Some thoughts on giving to the poor and Shepherd of Hermas

Some years ago a respected minister and scholar gave a talk on the church’s giving to the poor. He listed how the church was involved in some of the best charity work in history.

Most of the audience loved his message. But I was somewhat uncomfortable with the lack of discussion on what the church is doing now in Australia. I don’t mean that the church is doing little for the poor today (because it does do a lot for the poor). But the tone of the talk seemed to be more about how well the church did in the past, rather than a thoughtful evaluation of what the church in Australia is doing now.

More importantly, I am not sure whether the speaker successfully described the sacrifice of the early Christians when they gave to the poor. As a result, the message was more about how charitable Christians were, rather than challenging us to learn from the sacrificial giving of the early church.

Some months ago (April 2015), John Barclay, Lightfoot Professor Divinity at Durham University, UK, gave an excellent talk at Houston Baptist University, USA, on a similar topic. He surveyed how the early church gave to the poor sacrificially. (Click here to watch the lecture.) Prompted by some of the things he said, I looked up an early church writing, Shepherd of Hermas, and found the following.

This fasting,” he continued, “is very good, provided the commandments of the Lord be observed. Thus, then, shall you observe the fasting which you intend to keep. First of all, be on your guard against every evil word, and every evil desire, and purify your heart from all the vanities of this world. If you guard against these things, your fasting will be perfect. And you will do also as follows. Having fulfilled what is written, in the day on which you fast you will taste nothing but bread and water; and having reckoned up the price of the dishes of that day which you intended to have eaten, you will give it to a widow, or an orphan, or to some person in want, and thus you will exhibit humility of mind, so that he who has received benefit from your humility may fill his own soul, and pray for you to the Lord. If you observe fasting, as I have commanded you, your sacrifice will be acceptable to God, and this fasting will be written down; and the service thus performed is noble, and sacred, and acceptable to the Lord. These things, therefore, shall you thus observe with your children, and all your house, and in observing them you will be blessed; and as many as hear these words and observe them shall be blessed; and whatsoever they ask of the Lord they shall receive.” (Emphasis added)

Source: Shepherd of Hermas, Fifth Similitude, chapter 3 http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/shepherd.html accessed on August, 17th, 2015.

I also found the following quote regarding Shepherd of Hermas.

These passages in the Shepherd of Hermas reflect the common attitude of Christians towards property in the early Church. It has its dangers: where your treasure is, there will your heart be also. Too much wealth makes a believer vulnerable in time of persecution. On the other hand, wealth can be used generously, for the good. No one need give up all their possessions, but they should not have too much and should use what they have for the benefit of others. So Hermas urged his readers to give indiscriminately to all in need: ‘give to everyone, for God wants his gifts to be given to everyone.’ Almsgiving was linked particularly to fasting; Hermas advised his readers to use the money they have saved on a fast day and give it to the widow, the orphan or the needy person. Hermas even goes so far as to depict the poor and the rich in a relationship of mutual dependence. The prayers of the rich are weak. They need the prayers of the poor, which are so much more powerful before God, and their almsgiving makes up for the inadequacy of their prayers. The poor, meanwhile, need the rich to support them in their need and they pray for the rich in thanksgiving. (Emphasis added)

Source: Bernard Green, Christianity in Ancient Rome: The First Three Centuries (London: T & T Clark, 2010), 116–7.

We do need to study the Bible itself on these issues. Also, we should not be legalistic about giving. Nor should we give to the poor because of guilt. But I think the Shepherd of Hermas does leave us with a challenge.

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