Ooo. Powerful thought.
“A gift to the church can be seen as a form of vanity, but giving alms is pure kindness.” Chrysostom (c. 347-407).
Tithing to the Church developed largely out of need, there were so many Christians it was just easier to give to the bishop and let him decide. The result was an oligarchical monopoly. Our tithe is to God, it was first meant to care for the priests in the desert, and the first and second century church applied that Old Testament instruction to the provisions for prophets AND teachers!
That’s right. Church tithes were meant to pay the livelihood of the teachers “for they are your priests” writes an early church father in the Didache (the first organized instructions for church government and procedure). The Didache was influenced by men and women at the start of massive growth in the church. It filled in the practical gaps of Paul’s organization based on the needs of the church in its time. I highly value it’s insight into ecclesiastical structure because it was created and used before the church gained political influence and was institutionalized.
This exhortation by Chrysostom spotlights the issue exactly, it is alms, money given to the care of the poor, the widows, the apostles, the monastic communities to aid their service, to prophets (for they are called by God and, if true, should be provided for, Didache), to teachers because of their service, to traveling apostles in need, and to and for children that can not be seen as vanity. All of these people are in the midst of church work. They live among us, serve us or need our help, and the early church felt so strongly about giving that they wrote it into their laws that these people should be provided for WITHOUT them having to ask.
Do we value our teachers this much? Do we care for the poor? Not vicariously through a distant church program or organization but PERSONALLY in our own communities. I’ve lived a lot of my adult life poor and felt shame and criticism for it. Oh the pagans and street kids didn’t care, they were also pretty broke but they took care of each other. In churches though, the fact that our family needed help for food or rent was almost a sin. We aren’t told that blatantly but it is felt and observed in people’s attitudes, families like ours who need help are thought less of, not given respect and not listened to on matters of church community. Why are we poor? Well that doesn’t seem to matter, it’s our fault ultimately right?
What a different perspective we have built in recent years from that of the first Christians. Those who had money gave freely and felt burdened if there was anyone in their influence who was suffering or in need if they could help. Those who were poor, servants and others were made to be the equals of the wealthy givers. Slaves were freed and nobles, men and women, sold their fine clothes and learned to bake and weave. They lived alongside their former servants in a blessed community of Christianity.
Now I do not mean to say that the early church ways of life will satisfy all our present, practical issues. We live in a different empire, people are far more solitary here by virtue of cultural anonymity. Our drive to be unique and individual is strong. But if these qualities were applied to the unity that the Jews and first Gentile Christians understood intuitively, what tremendous growth and revival we might see! “Go and sell all your treasures and give to the poor,” Jesus said. For those who love the Lord and already have very little, you are ahead of the game. Use that reality to learn what the amma (mother) Syncletica taught about the holy poverty that comes from love. If no one ever gives to you too help you you can be at least be confident that you have given to God all you have.
“Beloved let us love one another…” serve the Lord in the capacity in which he has brought. Be content. Give. Give. Give. Thank you to those who have given to us. Let’s change the way our churches see poverty.