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The Early Church and Ideas About Alms-giving

Articles on Christian Stewardship

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What did the Early Church think about alms-giving? What, then, should we think about it?

I. Exhortations and Counsel on Almsgiving

Do not be ready to stretch forth your hands and receive, while you draw them back when it comes to giving. You shall not hesitate to give, nor murmur when you give. “Give to everyone who asks you.” Barnabas (c. 70-13 E), 1.148.

If one having need receives alms, he is without guilt. However, if someone receives alms who does not have a need, he will pay the penalty. He will be examined concerning the things that he has done and he shall not escape from there until he pays back the last coin. Now, concerning this, it has been said, “Let your alms stay in your hands, until you know to who you should give them.” Didache (c. 80-140, j 7.377)

Do not be one who stretches forth his hand to receive but draws them back when it comes to giving. If you have anything, through your hands you shall give ransom for your sins. You shall not hesitate to give, nor murmur when | you give. Didache (c. 80-140, E), 7.378.1

Give to all the needy in simplicity, not hesitatatingly as to whom you are to give or not to give. Give to all, for God wishes His gifts to be shared among all. Hennas (c. 150, W), 2.20.

Therefore, instead of lands, buy afflicted souls, according as each one is able. And visit widows and orphans. Hennas (c. 150, W), 2.31.

The wealthy among us help the needy. … Those who are prosperous, and willing, give what each thinks fit. And what is collected is deposited with the president, who gives aid to the orphans and widows. Justin Martyr (c. 160, E), 1.185,186.

They should take care of elderly people…”He that pities the poor lends to the Lord.” Also, “Inasmuch as you have done it unto the least of these My brethren, you have done it to Me.” Clement of Alexandria (c. 195, E), 2.279.

It is right to supply need, but it is not well to support laziness. Clement of Alexandria (c. 195, E), 2.301.

It is said, “I want mercy, not sacrifice” [Hos. 6;6], By the merciful, he means—not only ‘those who do acts of mercy—but those who desire to do them, yet are unable. Nevertheless, they do whatever they can. For sometimes we truly desire to provide mercy to someone by a gift of money or by personal attention. Some­times we truly want to assist someone in need, help someone who is sick, or stand by someone who is in any emergency. However, sometimes we are unable to carry out our desire—because of poverty, disease, or old age. Clement of Alexandria (c. 195, E), 2.416.

Alms are to be given, but to the deserving, using judgment. That way, we may obtain a ‘reward from the Most High. But woe to those who have enough, but who receive [alms] under false pretenses. Woe to those who are out to help themselves, yet want to take from others. For he who takes…out of laziness all be condemned. Clement of Alexandria (c. f95,E), 2.578.

“Give to everyone who asks you.” For truly ‘such is God’s delight in giving. And this saying I above all divinity—not to wait to be asked, but to inquire yourself as to who deserves to receive kindness…. 0 divine merchandise! (One purchases immortality for money. And, by giving the perishing things of the world, one receives in exchange for these an eternal man­sion in the heavens…Do not try to judge who is worthy or who is unworthy. For it is possible that you may be mistaken in your opinion. As in the uncertainty of ignorance, it is better to do good to the undeserving for the sake of the deserving—than by guarding against those who are less good to fail to provide for the good. By being sparing and trying to test who deserve to receive or not, you may neglect some of those who are loved by God. Clement of Alex­andria (c. 195, E), 2.600.

Though we have our treasure chest, it is not made up of purchase money, as of a religion that has its price. Rather, on the monthly day, if he likes, each puts in a small donation—but only if it is his pleasure and only if he is able. For there is no compulsion; all is voluntary. These gifts are…to support and bury poor people, to supply the needs of boys and girls destitute of means and parents, and of old per­sons now confined to the house. These gifts also help those who have suffered shipwreck. And if there happens to be any of us in the mines, or banished to the islands, or shut up in the prisons—for no reason other than their faithfulness to the cause of God’s church— they become the nurslings of their confession. Tertullian (c. 197, W), 3.46.

Our compassion spends more in the streets than yours does in the temples! Tertullian (c. 197, W), 3.49.

The brother oppressed with want, nearly lan­guishing away, cries out with distended belly to the splendidly fed. What do you say of the Lord’s Day? If he has not placed himself before, call forth a poor man from the crowd, whom you may take to your dinner. Commodianus (c. 240, W), 4.215.

If your brother should be weak (I speak of the poor man), do not visit such a one empty-handed when he lies ill. Do good under God. Pay your obedience by your money…Simi­larly, if your poor sister lies upon a sick bed, let your matrons begin to carry food to her. God himself cries out, “Break bread to the needy.” There is no need to visit with merely words, but with aid. It is wicked for your brother to be sick because of lack of food. Do not satisfy him with words! He needs meat and drink! Commodianus (c. 240, W), 4.217.

If we give alms to men with the thought of appearing charitable before men, and if we desire to be honored because of our generos­ity, we receive only the reward from men. In fact, universally, everything that is done by someone who is conscious that he will be glo­rified by men has no reward from Him who beholds in secret. For He renders the reward in secret to those who are pure. Origen (c. 245, E), 9.444.

Let the poor be taken care of as much and as well as possible. I speak especially of those who have stood with unmovable faith and have not forsaken Christ’s flock. Cyprian (c. 250, W), 5.283.

When one has pity on the poor, he lends to God. And he who gives to the least, gives to God. These are spiritual sacrifices to God, an odor of a sweet smell. Cyprian (c. 250, W), 5.456.

By almsgiving to the poor, we are lending to God. When it is given to the least, it is given to Christ. Therefore, there are no grounds for anyone preferring earthly things to heavenly— nor for considering human things before di­vine. Cyprian (c. 250, W), 5.480.

See how much he sins in the church—he who prefers himself and his children to Christ! Such a person preserves his wealth and does not share his abundant estate to relieve the poverty of the needy. Cyprian (c. 250, W), 5.481.

How much more could He stimulate the works of our righteousness and mercy than by saying that whatever is given to the needy and poor is given to Himself? Cyprian (c. 250, W), 5.483.

Let us consider, beloved brethren, what the congregation of believers did in the time of the apostles. Back then, at the beginning, the mind flourished with greater virtues. The faith of believers burned with a warmth of faith that was still new. Back then they sold houses a farms and gladly and generously presented t proceeds to the apostles, to be distributed to t poor. Cyprian (c. 250, W), 5.483.

On this same subject, in Solomon in Proverbs, it says: “He who has pity on the poor lends unto the Lord.” … Also, in the same place: “Sins are purged away by almsgiving and! faith.” [Prov. 16.6]…. Of this same thing in Hosea: “I desire mercy rather than sacrifice.1 … Of this same thing also in the Gospel according to Matthew: … “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.” Also, in the same place: “Lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven.” . .. Even a small work is of advan­tage, for it says in the same place: “And whoever shall give to one of the least of these to drink a cup of cold water in the name of a disciple, truly I say unto you, his reward shall not per­ish.” That alms are to be denied to none, it says in the same place: “Give to everyone who asks you.” Cyprian (c. 250, W), 5.531, 532.

Of this same matter, in the Epistle of John, it says: “Whoever has this world’s sustenance a» sees his brother in need and shuts up his bowels! from him, how does the love of God dwell i: him?” Cyprian (c. 250, W), 5.532.

What shall I say of [a certain pagan] who changed his possessions into money and the threw it into the sea? If you have so great contempt for money, use it in acts of kindness and humanity! Give it to the poor. In this manner, that which you are about to throw away may be of aid to many others, so that they may not die because of famine, thirst, or nakedness. Lactantius (c. 304-313, W), 7.93.

If anyone were surrounded by fire, crushed by the downfall of a building, plunged in the sea, or carried away by a river, would they not think it is the duty of a man to assist him?…So what reason is there to think that aid is to tax withheld when a man suffers from hunger thirst, or cold? Yet, the pagans make a distinction between these things. That is because they measure all things by present usefulness-not by the truth itself. For they hope that those whom they rescue from peril will return favor to them. However, because they cannot hope for this in the case of the needy, they think that whatever they give to men of this] type is “thrown away.” However, we must not bestow our funds on suitable persons [i.e. ones who will repay us], but as much as on unsuitable objects. For when you do it without the hope of any return, you will truly do it for the sake of justice, piety, and human­ity, Lactantius (304-3, W), 7.174, 175.

Why do you discriminate between persons? 1 Why do you look at bodily forms? Be generous to the blind, the feeble, the lame, and the ‘destitute. For they will die unless you bestow | your gifts upon them. They may be useless to men, but they are serviceable to God. For He preserves life in them and endows them with I breath. Lactantius (c. 304-313, W), 7.175.

This is the chief and truest advantage of riches: not to use wealth for the particular Pleasure of an individual, but for the welfare of many. It is not for one’s own immediate enjoy­ment, but for justice—which alone does not perish. Lactantius (c. 304-313, W), 7.176.

The ransoming of captives is a great and noble exercise of justice…. Yet, he who does it to a stranger and an unknown person, he truly is worthy of praise. For he was led to do it by Blindness alone…. Nor is it less of a great work of justice to protect and defend orphans and those who are destitute and stand in need of assistance. Accordingly, the divine law prescribes this to all. Lactantius (c. 304-313, W), EU77.

No Christian should be prevented from undergoing death on behalf of justice and faith [i.e. martyrdom], because he is concerned for his dependents. Rather, he should meet death openly and boldly, for he knows that he leaves his beloved ones to the care of God and they will never lack protection. To take the care and support of the sick, who needs someone to assist them, is the part of great kindness and love…The last and greatest office of godliness is the burying of strangers and the poor. Lactantius (c. 304-313, W), 7.177.

Someone may say: “If I do all these things, I’ll have no possessions. What if a large number of people are in want, suffer cold, have been taken captive, or should die? If anyone thinks this way, he will deprive himself of his property in a single day! Shall I throw away the estate acquired by my own labor or by that of my ancestors? Must then I myself live by the pity of others?” [Lactantius’s answer:] Why do you fear to turn a frail and perishable asset into one that is everlasting? Why do you fear to entrust your treasures to God as their preserver? For in that case you will not need to fear thief and robber—nor rust, nor tyrant. He who is rich towards God can never be poor. If you esteem justice so highly, lay aside the bur­dens that oppress you and follow justice. Free yourself from bondage and chains, so that you can run to God without any hindrance. Lactan­tius (c. 304-313, W), 7.177, 178.

God admonishes us that the doer of justice should not be boastful. Otherwise, he will appear to have given charitably, not so much from a desire of obeying the divine commands, but from the desire to please men. In which case, he will already have the reward of glory that he has aimed at. Therefore, he will not receive the reward that is heavenly and divine. Lactantius (c. 304-313, W), 7.183.

If anyone is in need because of gluttony, drunkenness, or idleness, he does not deserve any assistance. Apostolic Constitutions (compiled c. 390, E), 7.397.

What if some persons are neither widows nor widowers, but stand in need of assistance— either because of poverty, disease, or the responsibility of a great number of children? It is your duty to oversee all people and to take care of them all. Apostolic Constitutions (compiled c. 390, E), 7.427.

He that…receives in hypocrisy or through idleness—instead of working and assisting oth­ers—shall be deserving of punishment before God. For he has snatched away the morsel of the needy. Apostolic Constitutions (compiled c. 390, E), 7.433.

From the righteous labor of the faithful, maintain and clothe those who are in need. And such sums of money as are collected from them in the aforesaid manner, designate these to be used for the redemption of the saints, the deliv­erance of slaves, captives, and prisoners. They should also be used for those who have been abused or have been condemned by tyrants to single combat and death on account of the name of Christ. Apostolic Constitutions (compiled c. 390, E), 7.435; extended discussion: 5.476-5.484, 5.530-5.533.

II. Rewards for Almsgiving

When you can do good, do not hesitate. For “alms delivers from death” [Tob. 4:10]. Polycarp (c. 135, E), 1.35.

Therefore, almsgiving is a good thing, as is repentance from sin. Fasting is better than prayer. But almsgiving is better than both. “For love covers a multitude of sins.” Second Clement (c. 150), 7.522.

As Solomon says, “He that has pity upon the poor lends unto the Lord.” For God, who stands in need of nothing, takes our good works to Himself for this purpose: that He may grant us a reward from His own good things. For our Lord says: “Come, you blessed of My Father, receive the kingdom prepared for you. For I was hungry and you gave Me something to eat.” Irenaeus (c. 180, E/W), 1.486.

Sins are purged by alms and acts of faith. Clement of Alexandria (c. 195, E), 2.363.

It is written, “Alms do deliver from death.” Assuredly, this is not from that [original] death that the blood of Christ has extinguished and from which the saving grace of baptism and of our Redeemer has delivered us. Rather, it is from the death that creeps in afterwards through sins. Cyprian (c. 250, W), 5.332.

Be earnest in righteous works, by which sins may be purged. Frequently apply yourself to almsgiving, by which souls are freed from death…Let good works be done without delay, Cyprian (c. 250, W), 5.447.

Make Christ a partner with you in earthly possessions, that He also may make 5 a fellow-heir with Him in His heavenly kingdom. Cyprian (c. 250, W), 5.479.

The matter comes to this: whatever a has bestowed upon another person with thought of receiving an advantage from him he really bestows upon himself. For such a man will receive a reward from God. God has also admonished us that if at any time we pre­pare a feast, we should invite to the entertain­ment those who cannot invite us in return. Lactantius (c. 304-313, W), 7 A 76.

III. Making Friends with Unrighteous Mammon

The rich man refreshes the poor and assists him in his necessities. He believes that what he does to the poor man will be able to find its inward with God. For the poor man is rich in intercession and confession, and his interces­sion has great power with God. Hernias (c. ISO, ‘W.2.32).

There follow us a small (and in some cases, a large) amount of property that we have acquired from the mammon of unrighteousness. For from what source do we derive the houses in which we dwell, the garments in which we are clothed . . . unless it is from those likings which, when we were Gentiles, we pictured by avarice or received from our unbelieving parents? This is not to mention that even now we acquire such things when we are in the faith. For who is there that sells and does not wish to make a profit from him who buys? . . . Or who is there that carries on a trade and does not do so that he may obtain a livelihood thereby? Irenaeus (c. 180, E/W), 1.502, 503.

Whatever we acquired from unrighteousness when we were unbelievers, we are proved righ­teous when we have become believers, by applying it to the Lord’s advantage. Irenaeus (c. 180, E/W), 1.504.

Contrary to what is the case with the rest of men, gather for yourself an unarmed, unwar-like, bloodless, peaceful, and a stainless army— an army of godly old men, orphans dear to God, widows armed with meekness, and men adorned with love. Obtain with your money such guards for your body and soul…All these warriors and guards are trustworthy. Not one of them is idle; none are useless. Some of them can obtain your pardon from God. Oth­ers can comfort you when sick. And still others can weep and groan in sympathy for you to the Lord. Clement of Alexandria (c. 195, E), 2.601.

If you have no interpreter with you, you may learn again from Himself what He would have understood by mammon. … “I say to you, ‘Make to yourselves friends with the mammon of unrighteousness.'” That is to say, with money, even as the steward had done. Now, we are all aware that money is the instigator of unrighteousness, and is the lord of the whole world. Tertullian (c. 207, W), 3.403.

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