Thursday, June 4, 2009

Tobit's Charity

The non-Gospel Lectionary reading for Thursday is from Tobit, but it skips from Chapter 3 to Chapter 6. In between, in Chapter 4, you find this passage on almsgiving.

Give alms from your possessions. Do not turn your face away from any of the poor, and God's face will not be turned away from you. Son, give alms in proportion to what you own. If you have great wealth, give alms out of your abundance; if you have but little, distribute even some of that. But do not hesitate to give alms; you will be storing up a goodly treasure for yourself against the day of adversity. Almsgiving frees one from death, and keeps one from going into the dark abode. Alms are a worthy offering in the sight of the Most High for all who give them.

Tobit 4:7-11

As I read this passage, I was reminded of the article "Faith & Finance" in the May 2009 issue of First Things by Gary A. Anderson. Mr. Anderson is a professor of Old Testament at the University of Notre Dame, and he argues that, in financial terms, charitable giving in the biblical sense can be thought of as a contribution to both our eternal and our temporal retirement account. We are making a loan to God and trusting that he will repay us in our time of need. What's more, charity is a necessary action to actualize our faith.

Consider the Book of Tobit, the earliest source we have that documents the importance of giving alms to the poor. The tale begins with a description of the piety of Tobit while he resided in the land of Israel. But then the Assyrians invaded the northern kingdom and took Tobit and many others into exile. He could no longer make the requisite journey to Jerusalem in order to offer sacrifices to his God. So how was Tobit to fulfill his obligation to serve his creator and redeemer?

He gave alms. If all we had was the Book of Tobit, we might conclude that the religious value of almsgiving was conditioned by one's distance from the Temple. In Israel, Tobit venerates God at the Temple; in the Eastern diaspora, he serves the poor. But another Jewish text of the time, the Book of Ben Sira, rejects this interpretation. Ben Sira was a priest who lived in Israel. Yet he contended that almsgiving was an activity that paralleled sacrifice: "He who returns a kindness offers fine flour, and he who gives alms sacrifices a thank offering."

In Tobit and Ben Sira, we witness a dramatic new turn in theology. The hand of the poor person is imagined to be a type of altar that can transmit goods from earth to heaven. The altar in Jerusalem turns the flesh of animals into a savor that was pleasing to the Lord, and the act of generosity to the poor allows one to deposit wealth into a heavenly treasury.

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