Lenten promises to keep

Friday, March 13, 2020 - Updated: 5:06 pm


You may or may not give more in Lent, the way the Church asks you to. Many of us could be more generous than we are. I certainly could be. Whatever you do in Lent, you know you should give to the needy and the poor.

Just because. Everyone knows that. There are a few cranks out there with a weird political philosophy that say we shouldn’t, but they’re cranks. The normal person knows we should help others.

But why do we think this? It’s not really obvious. The world in which Christianity arose didn’t believe it.

We think that giving to the poor is normal because Judaism and Christianity came into the world. Christianity grew from Judaism and developed its insights and practices, but it added its own special spin. That formed the world we live in now. As secular as America might be, the Christian belief in kindness to the poor runs so deep even atheists assume it.

As one scholar explains: The Jews created and the Christians developed “organized charity in the sense of a communal obligation towards the needy.” They worked together to help the poor, and did it because they had to do it. Greeks and Romans could not even conceive of such a thing.

The writer, Pieter van der Horst, studies early Christianity and taught at one of the major universities in the Netherlands. His article appeared on the secular website Aeon, called “How the poor became blessed” if you want to look it up.

Our spiritual ancestors created that new kind of charity because they loved and obeyed the God who had revealed himself to them. They knew something the Greeks and Romans didn’t. Horst explains that this charity was “inspired by the sincere conviction that humankind should imitate God’s special concern for the most vulnerable among humans — the poor.”

The Greeks believed that you should give to others, but only if you would get something back. That brought honor. You showed kindness to your people and your family, and also your guests. But not to the poor.

The gods didn’t care for the poor, so why should you? The Greeks thought the gods favored the rich. Their being rich proved it. A Greek could take someone to court and point to his poverty as evidence of his bad character.

It gets worse. Horst writes: “The poor could not pray for help from the gods because they were poor.” Everyone assumed the rich were morally superior to the poor, that the poor were inclined to wickedness, and their poverty was their own fault.

That was as true of the Romans as it was for the Greeks. Everyone in the ancient Mediterranean world thought the same way. Of course, the pagans may have been better than their thinking, but probably not much better.

Not surprisingly, Horst continues, they did not see the poor “as people deserving help, and that no organized charity developed in Ancient Greece or Rome. In such societies, giving alms to the poor could not be seen as a virtue, as care for them was often regarded as a mere waste of resources.”

Everyone thought this. Just because. It’s obvious. Common sense. Everyone, that is, except the Jews and later that funny new Jewish sect called the Christians.

The new kindness started with the Jews. In the Jewish Bible, our Old Testament, “God is seen as the protector of the poor and the rescuer of the needy. They are his favorites and the objects of his mercy, regarded as humble before God and therefore often as pious and righteous.” God ordered all sorts of practical acts of kindness, like farmers letting the poor harvest the borders and corners of his fields.

It was mostly private charity, though, as far as historians can tell. The Christians organized their help for the poor from the beginning. They created the diaconate to do just that. It just grew from there.

The pagans never caught up. Roman empire’s last pagan emperor, the famous Julian the Apostate, testified to the Jews’ and Christians’ distinctiveness in the middle of the fourth century. “It is a shame that, when no Jew ever has to beg and the impious Galilaeans (Christians) support not only their own poor but ours as well, everyone can see that our people lack aid from us.”

Mills is finishing a book titled “When Catholics Die,” to be published by Sophia Institute Press.

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