Monday, August 29, 2022

Is Giving Alms a Christian Obligation?

I ask the question because when I go grocery shopping, the islands separating street lanes around the grocery store are occupied by people holding placards asking for a handout. "Anything will help," many of them read. The spectacle raises the question how should one respond?

"Alms" (eleēmosunē), or charitable giving, is defined as something (food or money) given to relieve the needs of the poor. Altruistic giving, as an organized religious activity (i.e. giving "alms"), was unknown among the Greco-Roman religions in the ancient world,1 but it does appear as a practice in the modern religions of Christianity and Islam. For example, in Roman Catholic Catechism, section 2462, almsgiving is considered "a witness to fraternal charity" and a "work of justice pleasing to God."2 Alms (zakat) is one of the five pillars of Islam.

            The situation with respect to the early followers of Jesus is somewhat mixed. Matthew attributes to Jesus instruction (Matt 6:1-4; Luke 11:41) about how to give alms (eleēmosunē; ηλεημοσυνη), as if giving alms were a formally recognized community custom, and he endorses giving alms as a religious practice by directing something few of us do:

Sell your possessions and give alms; provide yourself with purses that do not grow old, with a treasure in the heavens where no thief approaches and no moth destroys (Luke 12:33, RSV).

Oddly, however, alms as a formally recognized religious custom is not part of the undisputed Pauline religious gatherings nor is it found in most of the New Testament; the word "alms," eleēmosunē, only appears in Acts, Luke, and Matthew. The custom is also mentioned in the Apostolic Fathers (2 Clem xvi.4 and Did. 1.6; xv.4), a little later than the New Testament period.

            Among the earliest Hellenistic followers of Jesus altruistic behavior in giving rather than ritual behavior (alms) seems to have been the practice (1 Cor 16:1-3; 8:1-15; 9:6-7;Gal 2:9-10; 1 Thess 5:15; Phil 2:3-4; Eph 4:28; 1 Tim 6:17-18; 1 John 3:17; Jas 2:14-17). Most of these passages reflect a community ethic; in other words, it is altruistic behavior directed toward those within the religious community. Nevertheless, here and there, the altruistic behavior shades over toward those outside the community (Gal 2:10; Phil 2:3-4; 1 Thess 5:15; Eph 4:28). In the Pauline gatherings it was left up to individuals to decide what they should do by giving to relieve the needs of others (1 Cor 16:1-3; 2 Cor 8:1-15; 2 Cor 9:6-7). That was not necessarily the practice in the extended Christian family. In the Gospel of Thomas (around 200 CE), for example, a very difficult saying is attributed to Jesus:

Those who go hungry to fill the starving belly of another are favored (Gos. Thom. 69b).

In other words, one is mandated to share with others, nameless or otherwise, in spite of one's own immediate needs and the hunger pangs gnawing at one's own insides.3

            Hence, we find in the "Christian" tradition from its earliest beginnings to the modern-day contradictory advice for those seeking a compassionate way of giving to others. The options vary: ritualistic giving of alms, altruistic behavior to members of your own religious community, a universal altruistic giving, and finally a giving to others indiscriminately until your own resources are exhausted. They all agree, however, that those more fortunate among us have an obligation to help the less fortunate in the human family. The most practical advice for negotiating these alternatives comes from Paul: Give to others in need as you yourself prosper and regularly set something aside for that purpose (1 Cor 16:1-3). Give as you are able and a little more besides (2 Cor 8:3), but don't overburden yourself (2 Cor 8:13-14). Make up your own mind about your giving and develop a cheerful attitude about giving to others (1 Cor 9:6-7). The ultimate goal is to help raise the standard of living of the poor to match your own (2 Cor 8:13-14).

            The sum of the matter among early followers of Jesus is this: give systematically to those less fortunate.

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University



3 See Hedrick, The Wisdom of Jesus (Cascade, 2014), 89 for a discussion of this radical saying.

Saturday, August 13, 2022

Responses to the Biblical Proposition: "God"

In biblical texts there are accounts of different responses to divinity. In this essay the divine is considered a proposition that individuals affirm, or not. The content of the proposition (what or who God is) differs from person to person; for people respond differently to the proposition “God,” because they conceive God differently. In general, we gather our ideas of divinity from our culture, engagement in society, religious gatherings, parents, and our own personal thought.1

I realize that people who believe firmly in God would state the title differently. Some might entitle the essay “Experiences of God found in the Bible.” My title and way of focusing the essay is necessary to maintain objectivity, for if there is no God, then claims to experience God, must arise from within the individuals who make such claims.

            In the Bible there are very few personal testimonies about experiencing God made by those individuals who had the experience. A personal testimony is made by the person who claims the experience. In such cases the identity of the claimant must be known, for the claim to be personal testimony. All other claims are secondary or tertiary. A secondary level of testimony is when a given writer claims an experience with the divine on someone else’s behalf. For example, the author of Acts, regarded as Luke by critical New Testament scholarship, records three accounts of Paul’s religious experience (Acts 9:1-19; Acts 22:4-16; 26:9-18) and another of Stephen (Acts 7:55-56). Paul also describes religious experiences on the part of Peter and others (1 Cor 15:5-7). A tertiary level of testimony is when a writer of unknown identity claims a religious experience on someone else’s behalf; for example, Mark makes a claim for Jesus (Mark 1:9-11); the author of the book of Job records the religious experience of Eliphaz (Job 4:12-17); the author of First Kings records a religious experience of Elijah (1 Kgs 19:9-18). There is less chance of accuracy in secondary claims of experience with the divine, since such claims can be made to serve the interests of the writer.2 Tertiary claims of experiencing the divine are reliably open to charges of being fictionalized.

Here are three personal testimonies of experiencing the divine. Isaiah claimed a personal experience with God when he “saw” the Lord “high and lifted up” (Isa 6:1-3). This distant, holy, yet forgiving Lord (6:4-7), called on Isaiah to proclaim a harsh message to the people of Judah (6:8-13). Did Isaiah “see,” these things in the sense that the images were registered on the retina of his eyes (i.e., there was actually something physically there to see), or did he imagine the entire experience (i.e., it only happened in his mind), or did he “create” the account out of his religious faith?

John, the author of the Book of Revelation (the Apocalypse), describes a psychedelic-like3 experience when he was enraptured “in the spirit on the Lord’s day” (Rev 1:10). He heard behind him a voice “loud like a trumpet” (1:10). What he “saw” was the resurrected Lord presented in rather bizarre images (Rev 1:12-19). The rest of the book of Revelation constitutes other things John sees: “what is, and what is to take place hereafter” (1:19), which John wrote down in obedience to the command to “write” (1:19). Once again, a reader must decide if this experience was registered on the retina of John’s eyes, or were produced by his imagination, or created out of his system of religious beliefs.

Paul does not describe the actual moment of his encounter with the divine but alludes to aspects of it (Gal 1:11-17; 1 Cor 15:8). The elements of the event were:  God revealed God’s son to Paul to preach among the Gentiles (Gal 1:16; 1 Cor 15:8) and Jesus Christ himself revealed to Paul the gospel he preached (Gal 1:11-12).4

None of these experiences with the divine should be regarded as normative for one’s own experience. There is no such thing as a normative religious experience because people have different ideas about God.5 Gods conceived differently, “interact” differently, with those who conceive them.

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

1The Bible is not listed here because it is something we learn about and are taught by our parents and the culture in which we live.

2As in the case of Luke’s description of Paul’s experience: see Hedrick, “Paul’s Conversion/Call: A Comparative Analysis of the Three Reports in Acts,” Journal of Biblical Literature 100 (1981): 415-32.

3Imitating the effects of psychedelic drugs such as distorted or bizarre images or sounds.

4It is unclear to me whether Paul’s confidence that God set him apart before he was born and called him through grace was part of the divine encounter or is simply a part of Paul’s personal faith.