Early Christians and the Care of the Poor

By Harold W. Attridge

Several impulses run through the history of early Christian treatment of the poor. At the heart of the Good News that Jesus preached and that his evangelists recorded is first a proclamation of the coming reign of God, a state of affairs in which justice and peace would be the norm, when the promises found in the prophets of Israel would be realized. The proclamation involved both a message of hope and also a trenchant critique of the world as it is. Alongside the proclamation, the second major impulse enshrined in the teachings of Jesus was a challenge to radical obedience to the will of God, an obedience that would make eschatological hope concrete and present through rejection of material possessions. Such radical obedience may have been a somewhat precarious way to have an impact on the lives of the poor. Hence, the third impulse, which marked the Christian movement from its inception, consisted of systematic efforts to do just that, to hear and respond to the cry of the poor.

The earliest Christian gospel involves a definite “option for the poor.” Jesus’ proclamation of the coming Reign of God (Matt 4:17; Mark 1:15), a change in administration marking a decided shift in the way the world is run, offered a message of hope to widows, orphans, the blind, and lame, those who also received special treatment in the Torah and prophets of ancient Israel. In Luke’s version of his inaugural sermon, Jesus cites Isaiah 61:1-2, “The spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18). The words of Isaiah evoke in turn the stipulations of Leviticus 25 regarding the year of Jubilee, when slaves are freed and ancestral land restored to its original owners. Matthew’s allusion to the prophetic text (Matt 11:4-5) is less dramatically situated, in Jesus’ response to a question about his mission from the disciples of John the Baptist, but it climaxes with the word of good news to the poor (Matt 11:5).

Woe To You Who Are Full Now

While Jesus proclaims good news for the poor, there is a sense that the rich have something to answer for and will be called to account. That combination of hope for vindication and expectation of judgment is manifest in Luke’s version of the Beatitudes, a form probably more original than that of Matthew, which express harsh words of judgment on the well-to-do while offering a message of hope to those in distress (Luke 6:20-25): “Woe to you who are rich, for you have your consolation. Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry.”

That same critical perspective also features prominently in the Magnificat, the great poem set on the lips of Mary in the opening chapter of Luke, which celebrates the Mighty One who has “brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty” (Luke 1:46-55). Luke’s story of the Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31) vividly illustrates the principle enshrined in the Magnificat and offers an oft-repeated admonition to the well-to-do.

What God promised to do at the “end of days” in redressing the balance between rich and poor needed assistance from human hearts, hands, and purses.

Prophetic critique and eschatological hope continued in Christian preaching. The challenging proclamation to the rich that characterized the Lukan beatitudes is echoed in the Epistle of James, which prophesies that the rich “will disappear like a flower in the field” (Jas 1:10). Affirming that God has “chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith” (Jas 2:5), James castigates the rich for their partiality (Jas 2:1-7) and warns them that the proceeds of their murderous exploitation of poor laborers will rot and decay (Jas 5:1-6). Implicit in this prophetic critique is a recommendation for action. The proclamation that “faith without works is dead” (Jas 2:26) involves a commitment to social justice for laborers, but how that might work remains unclear.

A Rich Young Man

While the gospel offered a message of hope and a prophetic critique of the rich, it also issued a call to radical generosity and to a rejection of involvement with wealth and the corruption that it produced. One cannot, said Jesus, serve both God and Mammon (Matt 11:12-13; Luke 16:13). Disciples desiring to follow Jesus had to leave all behind (Matt 4:18-22; Mark 1:16-20; Luke 5:1-11). Such is also the explicit point of the anecdote of the rich (“young” according to Matthew) man (Matt 19:16-22; Mark 10:17-22; Luke 18:18-20), a story that long resonated in the history of Christian asceticism. Jesus tells him that if he wants to go beyond keeping the commandments, he should sell all he had, give to the poor, and follow Jesus, a message the man found difficult to accept.

The eschatological hope prominent in Jesus’ proclamation of the reign of God turned out to be not quite enough for the Jesus movement as it gradually developed into an institution of its own.

What God promised to do at the “end of days” in redressing the balance between rich and poor needed assistance from human hearts, hands, and purses. The followers of Jesus learned to develop habits of generosity and care that would attempt to make eschatological hope a current reality.

Some passages in the Gospels point in the direction of this more practical approach to care for the poor. No doubt the most influential of these is the story of the last judgment in Matthew 25:31-46. In words that have ever since inspired Christian social action, the story paints a vision of Jesus come in glory to judge humankind. He does so by separating the sheep from the goats, not on the basis of their theological sophistication or confessional allegiance, but on the basis of their willingness to address concrete human needs. The sheep are those who have had the generosity to feed the hungry, to give drink to the thirsty, to shelter the homeless and to clothe the naked. Most importantly, perhaps, the story offers a strong motivation for engaging in such generous behavior. What the sheep did for the “least of the brethren” they did, Jesus says, “to me.”

Some interpreters of this story found a limit to generosity in the reference to the “brethren” as the locus of encounter with Jesus, but the weight of the tradition found not a limit, but a directive to see the Lord in all those in need.1

Luke and Mammon

Other passages in the Gospels also suggest a concern with concrete efforts to address human need. Luke’s gospel is particularly concerned with issues of wealth and poverty. We have already noted the prophetic critique enshrined in his version of the Beatitudes and the Magnificat. Other passages display a more practical focus. John the Baptist, in Luke’s version of his preaching, admonishes the crowds that come to him for baptism to use their resources to care for those in need: “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise” (Luke 3:10). The context in which Luke surrounds the “God and Mammon” saying is the story of the “dishonest” or “shrewd” steward (Luke 16:1-8). The mysterious tale of a steward who cooks his master’s books in order to secure his own future elicits several admonitions, including the perhaps ironic injunction to use “unrighteous mammon” to secure an eternal reward (Luke 16:9). How exactly that is to be done is not transparent. The later account of Jesus’ encounter with the tax-collector Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1-10) may offer a hint. When acknowledged by Jesus, the tax collector promises to give half his possessions to the poor and compensate fourfold those whom he has defrauded (Luke 19:8). Restorative justice and not simply charity must be a part of the picture in addressing human need.

The Acts of the Apostles offers several vignettes that suggest some of the practical measures adopted by early Christians to address human need. Luke tells the story of the earliest followers of Jesus in Jerusalem, who lived in community, sharing their goods, and meeting one another’s needs (Acts 2:44- 45; 4:32-37). Such a common life did not satisfy all wants; Luke reports that there were widows afflicted with poverty, care for whom occupied the time and energy of the apostles. To address those needs, they created the office of deacon (Acts 6:1-6). Acts later reports on the activity of a disciple in Joppa, Tabitha (aka Dorcas), who was “devoted to good works and acts of charity” (Acts 9:36). These works included making “tunics and other clothing” for the widows of the community (Acts 6:39).

The accounts in Acts raise intriguing historical questions; Luke may have idealized the portrait of the earliest church in Jerusalem, anachronistically introducing features more at home in the ecclesial life of his own day.2 Nevertheless, by the time that Acts was written in the late first or early second century3 organized poor relief was no doubt underway in parts of the Christian world, conducted by either local workers specifically designated for the activity, or by volunteers who heard the cry of the poor. These dedicated individuals probably included some of the figures who make cameo appearances in the New Testament, people such as Phoebe, the “deaconess” at Cenchreae (Rom 16:1) and many of the other workers whom Paul greets at the end of Romans.

Widows and Wealth

One further bit of evidence for such organized activity, at the same general time as Acts, may be found in the reference to an organized body of “widows” in the Pastoral Epistles (1 Tim 5:3-16). Despite the author’s anxiety about the role of women in leadership of the church and his concern about abuses, his community took care to meet the needs of women who were particularly threatened by economic insecurity.

While Luke’s reports about poor relief in the earliest Jerusalem community need critical sifting, it is clear from the letters of Paul that organized philanthropy was a feature of Christian life in the first decades of the new movement. In the decades after Christ’s death and resurrection, his followers struggled with many issues, including whether they were to be a community that included Jews and Gentiles, or one that would be exclusively and traditionally Jewish. The apostle Paul was at the center of the debate about that issue and once he had resolved it, so he believed at a theoretical level – Gentiles could join the community as Gentiles – he devoted himself with passion to an effort to make the union between Jew and Gentile a tangible reality: he took up a collection.4 Paul’s effort to raise funds for the poor (Gal 2:10) in Jerusalem, who were perhaps suffering from famine (Acts 11:28-29), occupied a good deal of his time while he was spreading the Good News throughout Asia Minor and the Greek heartland. Many of his letters have references to the collection he undertook to aid the Church in Jerusalem (1 Cor 16:1-4; Gal 2:10; Rom 15:25-16), with two chapters of 2 Corinthians (8-9) devoted fully to the fundraising effort.5

Apostolic Fundraising

Paul’s motives in organizing this collection were complex. There was indeed compassion for suffering brethren, but more important was the concrete gesture of solidarity between two factions within the Jesus movement. However that may be, it is striking that the movement so soon undertook a major fundraising effort to meet a concrete human problem. Paul may have known of Jesus’ call to radical simplicity; he portrays Jesus as one who “emptied himself” (Phil 2:7). Paul also believed that the “shape of this world was passing away” (2 Cor 7:31), but his efforts focused on the practical steps needed to aid those in need.

It is striking that the movement so soon undertook a major fund-raising effort to meet a concrete human problem.

As the Christian church grew and developed the impulses that we find in the New Testament continued and took on new forms. The hope for the coming Reign of God remained, if not as an immediate framework for belief and practice for all Christians, at least as a fixed element of the liturgy. The call to radical discipleship, to give away all that one had to follow a life of renunciation and prayer, inspired many to adopt an ascetical lifestyle. This lifestyle spread once Christianity became accepted by Roman authorities in the fourth century. Some combined the call of Jesus with the principle found in Prov 19:17, that a gift to the poor constituted a loan to God. In the logic of that economic metaphor, a gift of everything to someone who paid the extraordinary interest of life eternal was a very good investment indeed.6

Despite the popularity of ascetical renunciation notes of wealth, enshrined in influential accounts of early monastic heroes such as Antony in the fourth cen- tury,7 other Christians demurred and, like Clement of Alexandria in the second century, in his treatise What Rich Man can be Saved, advocated spiritual detachment from wealth rather than radical poverty.

Even those Christians knew that they had obligations to the poor. Their preachers and teachers continually told them so, and giving alms became a central act of Christian life. At the same time the impulse to engage in organized charity and support for the poor, evidenced in Acts and Paul, continued. In the middle of the second century Justin Martyr, in 1 Apol. 67, tells of such efforts in the Roman com- munity at their weekly assembly: “And they who are well-to-do, and willing, give what each thinks fit; and what is collected is deposited with the president, who succors the orphans and widows and those who, through sickness or any other cause, are in want, and those who are in bonds and the strangers sojourning among us, and in a word takes care of all who are in need.”8

Once Christians became an authorized part of the Roman world, such care for those in need took on new institutional forms. Two famous examples are the “hospital” founded in Cappadocia by St. Basil and the similar institution founded in the Syrian east by Rabbula of Edessa.9 These were precursors of the wide variety of institutions that Christian churches developed in the course of western history to live in fidelity to the vision of care for the poor that was an integral part of the vision of the Reign of God that Jesus shared with his disciples. In one way or another that vision must remain a vital part of the teaching and action of the Christian churches today, whatever other impulses from the Gospels may drive our contemporary engagement.

Harold W. Attridge is The Reverend Henry L. Slack Dean of Yale Divinity School and Lillian Claus Professor of New Testament.


1 See Ulrich Luz, Matthew 21-28: A Commentary (Hermeneia; Minneapolis: Fortress, 2005), pp. 263-96.

2 For parallels, see Richard Pervo, Acts: A Commentary (Hermeneia; Minneapolis: Fortress, 2009),
pp. 88-95.

3 See Pervo, Acts, pp. 5-7, for a discussion of the issues. He himself dates the work to around 115.

4 Many scholars have offered analyses of Paul’s collection. See especially Dieter Georgi, Remembering the Poor: A History of Paul’s Collection for Jerusalem (Nashville: Abingdon, 1992).

5 For a detailed treatment of these chapters, see Hans Dieter Betz, 2 Corinthians 8-9: A Commentary on Two Administrative Letters of the Apostle Paul (Hermeneia; Philadelphia: Fortress, 1985).

6 For an insightful exploration of the ways in which that economic metaphor worked itself out in Christian life and preaching through the Patristic period, see Gary Anderson, Sin: A History (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009), esp. pp. 135-88.

7 For the text see Tim Vivian and Apostolos N. Athanassakis, Athanasius of Alexandria, Life of Antony (Kalamazoo: Cistercian, 2003).

8 Translation from the online Ante-Nicene Fathers: http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/anf01.viii.ii.lxvii.html

9 For a good popular account of these institutions, see Susan R. Holman, God Knows There’s Need: Christian Responses to Poverty (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009). A more detailed study of Basil’s hospital is available in Andrew Crislip, “Monastic healthcare system and the development of the hospital in Late Antiquity” (Dissertation, Yale, 2002). On Rabbula, see Robert Doran, trans., Stewards of the Poor: The Man of God, Rabbula, and Hiba in Firth-Century Edessa (Cistercian Studies Series 208; Kalamazoo: Cistercian, 2006).