Monday, April 22, 2013

Faith, Hope, and Charity

Today is the first day of our sixteenth week, reading the Bible through together in a year.  Our scriptures this week are:

  • Ruth 1-2; Acts 3;
  • Ruth 3-4; Acts 4; Psalm 37
  • 1 Samuel 1-2; Acts 5; Psalm 120
  • 1 Sam 3-5; Acts 6; Psalm 23
  • 1 Sam 6-8; Acts 7
Today in both our Old Testament and New Testament passages, we find the unifying theme of charity.  Boaz exercised charity in the hope that he might alleviate the suffering of Ruth and her mother.  Peter and John exercised charity, along with faith that Jesus could make the beggar rise and walk.  These two stories share the idea of helping those who are less fortunate, yet they take two different approaches to the assistance they give.

"Ruth Gleaning" by James J. Tissot
In the case of Ruth and Boaz, we find that the young woman is physically capable of working.  All that she lacks is employment.  Boaz is a wealthy man, and can afford the charity that he gives.  According to Hebrew law, farmers were told, "When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest. Leave them for the poor and for the foreigner residing among you. I am the LORD your God (Leviticus 23:22 NIV)."  As Boas follows this law, he actually goes above and beyond the mandate.  Ruth 2:15-16 (ESV) says, "When she rose to glean, Boaz instructed his young men, saying, “Let her glean even among the sheaves, and do not reproach her.  And also pull out some from the bundles for her and leave it for her to glean, and do not rebuke her.”

This story represents an ideal situation where charity is put into action.  The recipient of charity is able to  work.  Her work preserves her dignity and her integrity.  The giver of charity is able to employ the needy person.  It is so much better to give a hand up, rather than a handout.  But there are times when a person in dire straits is unable to assist themselves.  Then, charity must take a different approach.  Acts 3:1-7 (ESV) says:

Peter and John heal a beggar at the temple gate
Now Peter and John were going up to the temple at the hour of prayer, the ninth hour. And a man lame from birth was being carried,whom they laid daily at the gate of the temple that is called the Beautiful Gate to ask alms of those entering the temple. Seeing Peter and John about to go into the temple, he asked to receive alms. And Peter directed his gaze at him, as did John, and said, “Look at us.” And he fixed his attention on them, expecting to receive something from them.But Peter said, “I have no silver and gold, but what I do have I give to you. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, rise up and walk!” And he took him by the right hand and raised him up, and immediately his feet and ankles were made strong.

In this case, the beggar is incapable of working for the charity he receives.  His incapacity doesn't make him unworthy of assistance--if anything it make him more deserving of help.  Unfortunately, just as he is helpless to work, Peter and John, having no money, are helpless to give him any alms.  I imagine Peter saying at first,  "I have no silver and gold..." and then a long pause.  They think for a bit.  Maybe they reach deeper into their pockets just to make sure.  And then it hits them--a prompting of the Spirit.  Finally, Peter says, "But what I have I give to you."  God doesn't expect His people to give what they do not have.  But He demands that we share what we do have.  In the absence of money, they realize that they have something better.  "In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, rise up and walk!"  And the man leaps to his feet, never to beg again.

As you read both the larger Old Testament story and the larger New Testament story, you find that neither Ruth nor the lame beggar remain in their position as charity cases.  Both are elevated beyond the status of permanent poverty.  This is God's goal for benevolence.  Those who can work, should.  Those who can give their money, should.  Those who can't work, aren't expected to.  Those who can't provide financially, should find a way to provide in other ways.  One way or another, it is God's great desire to alleviate suffering.  He has placed a heart of compassion in you, to be able to help those in need.  

The apostle Paul writes:

Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I have become sounding brass or a clanging cymbal.  And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.  And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, but have not love, it profits me nothing...And now abide faith, hope, love, these three; but the greatest of these is love (1 Corinthians 13:1-3, 13 NKJV).

The King James Version translates the word "love" as "charity."  The Greek word, agape, means love without condition.  But how often is the charity that we practice clothed in one condition or another!  Boaz doesn't tell Ruth, "You may glean in my fields if you fill out this application and let me do a home inspection." Peter doesn't tell the beggar, "Let me inspect your finances and then I'll see what I can do."  Instead, their charity is given out of a sense of unconditional love.  Love that is patient and is kind.  Love that does not envy, does not boast, is not proud.  Love that does not dishonor others, is not self-seeking, is not easily angered, and keeps no record of wrongs.  Love that does not delight in evil but rejoices in the truth.  Love that always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.  Love that never fails (1 Corinthians 13:4-8a).

I hope that the charity that you give, and that your church gives, is based not in a sense of obligation or of self-exaltation.  I hope that your charity is based first and only in unconditional love.  And I hope that you give more than silver and gold.  I hope that you give the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, which helps all who are in need to rise up and walk.

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