After last week’s sidebar into the world of Chrysostom and Suicide, this week we return to our series on the Apostolic Fathers. This will be the penultimate post in this series, with next week’s blog being the final installment. This week’s post examines a short book in the Apostolic Fathers, and possibly the earliest, the Didache. The title might seem weird, but it’s a Greek word meaning “the Teaching” and it comes from it’s heading: “The Teaching of the Lord to the Twelve Apostles.” This document probably originated around the end of the first century, but it’s possible that it dates as early as the middle of the first century, i.e. about 50 CE. Either way, it’s a very early example of church teaching, possibly predating much of the New Testament. This week’s blog examines a section from the Didache about giving and receiving.
The author writes:
“5 Do not be one who stretches out the hands to receive but withdraws them when it comes to giving. 6 If you earn something by working with your hands, you shall give a ransom for your sins. 7 You shall not hesitate to give, nor shall you grumble when giving, for you will know who is the good paymaster of the reward. 8 You shall not turn away from someone in need, but shall share everything with your brother or sister, and do not claim that anything is your own. For if you are sharers in what is imperishable, how much more so in perishable things!” (Didache, 4:5-8)
There is a lot within this text that I want to unpack, but the first thing that jumps out to me is how similar this is to New Testament passages. Jesus notes in Matthew 6:1-4 that Christians should give without wanting praise from others or announcing their gifts. Jesus also praises a poor widow in Mark 12: 42-44 for giving “everything she had to live on” (NIV). Acts 2: 42-47 describes how all the believers in the early church “sold their property and possessions to give to anyone who had need” (NIV). There are others as well, but these passages line up quite closely with the text in the Didache.
Jesus’ command towards freely giving without wanting praise from others aligns well with the Didache’s message to “not hesitate to give.” The story of the poor widow and the passage from Acts both line up with the Didache and its message to “not claim anything as your own,” and that all are sharers in perishable things. So does the Didache just parrot New Testament teaching on giving and receiving? Is there no reason to read it when you have the same principles in the Bible already?
Well, aside from the fact that Christians should read the Bible with more authority than the Apostolic Fathers, the passage from the Didache above has a couple of nuances that I want to highlight. The first being the line that “if you earn something by working with your hands, you shall give a ransom for your sins” (Did. 4:6). What is the “ransom for sins” to which the author is referring? I think the author actually meant verse 7 to be the answer to that question: giving without hesitation to others. Should we look at almsgiving as ransom for our sins? Well, to side-step that theological question, yes and no. I think that we should practice almsgiving because we do not deserve the gift of salvation and atonement from Christ at all. However, I do think there’s a danger in viewing giving as a ransom for our sin; i.e. that it’s something we have to do, or worse, that we are somehow taking over Christ’s role in our own salvation. I think the principle is sound though: viewing giving as a “ransom for our sin” helps us remember that we have received much in the past. Therefore we should give “without hesitation” to those in need. The Didache, in verse seven, even notes that “you know who the good paymaster is of the reward.”
The second principle from our text today that I wanted to underscore is the idea of sharing what is imperishable and what is perishable (Did. 4:8). This idea is something that struck me, since the author actually starts off by saying that if we share what is imperishable, we should absolutely share what is perishable too. Now, one could sidestep this in their giving by saying that the author meant that we should only give to Christians (or those who are our brother or sister, or sharers in with us in what is imperishable). Some might say that verse 8 from the passage above is really just echoing Acts 2, with believers sharing every possession in a commune-type arrangement. I would push back against this idea on two fronts: The first being how can we know if the person in need is a true believer or not? I would argue that we can’t know and therefore should give indiscriminately. The second is I feel that the author actually means that if we are sharing “what is imperishable” with those in need, we are sharing the love and the Gospel of Jesus. Therefore we should not withhold sharing our material possessions.
Disclaimer here: I think that the author is indeed talking to a Christian community and is concerned with how they are not being truly open with giving of their possessions, wealth, etc. However, I think that the lesson should be that since Christians are called to “go out into the world and make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19-20), we are indeed called to “share what is imperishable” with the rest of the world. In that spirit, we should be willing to share what is perishable, i.e. our possessions or wealth or time with others in need, Christian or not.
Living in Los Angeles, this hits home for me. There are over 100,000 homeless people in the city, with many of them living on Skid Row. While I support the LA City Mission, I really wish I did more sometimes. There are often people on the street near where I walk or near the beach in Santa Monica and I often do not stop to share anything with them. I make excuses about being busy, having no money on me, being in the middle of running an errand, etc. I often wonder if Jesus would stop every time, even though He, like I, would encounter some of the same people week in and week out. I am betting that Jesus would indeed always stop. I think that in the spirit of the Didache passage above, I hope to do more. I hope to share more, to give more. May I be more focused on not “withdrawing my hands when it comes to giving,” and less focused on “stretching out the hands to receive.”
What do you think? Is this passage about giving to the poor and needy around us, or is it more about sharing withing the early church? Can it be about both? I welcome your thoughts and also your stories about how you give in your own life to those in need.