The duty of kindliness to and provision for the poor is constantly taught in the OT; in the later Jewish literature, and especially in Sirach and Tobit, it is even more emphatically asserted. It is clear that our Lord and the Apostolic Church taught this as a religious obligation with equal force. In the Sermon on the Mount, almsgiving is assumed to be one of the duties of the religious life (e.g. Mt 6:1–4), and in several places the principle is expressed directly. Our Lord says to the rich young ruler, ‘Sell whatsoever thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven’ (Mk 10:21); in the parable of the Judgment, the place of men is decided on the ground that they have or have not helped and relieved the Lord’s brethren (Mt 25:34–46), and in St. Luke our Lord is reported as saying: ‘Sell that ye have, and give alms; make for yourselves purses which wax not old, a treasure in the heavens that faileth not’ (Lk 12:33).
We find the same principles assumed in the literature of the Apostolic Church. In the Acts we read of the Church of Jerusalem: ‘All that believed were together, and had all things common; and they sold their possessions and goods, and parted them to all, according as any man had need’ (Ac 2:44, 45; cf. 4:32, 34, 35). What relation this may have to the community of goods is considered elsewhere (see art. Community of Goods); but it is at least clear that the Church in Jerusalem recognized the paramount obligation of the maintenance of the poor brethren, and it is worthy of notice that the first officers of the Christian community of whose appointment we have direct mention are the Seven who were appointed to carry out the ministrations of the Church to the poor widows of the community (Ac 6:1–4).
In the letters of St. Paul we have frequent references to the obligation of helping the poor (e.g. Ro 12:13, Eph 4:28, 1 Ti 6:18), and in certain letters we find him specially occupied with the collections which were being made for the poor Christians in Jerusalem (Gal 2:10, Ro 15:25, 26, 1 Co 16:1, 2, 2 Co 8 and 9). The writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews speaks of such deeds of charity as being sacrifices well-pleasing to God (He 13:16). It is in the First Epistle of St. John, however, that the principle of the responsibility of Christian men for the maintenance of their brethren is most emphatically expressed: ‘Whoso hath this world’s goods, and beholdeth his brother in need, and shutteth up his compassion from him, how doth the love of God abide in him?’ (1 Jn 3:17). For St. John the notion that any man can love God without loving his brother is a falsehood (1 Jn 4:20).
The Christian literature of the end of the 1st cent. carries on the same principles. The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles (iv. 8) says: ‘Thou shalt not turn away from him that is in need, but shalt share all things with thy brother, and shalt not say that they are thine own: for if ye are sharers in that which is immortal, how much more in those things which are mortal.’ The Epistle of Barnabas contains almost exactly the same phrases. We have thus in the NT and the sub-apostolic literature the clearest enunciation of the principle whose effect and practical applications we have to study in the history of the Early Church and of Christian civilization. There can be no doubt that our Lord and the writers of the NT looked upon the maintenance of the poor as a primary obligation of the Christian life.
Literature.—Art. ‘Almsgiving’ in HDB; ‘Alma’ in EBi; and Smith’s DB2; ‘Charity, Almsgiving (Christian)’ in ERE; G. Uhlhorn, Christian Charity in the Ancient Church, Eng. tr., Edinburgh, 1883; A. Harnack, Expansion of Christianity2, London, 1908, i. 147; A. F. W. Ingram, Banners of the Christian Faith, London, 1899; W. C. E. Newbolt, Counsels of Faith and Practice, do. 1894; B. F. Westcott, The Incarnation and Common Life, do. 1893; J. L. Davies, Social Questions, do. 1886.
HDB Hastings’ Dict. of the Bible (5 vols.).
EBi Encyclopædia Biblica.
DB Dict. of the Bible.
ERE Encyclopædia of Religion and Ethics.