Charity as a Public Virtue 


Then Jesus also said to him who invited Him, “When you give a dinner or a supper, do not ask your friends, your brothers, your relatives, nor rich neighbors, lest they also invite you back, and you be repaid. But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the maimed, the lame, the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you; for you shall be repaid at the resurrection of the just.” (Luke 14:12-14)


Charity for the poor, the needy, the defenseless, neighbors and even for sojourners and strangers is advocated in the Scriptures both old and new.  Christ reminds us that the Old Testament can be summed up in 2 rules: love God and love neighbor.  While Christ may have placed a greater emphasis on charity than other rabbis might have and He expanded the idea a bit, still God’s people have been taught to show charity to those in need as a way to imitate God’s love.  This emphasis on charity and compassion was not shared by all other nations and peoples in the ancient world. Historian Peter Brown notes of the Roman Empire:

… in our first chapter we saw that the rise to privilege of the Christian Church after the conversion of Constantine in 312 dramatically altered the scale of Christian charity, the nature of its institutions, and the meaning that such charity took on for a still partially Christianized world. It was no longer a fiercely inward-looking matter, directed to the needs of the faithful alone. ‘Love of the poor’ became a public virtue, which bishops and clergymen were expected to demonstrate, in return for public privileges.  . . .  We are dealing, rather, with a change in the social imagination. Late antiquity witnessed the transition from one model of society, in which the poor were largely invisible, to another, in which they came to play a vivid imaginative role.”  (POVERTY AND LEADERSHIP IN THE LATER ROMAN EMPIRE, p 74)

Christ identified Himself with the poor and told us to show charity and compassion to these least of HismercytoChrist brothers and sisters is to show empathy and care for Christ Himself. This is perhaps a new element in the faith of God’s people: previously being rich was seen as a sign of God’s favor, but now in the Gospel and New Testament it is imitating God in charity and compassion that brings about God’s favor. In serving the poor, we are serving our Lord Jesus Christ. Having an abundance of possessions means nothing if one doesn’t use them for the good of others. This changes the way one understands justice which is no longer just about the law, but about imitating God in love for others. Unfortunately, many Christians through the centuries have been reluctant to practice charity for a variety of reasons, some seemingly reasonable.  Some bishops became champions of the poor and advocates of charity and compassion for the needy as they fulfilled their role to help make Christ (and thus divinity) present to their flocks.  For example, St Basil the Great, referring to Christ’s parable of Lazarus and the rich man, comments to his parishioners on some of the negative ways they react to the poor:


But if a poor man who is so hungry that he can barely speak presents himself to us, we turn away him, even though his nature is the same as ours. We feel loathing for him and get away from him as quickly as we can, as if we are afraid that walking slowly would cause us to share in his misfortune. And if he bows down to the ground because he is ashamed of his circumstances, we say that he is putting on a pretense. But if he boldly looks us in the eye on account of his oppressive pangs of hunger, instead we call him a shameless lout. And if he happens to be wearing clothes given to him by someone else, and they are in good shape, we drive him away as greedy swindler and swear that he is feigning poverty. But if he is covered with rags that are falling to pieces, instead we drive him away as a smelly dirt bag. And neither by appealing to the name of the creator in the midst of his supplications, nor by continually praying for us that we too may not fall into similar sufferings, can he bend our merciless decision. For these reasons I suspect that the fires of hell will be more severe for us than they were for that rich man.  (ON CHRISTIAN DOCTRINE AND PRACTICE, p 174)


Christ’s comments above (Luke 14:12-14) give us a sense that He often behaved as if the Kingdom of God was already present on earth. The Jubilee is in effect, all is forgiven, all debts canceled. The heavenly banquet has begun, and all should rejoice in it and sit together feasting in unity and love. He was teaching and modeling a behavior that He hoped His disciples would follow. This is what changed the attitude of an entire Empire toward the downtrodden, poor and needy and made Christian bishops who advocated charity for the poor to be upheld as holy men. Charity and compassion became public virtues and a normative part of society because the empire was attempting to put into practice the teachings of Christ regarding its poorest and neediest citizens.


Of course, though charity and compassion were to become public virtues, those practicing these virtues were to do so humbly, without attracting attention for themselves, without seeking public recognition or admiration. They were to provide for the poor in a way that only God would know what they had done, rather than for their own benefit and credit:


Thus, when you give alms, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by men. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” (Matthew 6:2-4)