What does Jesus think about giving alms to the poor?

October 16, 2011    By: Jacob J @ 7:56 pm   Category: Book Reviews,Scriptures

I recently finished The Bible Now by Richard Elliott Friedman and Shawna Dolansky. Freidman follows his regular pattern of faking out potential buyers of his book by putting only “The Bible” in the title of his book even though he will only be discussing the Old Testament. As in previous efforts, his work here is sufficiently excellent that this trickery can be forgiven.

The book deals with five controversial issues in the current political discourse, surveying verses that are used by one side or the other in political debates as well as other relevant passages which might shed light on the Old Testament view of the topic. The chapters are arranged for those who start books without finishing them, putting the two most interesting chapters (on homosexuality and abortion) at the beginning and the two most boring chapters (on capital punishment and the environment) at the end. For the most part, the authors are careful not to make the book about their own views, choosing to provide the much more valuable service of analyzing just what the Old Testament does and does not say about each topic.

If I were to sum up my take away from the book in one sentence it would be something like: the Bible is not very useful as a guide for how to deal with controversial moral and political issues.

There are multiple reasons for this. The first is simply that the Bible says very little about most issues. For a topic like homosexuality, the authors are able to discuss in some depth all the relevant passages in a single chapter.(!) If we were to add the New Testament we would only have a few more verses to deal with. Obviously it is possible to write endlessly about only a few verses, but there just isn’t that much to go on. Ditto for abortion and the environment.

The second reason is that when we generalize from the few verses we have we generally do so at our own peril. If the Bible includes a story about something terrible that happened involving homosexuality, is it safe to extrapolate from that story God’s position on the morality of homosexuality in general? Is it safe to interpret something written as poetry through a legalistic lens? Likening the scriptures to ourselves turns out to be a tricky business.

The third reason is related to the second and it is the one I was thinking about this morning which led to this post. It has to do with the entanglement of moral principles with practical realities about the state of the world. In some moral theories it can seem that morality and pragmatism are opposite ends of the spectrum, but they tend to get tangled up more than we would like to admit. An example is found in the discussion of capital punishment. Friedman and Dolansky argue that one of the reasons for the liberal use of capital punishment in the Old Testament was the unavailability of prisons. With no convenient way to reliably lock up felons perhaps the best option was to kill them.

If it is correct that the reason for biblical capital punishment is that imprisonment was not yet an established means of dealing with felons, then everything is changed now that there are alternatives to execution.

In my estimation, this line of reasoning severely undercuts the justification of capital punishment based on the fact that it is mandated by God’s law in the Old Testament. The best that can be argued is that capital punishment is permissible under certain practical constraints. Even that is debatable, but my point here is not to argue about capital punishment. My point is that what might seem like a clear-cut issue of morality (unchanging, immutable) is tangled up in pragmatic considerations like whether or not there is a convenient way to imprison felons.

It seems to me that this problem is deep and pervasive. As an example: We often talk about how we should deal with the problem of poverty. In the Gospels Jesus seems to have quite a bit to say about that topic. He tells someone to sell everything and give it to the poor; Jesus tells another person that when he throws a banquet he should invite the poor and the crippled instead of the rich who can repay him. It is easy to read a series of verses about the poor and come away with the clear impression that Jesus wants us to give to anyone who needs food and clothing. But aren’t there some practical considerations which come into play in this case as in the case of capital punishment. It is abundantly clear from the Gospels that Jesus demands that we care about and care for the poor, but the methods he encourages are surely influenced by the situation at the time.

There was no welfare state in the time of Jesus, just as there were no prisons in the time of Moses. Our wealth as a society has afforded us the ability to set up much better systems to care for the poor than giving cash to strangers. Is it fair to say that in the presence of soup kitchens, homeless shelters, and drug rehabilitation centers, Jesus’ position on giving alms for the poor can no longer be taken for granted?

And isn’t this sort of problem present for every moral question for which we might search the Bible for answers?

14 Comments »

  1. Christ’s teachings, especially the beatitudes (remember, they are repeated in 3Ne), transcend practical. Be ye perfect. How impractical is that? Love your enemies. Neither kill nor desire to kill. Our society dismisses all of these things as impractical pipe dreams.

    Leo Tolstoy wrote a wonderful treatise on this subject: “The Kingdom of God is Within You”. Had his words been heeded, there would have been no World War I. And by extension, no WWII. But I digress.

    The last time I was in downtown LA, I saw a guy with black-soled bare feet sleeping next to a skyscraper. Which better represents our civilization? Him or the skyscraper?

    Comment by Brad — October 16, 2011 @ 10:54 pm

  2. Is it fair to say that in the presence of soup kitchens, homeless shelters, and drug rehabilitation centers, Jesus’ position on giving alms for the poor can no longer be taken for granted?

    Soup kitchens, homeless shelters and drug rehab centers sound like privately funded initiatives entirely in keeping with Jesus’ position on giving alms to the poor. What would be new and different is the public welfare state in which the individual alms givers are required to contribute whether they are feeling charitable or not.

    Comment by Peter LLC — October 17, 2011 @ 12:22 am

  3. Jacob:

    If I were to sum up my take away from the book in one sentence it would be something like: the Bible is not very useful as a guide for how to deal with controversial moral and political issues.

    Hehe. Curses! That is what I suspected.

    Comment by Geoff J — October 17, 2011 @ 1:19 am

  4. And isn’t this sort of problem present for every moral question for which we might search the Bible for answers?

    I think there is a core set of moral questions which the bible speaks to successfully, which do not prescribe specific applications, but general attitudinal concepts, “Should I be good?” Yes. “Should I seek to help others?” Yes. “Should I seek to not be selfish?” Yes.

    But I agree with your sentiment here. It seems like when we get to specific instances, there is going to be a lot on non-clarity in the details.

    The Optimist in me thanks God for modern revelation and prophetic leadership in the church today to help with this. The Cynic in me shakes my head at my own inability to solve these problems or know what I should do.

    Comment by Matt W. — October 17, 2011 @ 8:07 am

  5. I agree with your ironic take away. This is part of the reason why continuing revelation is important.

    Comment by Eric Nielson — October 17, 2011 @ 8:36 am

  6. Brad: But I digress. Indeed.

    Peter, that’s a great example of my point. Is Jesus in favor of taxes being confiscated from the
    uncharitable and given to the poor? I understand the arguments from both sides, but the point here is that answering that question based on the Bible is not easy.

    Matt, yes. Or in the case of capital punishment, “Should society be just? Yes.”

    Eric, Geoff, I should mention that the book was still great if you are just interested in careful analysis of the relevant scriptures. Since that is all I was hoping for from the beginning I was not disappointed.

    Comment by Jacob J — October 17, 2011 @ 4:00 pm

  7. One Question I have that comes from this is whether the bible needs to be able to handle specifics in order to be valuable. Or, in other words, would the bible be less valuable if it were specific in it’s principles.

    Comment by Matt W. — October 18, 2011 @ 9:59 am

  8. Matt W.,
    the Bible is quite specific, its just that its specific about stuff that is particular to its time and place.

    Comment by Adam G. — October 19, 2011 @ 8:20 am

  9. “Is it fair to say that in the presence of soup kitchens, homeless shelters, and drug rehabilitation centers, Jesus’ position on giving alms for the poor can no longer be taken for granted?””

    Im not sure why we would reach this conclusion. Matthew 25 is pretty indicting on what makes one a participant in the kingdom of God and what doesn’t. So long as there are poor among us then Im not sure we should dismiss the call to clothe the naked, feed the hungry, and heal the sick. Im sure people will disagree about the best way to do so but such disagreements should not be used as an excuse to do nothing and not help. we shouldn’t dismiss Jesus’ radical teachings on poverty unless we have a really good reason to and I dont think that includes it being too difficult, too impractical, etc

    Comment by yossarian — October 19, 2011 @ 11:56 am

  10. yossarian,

    Did you read the post? Because I’m not sure how that comment could be in response to this post.

    Comment by Jacob J — October 19, 2011 @ 5:25 pm

  11. With no convenient way to reliably lock up felons perhaps the best option was to kill them.

    You have three alternatives when you don’t have prisons that work:

    death penalty,
    outlawery,
    slavery.

    Many cultures have tried all three or variants on the two at a time. There are huge problems with making slavery stick in some cultures. The death penalty always sticks.

    Outlawing people needs some factors that aren’t always available, though the Norse made it work.

    As for the poor, he also noted “I was in prison and you came unto me.”

    Comment by Stephen M (Ethesis) — October 24, 2011 @ 7:23 pm

  12. I’m not sure http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/football/ncaa/gameflash/2011/10/22/48101/index.html#boxscore tells us much about how the TCU game is likely to go this weekend.

    Comment by Stephen M (Ethesis) — October 24, 2011 @ 7:24 pm

  13. If Jesus doesn’t get it, I’m sure the current Republican Party can set him straight.

    Comment by don — October 26, 2011 @ 6:25 am

  14. Oh Don, Don, how oft would the republicans gathered you as a hen gathereth her chickens, but ye would not…

    Comment by Jacob J — October 27, 2011 @ 10:45 am

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