Ethics of giving are rarely straightforward

June 12, 2012

The author is a contributor to The Washington Post's local faith leader network

Like most of the world’s major faiths, the sacred scriptures of the Jewish and Christian religions mandate the sharing of possessions with those in need through acts of charity as an essential and undeniable element of the spiritual life. Following hard on the heels of this command, however, is the inevitable question: Who are the worthy recipients of our goods? From the panhandler on the city street to the controversy surrounding the Komen foundation and its aftermath, the ethics of giving are rarely straightforward.

A text taken as central by both Jewish and Christian readers is Deuteronomy 15:7-8: “If there is among you anyone in need, a member of your community in any of your towns . . ., do not be hard-hearted or tight-fisted toward your needy neighbor. You should rather open your hand, willingly lending enough to meet the need, whatever it may be” (NRSV). The only criteria for worthiness here is that the person be in need and be a member of the community. Other passages insist on assistance and justice for classes of individuals who would be intrinsically needy within a patriarchal Bronze-age society: widows, orphans, and resident aliens.

Several points in the Christian New Testament connect giving charity with integrity—love of God cannot be genuine if it does not bear the fruit of generosity, the inherent result of a properly ordered faith. Both 1 John and James castigate those who claim to love God yet ignore the bodily needs of those around them. Acts of charity toward the visible community confirm love and faith toward the invisible God (1 John 3:17-18; James 2:15-17).

In each of these passages the focus is on the action rather than the recipient. However, in each case, the recipient is a member of the giver’s community which both restricts the scope of those to whom charity is given and allows an investigation of the recipient’s character. The liberality in the source texts does get reviewed in the interpretive tradition; the Talmud states that those requesting food should be given it immediately (lest they die of hunger in the meantime) but that those requesting clothing (a longer-term need) should be investigated. Likewise the Christian Didache written a generation or so after the bulk of the New Testament counsels givers to “let your alms sweat in your hands until you know to whom you are giving.”

The focus on giving within a specific — perhaps even discrete — community and on knowing the recipient moves directly to the idea of worthiness. Indeed, it complements the modern notion of philanthropy as investment: that charitable giving is a financial investment in a spiritual, political, or social movement allied with one’s own thinking. Taken to an extreme these lines of thought can lead to a charitable insularity that only gives to like-minded people and institutions.

A direct challenge to this insularity in the Gospel of Matthew is placed on the lips of Jesus himself. He challenge us to take God as our model; just as God sends rain and sun upon the just and unjust alike, we should be similarly open in our giving (Matthew 5:45-46). Before the qualification cited above, the Didache underscores and extends this point: “Give to everyone who asks of you, and do not refuse, for the Father’s will is that we give to all from the gifts that we have received.”

Perhaps a last word on the subject should be given to William Law, spiritual mentor of the Wesley brothers who founded the Methodist societies. In his caricature of a self-consumed society girl, Flavia constantly weighs the worthiness of those who ask her for aid; the result is that none can meet the standard that she sets. Her test for worthiness turns out to be an exercise in self-deception. In her anxiety to hold on to her possessions she forgets their ultimate source and fails to consider that her own worthiness was never part of God’s calculations.

Charitable giving is an intrinsic part of a healthy spiritual practice. As the Jewish and Christian traditions have understood it, these practices form us in two related but distinct habits. The first is giving away goods which are ours. The second is letting go of the notion that those goods were ever truly ours to begin with — and that we should have control over where they go next.

Yes, when we give some of our gifts the worthiness of the recipients may well motivate us to do the right thing. The investment of financial capital in a worthy spiritual cause does good and forms us in generosity. On the other hand, the fact that we were merely stewards of what God has first given us forms us in gratitude and can provide a valuable lesson in letting go of our own desires to control its future path. Cultivating a proper balance between these complementary virtues will aid us in walking the line between proper stewardship and act out God’s own benevolence.

Derek Olsen is a layman in the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland serving as theologian in residence at the Church of the Advent in Baltimore, Md.

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