Even the most ardent atheist can be compassionate and merciful. Yet how often do they, and even we Christians forget that it was Christ’s influence, found in the parable of the Good Samaritan that instituted what was never before done in the world- on-going compassion and charity for anyone in need. Up to His earthly walk there was some charity, but it was very rare and usually expressed by the wealthy only toward the wealthy.
“Charity found little scope in this frugal life. Hospitality survived as a mutual convenience at a time when inns were poor and far between; but the sympathetic Polybius reports that ‘in Rome no one ever gives away anything to anyone if he can help it’- doubtless an exaggeration.”1
Oh, no doubt those outside of the faith will claim that charity existed before His earthly arrival but the historical record certainly doesn’t reflect that assertion.
“Whereas the corn doles of pagan cities had been confined to citizens, usually to those who were quite well-off, the Christians’ charity claimed to be for those who were most in need.”2
What generosity that existed was even sometimes performed by the mighty for ulterior motives. For example, some pagan emperors targeted charity to only those who would later serve in the military.3
Enter Christ into the world and all that changes.
Maybe you’d like to be charitable but someone, perhaps a friend, your church or maybe even your employer is insisting that you do so. Should generosity be something that is compelled? Should you the charity giver become in need of charity yourself by way of helping others? Let’s take a look shall we at the Biblical model for charity, going back to the early days of the church where the short answer to all these questions is “No.”
Charity in the Fledgling Church
Written about events just a few short years after Pentecost, Acts 4:32-33, tells how all the new followers of the faith had one thing in common- they enjoyed great grace. They didn’t argue or squabble over things that the church argues about today. They spent their time being grateful for Christ’s grace in blessing them with earthly riches (yes, Christ has no problem with people being wealthy). Verses 34-35 tell how none of them were lacking. They freely/voluntarily gave to the church the proceeds from selling their lands and houses because they felt heartfelt to do so. The proceeds were given to the Apostles in Jerusalem who then discerned who the needy were and what they should receive. This voluntary giving, plus the third party intervention of the church leaders avoided prideful giving, born of someone being treated differently from another based upon what they gave. It encouraged discernment about who was indeed needy financially or maybe only spiritually.
This portion of Acts also gives a reminder that if we are needy we must trust in the Lord to provide for us. Specifically, Acts 4:36, tells how Barnabas, a Levite, was a property owner. Levites, you might recall were ordered by the Lord to serve the spiritual needs of the people. In exchange they were to depend only on the Lord for their needs.
“Then the Lord said to Aaron: ‘You shall have no inheritance in their land, nor shall you have any portion among them; I am your portion and your inheritance among the children of Israel. Behold I have given the children of Levi all the tithes in Israel as an inheritance in return for the work which they perform, the work of the tabernacle of meeting.” Numbers 19:20-21.
Yet there was Barnabas holding a deed to some property. He must have bought it trusting in his ability to provide for his future more than the Lord’s. But Barnabas changes; so as Acts 4 closes he sells his property and gave the proceeds away to the apostles, remembering that the Lord is his inheritance. He is ours too. I’m not saying that having a rainy day fund or a retirement plan is wrong but we must also place our trust in the Lord to get through the trials of this earthly life.
Meanwhile, as Acts 5 opens we see that Ananias and his wife Sapphira are scoping out all the giving to the church and they wanted to be seen doing the same thing. Trouble is they wanted to do it on the cheap, by sleight of hand. They sold some property then held back some of what they got for it, and they got busted. They were slain by the Holy Spirit because they misrepresented themselves, acting like they were giving something to the church when it was only half as much. See, they wanted the appearance of being charitable.
The moral of all this, trusting in the Lord, giving secretly, and what you can for the best of intentions, goes back to Matthew 6:1-4. Don’t bring attention to yourself when you give. If you do good things to be seen you’ll have your reward here on earth only. However, if we want glorification from Christ we do good things in secret in consideration of the character of Jesus of Nazareth and His desire that we serve him, not ourselves.
The Christ’s Greatest Example of Charity
Philippians 2:1-8, best sums it up. He laid his earthly life down for ours. Selfless giving was at the heart of this. Christ left his comfort zone, became man, walked among us and we killed him, and He knew it would happen. He gave the greatest gift to meet our greatest need- a relationship with Him. He healed the sick and blind. He even raised the dead but He didn’t do these wonderful things to put himself on display. He wanted, yes, to restore people physically but more importantly he wanted to bring them to Him spiritually. He wants us to give up what we can for the best of reasons. Anything else does not foster “cheerful giving” as described in 2nd Corinthians 9:6-7, the kind done not only during the Christmas season but year round. Merry Christmas!
- Will Durant, Caesar and Christ: A History of Roman Civilization and of Christianity from Their Beginnings to A.D. 325 (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1944; renewed 1972), p. 652.
- Robin Lane Fox, Pagans and Christians (San Francisco: Perennial Library Harper and Row Publishers, 1896, 1988) p. 324.
- Fox, Pagans and Christians, p. 17.
Contributions also from:
The Poverty of Possessions, a sermon by Bunjee Garrett, Calvary Chapel of South Austin, on 9/18/05, care of calvarysouthaustin.com