The Righteousness of Giving

December 2010 

The teachings of Jesus are not easy.  They can be hard to understand, difficult to accept or more often than not, tough to follow.

We can miss the crux of Jesus’ teaching when his words become commonplace, taken out of context, and compromised in our post-Christian culture.  In a society that preaches hard work, self-help, individual success, and assumed eventual prosperity, the words of Jesus can come out muffled, sounding idyllic or disconnected from reality.

For instance, charity, or giving to those in need, can easily be overlooked as a key precept of our faith.  While we are bombarded with countless commandments in the Bible to provide relief for the weak and the poor, charity in our 21st century world is often perceived as nonobligatory on our faith, optional extra credit for a good Christian.  In fact, charity is one of the three pillars of faith that comprised Jesus’ Jewish heritage (see Matt 6:2-4, Charity; Matt 6:5-6, Prayer; Matt 6:16-18, Fasting).

In the time of Jesus, charity or “giving alms to the poor” was equated with the term “righteousness” (in Hebrew, tzdekah).  You find a similar refrain in Jesus’ teachings:  “Be careful not to do your acts of righteousness before men, to be seen by them…but when you give to the needy (give in secret).  Then your Father who sees what is done in secret, will reward you (Matt 6:1-4).”  Jesus promises there will be a reward for those who help the needy.  Proverbs 19:17 is the basis for that promise: “He who is kind to the poor lends to the LORD, and [the LORD] will reward him for what he has done.”

This concept, that when one gives to the poor they are actually giving to the LORD, was understood as if the giver was depositing money in Heaven’s bank safe.  In Second Temple period Jewish literature we find: “Help a poor man for the commandment’s sake, and because of his need do not send him away empty.  Lose your silver for the sake of a brother or a friend, and do not let it rust under a stone and be lost.  Lay up your treasure according to the commandments of the Most High, and it will profit you more than gold.  Store up almsgiving in your treasury, and it will rescue you from all afflictions (Ben Sira 29:9-12).”

So too, Jesus echoes those words: “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal (Matt 6:19-20).”

According to the Bible, charity to those in need is an investment in eternity.  Unlike financial speculations here on earth, a gift, a sacrifice, an offering to another human being made in the image of God, is a rock solid asset in God’s eyes.  Charity is a core component of righteousness.  We might often think of righteousness as only an ethereal, spiritual experience when we are justified by Jesus’ death and resurrection on the cross.  But as we learn from Jesus’ words, righteousness has a wider scope of meaning; it encompasses our daily walk with God as we engage those around us and give liberally to those in need (2 Cor 9:6-7).