Being Charitable for the Right Reasons

Despite the recent upward trend in charitable giving, history suggests giving over the next several months will be comparatively low. According to the Blackbaud Index, almost one-fifth of all charitable giving is done during the month of December. This increased emphasis on charity during the latter part of the year, as well as its corresponding de-emphasis at the beginning of the next year, is dictated by our tax savviness, coupled I suppose with a combination of lethargy in some cases (not donating what we should have been donating throughout the year) and impatience (desire to benefit in this year’s taxes, rather than next year’s) in others. Our IRS 1040 deduction is one of the few places to receive a monetary benefit for performing our religious duties. Those who render unto God what is God’s may find that they have to render less unto Caesar, depending perhaps on how many denarii they themselves have been rendered during the past year. Those who qualify only for the standard deduction will have to settle for the hopes of a relaxation of another sort of payment due to another sort of king.

Samuel was warned that the King requested by Israel would, among other oppressive and morally problematic measures, take a tithe of their wealth (see 1 Samuel 8:14-17). While ten percent might have seemed steep, at least it wasn’t any higher than what the sons of Abraham customarily offered to God (see Genesis 14:20). The demands of temporal power are often heard more loudly and clearly than the demands of the Eternal One, who speaks more subtly and will, most likely, not show up at your door to collect anytime soon. The divine audit will come, to be sure, But of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only (Matthew 24:36).

In the secular world, charity can fill an important role for the populace, both for the common good and for personal fulfillment. Societies will always need people to give, and people will always experience the need to give. Taken away from its natural religious context, however, charitable giving automatically takes on a very different flavor. Secular states will never be charitable states because true charity is necessarily derived from religious principles and doctrine.

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Our culture seems to have sustained the myth that religion is an unnecessary ingredient for the creation of a society that will share its wealth. Any “goodhearted” person will want to help take care of others in need, right? This perceived emotional inclination has been enough to convince many that even apart from religion, society will continue to give alms because of a natural human sense of helping others. This may be true for some people, and this may be true for some period of time. However, if religion isn’t the driving force behind charitable giving it necessarily lacks intentional purity, and is, like all things which are purely self-interested and purely belonging to this world, eventually destined for corruption. If charity isn’t about obedience to God and reparation for sins, it ends up becoming at least latently narcissistic. Almsgiving becomes either about feeling good or about paying it forward. Helping others, ironically, becomes a way to pursue your own satisfaction and to feel more secure about your own future. We may give to others in order that, heaven forbid, if we are in need one day others will do the same for us.

Adhering to the normal order of things, what philosophers have always known is now also being noticed by scientific researchers. Over sixty percent of high net worth donors cite “giving back to the community” as their chief motivation for giving. While this sounds nice, what it is might really be saying, especially considering the demographic, is “since the community made me rich, I feel like giving a cut of my profits back.” Profits which, though not necessarily (it would be inaccurate and unfair to say that every wealthy person became so through unjust business practices), very well may have been in some cases the rightful property of others in the first place. Better than not giving back, I suppose, but the motivation seems a little askew. While giving back to a community that has helped you become successful is a proper response to success, it should not be the primary motivation. One might wonder if this sixty percent of those surveyed would have given any at all had they not achieved the status of “high net worth.”

Recent surveys have found that charitable donations are often driven by emotional desires to feel good about ourselves, or by the fear of appearing self-centered or uncompassionate. These studies betray some confusion about the purposes of giving, in that they reveal a negative correlation between the amount of deliberative thought that goes into our giving and our final decision to give at all. In other words, the more questions a person tends to ask about what his money will be used for, the less likely he is likely to contribute. People who refuse to do something by citing the likelihood of it not making a difference might do so because they want to invest their resources (time, talent, and treasure) in something more worthy and effective. But they also might refuse because a) they just don’t want to do it in the first place, or b) they don’t think they will receive any personal gratification from it (recognition, personal feeling of accomplishment and importance, etc).

There is nothing wrong with asking questions of a person or organization before donating money. In fact, prudence and proper frugality would dictate that we should. We ought to try to get the most “bang for our buck” in our charitable giving. In a religious sense, however, we ought to be careful that we don’t forget the primary reason for our gift. Charity done for religious reasons focuses more upon our spiritual need to give than on the natural results of our giving.

In his Circular Letter of December 12, 1915, Vicomte Hendecourt, President-General of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul wrote: “The Society has two aims: to do a great deal of spiritual good to its members through the exercise of charity, and to do a little spiritual and temporal good to a few poor families in the name of Jesus Christ.” This is not to say those natural benefits are not important, or to say that they are not an essential part of our obligation to give. But it is to say that our giving has a goal even larger than these temporal concerns; a goal which is specifically religious, and specifically supernatural.

In a religious sense, we generally talk of our responsibility to give alms in the context of the larger theme of stewardship. We recognize that God has freely given, therefore the proper response is to recognize God’s gifts and make a return offering, thus fulfilling our intended place in what Fr. Robert Barron describes as “the loop of grace.” We are called to be stewards or caretakers of what God has given us, using it in ways that promote our own flourishing as well as a thriving society. This concept seems quite natural, quite beautiful, and even, dare we say, quite easy. Positive language comes to mind such as “providence,” “gifts”, “receiving,” “cultivating,” “sharing,” and other words that make the economics of the religious life seem entirely non-threatening.

There is another tradition, however, that looks at our calling to charity in a much more specific, and perhaps more demanding way. Most people would not be surprised by a vague correlation between religious belief and charitable giving. But the Biblical prescription for almsgiving does not portray it as one of many general characteristics of a pious life. It describes it specifically as an antidote for the effects of sin. In short: we owe something to God, and not just because he is the one who gave it to us. Why do we have a debt to God? Because we are sinners.

In his book, Sin: A History, Gary A. Anderson points out that there was a noticeable shift in Biblical language used to describe sin which occurred after the Babylonian Exile. More ancient Old Testament passages from the first Temple period most commonly used the metaphors of weight or stain in representation of sin. Later parts of the Old Testament canon as well as intertestamental writings, on the other hand, portray sin as debt. Anderson argues that the metaphor of sin as debt, which was developed in second Temple Judaism and manifested in the New Testament, is significant for our understanding soteriology. To Anderson, Jesus’ use of metaphor is effective and substantial; he does not mean only to say that sin is like a debt that must be paid, he means that sin is a debt that must be paid. It was at this point that almsgiving became viewed as an effective way to begin repaying the debt of sin.

Storing up treasure in heaven was possible, according to this schema, as a proactive preparation for particular judgment. While Jesus’ payment is capable of satisfying our debt, we still need a way to make its value accessible to us; to receive the credit he intended to give us. We need to complete what is lacking, as Paul tells us (Colossians 1:24). One way we can do that is by following the instructions of the New Testament: paying off our debt by almsgiving. While non-believers may believe in charity, to some extent, they cannot attach the same level of importance to it as a believer who believers that his willingness to sacrifice in care of others will be one of the criteria on which his judgment will hang (see Matthew 25:31-46).

In his letter to a pagan priest named Arsacius, the Roman Emperor Julian stated “It is disgraceful when no Jew is a beggar and the impious Galileans support our poor in addition to their own; everyone is able to see that our coreligionists are in want of aid from us.” Andersen notes that charity failed in the Roman Empire despite the exhortations of Julian the Apostate in the fourth century because, for pagans, charity was unnecessary to pay back the gods of the Roman state religion. Why? Because those gods did not punish for sins. “Christian preachers had a decided advantage over their counterparts in this regard,” Anderson explains, “for they could preach that those who lacked charity stood in danger of eternal damnation. Pagan religion, on the other hand, did not provide the grounding for such ideas to take root” (p. 12).

In rabbinic Judaism, the Hebrew idioms “to make a payment” and “to forgive a sin” are essentially interchangeable. The theme of debt release, prominent in the New Testament (e.g. the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant, the Lord’s Prayer, and Jesus’ proclamation of a year “acceptable to the Lord” in which captives are released—see Luke 4:18-19) is often viewed only in light of the primary literal meaning, rendering a physical and monetary interpretation (i.e. we need to forgive debts in order that the poor may find relief), with the secondary meaning, which is more spiritual (i.e. we need to forgive debts in order that we may be forgiven of our sins), left unexplored, though it was seemingly intended and important for the original authors and audience of the New Testament. The New Testament develops the theme that spiritual treasure can be stored up in heaven through a proper usage of physical treasure on earth (e.g. the Parable of the Dishonest Steward, Luke 16:1-9). The key text for this understanding comes from the Sermon on the Mount:

Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal (Matthew 6:19-20).

Pope Francis spoke of the redemptive value of almsgiving in his first Apostolic Exhortation, referencing the same strain of rabbinic tradition as Anderson:

“So speak and so act as those who are to be judged under the law of liberty. For judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy, yet mercy triumphs over judgment” (Jas 2:12-13). Here James is faithful to the finest tradition of post-exilic Jewish spirituality, which attributed a particular salutary value to mercy: “Break off your sins by practising righteousness, and your iniquities by showing mercy to the oppressed, that there may perhaps be a lengthening of your tranquillity” (Dan 4:27). The wisdom literature sees almsgiving as a concrete exercise of mercy towards those in need: “Almsgiving delivers from death, and it will purge away every sin” (Tob 12:9). The idea is expressed even more graphically by Sirach: “Water extinguishes blazing fire: so almsgiving atones for sin” (Sir 3:30). The same synthesis appears in the New Testament: “Maintain constant love for one another, for love covers a multitude of sins” (1 Pet 4:8) (Evangelii Gaudium, paragraph 193).

Only sinners give alms. Why? This is true, in general, because we are all sinners. But this is also true, in particular, because it is only sinners who are in particular need of giving alms. As Francis Cardinal George once put it, “The rich are needed to provide jobs for the poor, and the poor are necessary because without them, the rich would not get into heaven.”

What will increase alms available for the poor? Not tax supported federal programs, Robin Hood inspired plots for the redistribution of wealth, or even laissez faire policies and their corresponding hopes for a downward trickle. A renewal in charitable giving might best be brought about by a faithful return to doctrine and a healthy understanding of sin, its consequences, and our hope for salvation.

Editor’s note: The image above titled “Monk Feeding the Poor” was painted by Louis Gallait in 1845.


  • Dusty Gates

    Dusty Gates currently serves as the Director of Adult Education at the Spiritual Life Center for the Catholic Diocese of Wichita, KS, and as an adjunct Professor of Theology at Newman University in Wichita, KS, where he resides with his wife and three children.

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