The notion that caring for the poor is service of God distinguished Judaism, and later Christianity, from ancient pagan religions. To take an example from this week’s Torah reading of Mishpatim, there is a commandment to provide interest-free loans to the indigent, restrictions on taking collateral for such loans, and an admonition to judges not to “pervert justice” when dealing with the poor. To these teachings, later books of the Pentateuch, along with the rabbinic tradition, add many other obligations to the indigent.
So great was the gap between pagan and Jewish charity that the Roman emperor Julian the Apostate, in his effort to revive paganism, found it “disgraceful” that Greek and Roman temples did not offer social services, and tried to get them to imitate the practice. Gary A. Anderson elaborates:
Julian’s efforts, though well-intentioned, did not establish deep roots. The sociologist Rodney Stark explained this failure as grounded in the fact that there was no natural home in Hellenistic religion for these practices to attach themselves.
Distinctive to biblical religion is both the moral obligation to care for the poor and God’s providential commitment to assure that such care will not go unrewarded.
A defining feature of contemporary discussions of charitable giving is its focus on the motivations of the donor (altruism) and the effectiveness of the donation (social justice). To be sure, each of these factors has deep roots in the Bible and subsequent Jewish and Christian theology. But what is lacking in modern discourse is any significant role for God. When we turn to the sources that informed the structure of charity in the biblical period, however, the single most important factor was that of divine agency.