition runs deeper. It concerns one’s relation to God and a way of being in the world. As Anderson says, it is “a matter of ontology.”

That way of being emerges in mercantile settings. Biblical texts describe care for the poor and needy as “lending to God” (Prov. 19:17). This might seem an odd idea, but in one of the most fascinating sections of the book, Anderson documents the intrinsic connection between belief and trust, on the one hand, and the workings of the financial system on the other. To extend credit to a lender is to believe (Latin credere) that he or she is trustworthy and will repay the loan. The financial crisis of 2008 was precipitated by overconfident investors and a “surfeit of trust” that opened the door to risky, undisciplined, and fraudulent behavior. When housing prices fell, lending institutions lost faith in mortgage-backed securities, corruption was exposed, and credit (belief) dried up.

When the Bible links faith to almsgiving, it capitalizes on precisely this dynamic. What one believes is reflected, invariably, in how one uses his or her resources and prepares for the future. The miser hoards and the hedonist spends, but what do the pious do? Certain readings of the Bible seem to commend a kind of bourgeois prosperity built from hard work, honest gain, frugal living, and social responsibility. Think Benjamin Franklin. But if Anderson is right, then biblical faith does not commend success within a merely just social system. Instead, it presupposes something radically theocentric: a compassionate God who identifies with the poor and expects his followers to do the same.

The unexpected twist, though, is that almsgiving is not merely a sacred duty, a religious version of deontology. Instead, Second Temple texts like Sirach and Tobit (and, indeed, the Mishnah and the New Testament) treat almsgiving as a form of direct participation in a divine economy. To give money to the poor is not, in Kantian fashion, to discharge one’s duty with virtuous indifference to consequence. It is rather to entrust one’s wealth to God by extending credit to his indigent surrogates. Like all loans, such exchanges are risky. In this case, though, the “borrower” is God and the giver’s willingness to lend and be repaid at a later date is an index of faith.

One objection foreseen by Anderson arises here. This theology of almsgiving seems to boomerang back to self-interest by making almsgiving instrumental and calculated. The lending of money, however, is always to some extent about belief, and almsgiving in particular is a declaration of belief in the goodness and primacy of God’s charity. Benefits accrued to the lender are not stand-alone goods that permit one, having been paid off, to withdraw to the heavenly counting house. They are, instead, means by which the almsgiver embodies and enjoys the graciousness of God and the created order.

Another response to this objection is practical. Put simply: Try it. Anyone who honors God with his wealth and gives sacrificially to the poor will soon see, as Tobit did, that there is no way to practice biblical charity without, as Jesus says, dying to oneself.

Having characterized charity as a “loan to God,” Anderson devotes the second half of the book to a closely related biblical motif: the “treasury in heaven” where acts of charity are stored. Anderson shows clearly that the motif is prominent in rabbinic teaching and in the New Testament (for example, in the stories of the rich young ruler in Mark and Tabitha in Acts). Yet he is also sensitive to construals of a “treasury” that have given rise to abusive Church practices and mechanistic understandings of Purgatory.

Anderson discerns two senses in which the heavenly treasury is referenced. In some texts, the sense is “commercial.” Good deeds are held to offset the consequences of sin (without actually wiping away the sins themselves) and to help the sinner by advancing him or her in a (purgative) process of spiritual transformation. Charitable acts are also referred to in Scripture as a “memorial.” In showing mercy to the poor, the almsgiver enacts faith in a merciful God. The deed itself becomes a plea to God to remember the almsgiver and show him or her mercy in return. Thus the alms of Cornelius (Acts 10) and of Tobit and Sarah (Tobit 12) are described as “memorials” that “ascend” to God and engender divine mercy.

The point of the treasury motif is not to pin down a precise understanding of God’s mercy but to offer what Anderson calls “equivocal” ways of grasping the mystery of divine redemption.

In the theological tradition, mysteries are not inscrutable objects that demand irrational belief. They are sacred realities that one must ­experience in order to understand. One does not shrug at mysteries; one enters into them. Modern habits of mind dispose us to rational accounts of charity, which accord with our experience of the world as a closed terrain that we must organize and inhabit as best we can. Yet charity is not so easily domesticated.

Anderson challenges secular conceptions of charity, but the book presents an equally stiff challenge to modern Jews and Christians. Charity is such a familiar part of religious belief and practice that we are in danger of taking it for granted and missing its true significance. To follow the book’s intricate path through early Jewish and Christian scriptural interpretation is to see that charity, far from being a socially useful adornment to religious faith, is practically identical with faith itself. The epigraph of Charity, a quotation from St. John Chrysostom, might also have served as its conclusion: “It is impossible, though we perform ten thousand other good deeds, to enter the portals of the kingdom without almsgiving.” To read this book is to see why this is so and to understand that the real outrage is not the bare fact of inequality but the neglect of charity in a world built and sustained by love.

Michael C. Legaspi is associate professor in classical and ancient Mediterranean studies and Jewish studies at Pennsylvania State University.