“Though He Was Rich…He Became Poor” (2 Cor 8:9): Almsgiving and the Economics of Heaven in Scripture
“The interior penance of the Christian can be expressed in many and various ways. Scripture and the Fathers insist above all on three forms, fasting, prayer, and almsgiving…”
—Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1434 (emphasis added)
Each year the Church commends to us three penitential disciplines for Lenten observance: fasting, prayer, and almsgiving. The Catechism tells us Scripture and the Fathers valued these penances “above all.” In this piece, I would like to look more carefully at the last of these, namely, the practice of charitable giving.
Indeed, even those who despise Christianity praise those who give to the poor. Yet, as we shall see, this spiritual discipline isn’t simply commendable because it fosters compassion or because it opposes greed. Almsgiving has specific importance for Christians, which is why its importance is repeatedly stressed in the Church’s tradition. In this brief piece, then, I’d like to unpack the rich theological significance of almsgiving in Scripture, drawing on recent scholarship. (For a fuller treatment, see my essay in Alan Stanley, ed., Four Views on the Role of Good Works at the Final Judgment, as well as my responses therein to the other contributors.)
The Economics of Salvation
Until recently, one feature of ancient Judaism has surprisingly been underappreciated by scholars: in biblical and extra-biblical Jewish sources, sin and salvation are described in explicitly economic terms. Perhaps the most well known expression of this perspective is found in the prayer Christians know best: the Our Father. There, Jesus teaches us to pray, “And forgive us our debts as we also have forgiven our debtors” (Mt 6:12). As is universally acknowledged, “debt” is used here as an image for sin (see Mt 6:14–15).
This “financial” metaphor for sin is peculiarly Semitic in character. In his 2009 book Sin: A History, Notre Dame professor of Catholic theology Gary Anderson writes, “In contemporary Greek the words ‘remit’ (aphiemi) and ‘debt’ (opheilema) did not have the secondary meaning of ‘forgive’ and ‘sin.’” In other words, non-Jewish Greek speakers were not known to use the words for “debt” and “forgiveness” with this kind of spiritual import. Jesus is teaching us there to pray in a distinctly Jewish way.
This economic approach to sin and forgiveness is not only attested elsewhere in the Gospels (e.g., the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant, Mt 18:23–35) but is also present in Saint Paul’s letters. In Romans we read that “the wages of sin is death” (6:23). Likewise, in another Pauline epistle we read that Christ’s death has saved us because it “canceled the record of debt that stood against us” (Col 2:14, ESV).
The New Testament’s use of financial imagery is hardly limited to the language of “debt.” Salvation is often described with similar language from the marketplace, as noted by University of Oxford professor Nathan Eubank in Wages of Cross-Bearing and Debt of Sin: The Economy of Heaven in Matthew’s Gospel. For instance, the saving work of Christ is often described as “redemption,” a word that also has economic resonances. The English word translates the Greek, lytron, which also can be rendered “ransom.” “Redemption” denotes the “price” of release, typically release from debt or the consequences of defaulting on a loan, namely imprisonment or slavery. If one did not have the requisite resources to pay off a creditor, two things might happen: A debtor could be thrown in prison and tortured until someone close to him was shamed into bailing him out (e.g., Mt 18:34). Otherwise, the debtor could be sold with his wife and children into slavery (e.g., Lv 23:39–55; 2 Kgs 4:1–7).
In the New Testament, Christ’s work of redemption is said to address all of these outcomes: it delivers us from the debt of sin (Col 2:14), freeing us from bondage to the devil (Heb 2:15) as well as slavery to sin (Rom 6:20). Jesus thus explains his mission succinctly, namely, “to give his life as a ransom [lytron] for many” (Mt 20:28//Mk 10:45).
Paschal Mystery and Redemption
As we prepare for the New Passover, the “Paschal” (Passover) Mystery, we especially turn to almsgiving. The practice is deeply bound up with this Jewish understanding of sin and redemption. In fact, it should be no surprise that as they celebrated Passover, ancient Jews also apparently put special emphasis on alms. In the Fourth Gospel, we read that Judas left the Last Supper early after Jesus instructed him, “What you are going to do, do quickly” (Jn 13:27). We learn that the Apostles, unaware of what was about to transpire, thought Jesus may have issued this directive: “that he should give something to the poor” (Jn 13:29).
Why give to the poor at Passover? Because Passover celebrated Israel’s “redemption” from Egypt (see Ex 6:6). In other words, the “price” of Israel’s liberation was covered by the LORD God.
While it is not explicit in Exodus, later writers came to understand that Israel’s slavery in Egypt was due to sin. For example, the prophet Ezekiel recounts how Israel had fallen into idolatry in Egypt before their deliverance from the land (see Ez 20:6–8). From this we learn an important truth: Israel’s slavery to Pharaoh was simply the visible sign of their spiritual bondage.
With this in mind, giving alms to the poor at Passover made perfect sense. For an ancient Jew, that bondage to sin would have been seen in terms of “debt.” To thank God for redeeming them from their predicament, Jews would turn around and give to those who were poor—those in need of material financial assistance.
Almsgiving and Heavenly Treasure
The corollary to viewing sin as a “debt” is that righteous deeds can be understood in terms of a kind of “credit.” In Proverbs we read, “He who is kind to the poor lends to the LORD, and he will repay him for his deed” (Prv 19:17). Out of this kind of thinking emerges the notion that one can “store up” such credit gained with God. One can then draw on it in a time of future need: “Store up almsgiving in your treasury, and it will rescue you from all affliction” (Sir 29:12; see also Tb 4:7–10).
From these traditions the concept of a heavenly treasury developed. Jesus draws on this tradition in the Sermon on the Mount: “lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal” (Mt 6:20). As Gary Anderson shows in Charity: The Place of the Poor in Biblical Tradition, the Catholic doctrine of the “treasury of merit” develops out of these teachings.
To be clear, this is not the same thing as Pelagianism: the belief that one can be saved by good works apart from God’s grace. Even in the Old Testament, this system is understood within the larger context of the covenant. Nor is this a simple quid pro quo arrangement. While non-biblical books imagine a final judgment wherein good and bad deeds are weighed carefully against each other (e.g., 1 Enoch 61:8), the biblical literature is clear that God is beyond gracious in assigning value to such good works: “For the Lord is the one who repays, and he will repay you sevenfold” (Sir 35:10–11).
In short, it is only because of God’s grace, obtained by the redemptive work of Jesus—whose work is of infinite value!—that it is possible for us to participate in the work of salvation.
Christ Became Poor
In 2 Corinthians, Saint Paul pulls all of these traditions together to teach us a profound lesson about almsgiving. Describing his efforts to bring a collection to the poor Christians in Jerusalem, he writes about the incredible generosity of the churches of Macedonia.
For in a severe test of affliction, their abundance of joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of liberality on their part. For they gave according to their means, as I can testify, and beyond their means, of their own free will, begging us earnestly for the favor of taking part in the relief of the saints— and this, not as we expected, but first they gave themselves to the Lord and to us by the will of God (2 Cor 8:2–5, emphasis added).
For Paul, these Christians serve as models. Though they had little, they gave “beyond their means” (2 Cor 8:3). In making such sacrifices, these Christians “gave themselves to the Lord and to us” (2 Cor 8:5).
Saint Paul then appeals to the Corinthians to so contribute by making a striking Christological statement: “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich” (2 Cor 8:9). Paul thus gives us the Christological rationale for almsgiving. Christ was rich but made himself poor by embracing our lowly nature and dying a humiliating death on the cross (see Phil 2:5–8). He did this not for his sake but for our sake, so that we who were “poor”—i.e., in the debt of sin—could become “rich,” that is, have heavenly wealth.
Saint Teresa of Calcutta said one should “give until it hurts”; in other words, we should make contributions that entail true sacrifice. Only then are we being conformed to the image of the Son, who, as Mother Teresa noted in her 1994 address to the National Prayer Breakfast, “gave even His life to love us.” As we prepare to enter into the Passover Mystery of Christ and celebrate how “he made himself poor” so as to make us “rich,” let us ask for the grace to respond to his act of love by performing concrete acts of charity by which we can learn to better give ourselves back to him.