The Roman world was one of extremes. A small percentage of people were rich and powerful, a number had sufficient surplus income to be comfortable, and the vast majority lived on or below the poverty line, one misfortune away from destitution or death. While the wealthy did contribute to the cities in which they lived, they weren’t concerned about improving the lot of the needy. What they were concerned about was elevating their own status: assisting those who could repay them in some way, staging events in the arena, and funding buildings on which their name was prominently displayed.
By contrast, the Jewish tradition, endorsed by Jesus and inherited by the early church, was that love of God cannot be separated from love of neighbour. This is evident in the fullest early description we have of a Christian gathering—Justin Martyr’s First Apology from the mid-second century. There are certainly prayers, scripture reading, a sermon and the eucharist, as we might expect. But together they also ‘bless the maker of all for everything we have through his Son Jesus Christ, and through the Holy Spirit’, and they do so by giving to ‘orphans and widows and those who, through sickness or any other cause, are in need, and those who are in bonds and the strangers living among us’.
In the same vein, when Tertullian writes To His Wife on the importance of Christian marriage, he describes activities that would likely be prevented by an unbelieving husband. The list includes visiting the poor in their humble homes, attending to those in prison, washing the saints’ feet, hosting Christian travellers, and generally making their resources available to others. In addition to these everyday acts, Cyprian records raising a large sum of money to ransom those captured by barbarians. The early church maintained the New Testament emphasis on giving as an evidence of faith that would be rewarded with treasure in heaven.
Christians did not only care for those within their own community, however. When a plague struck Carthage, Cyprian encouraged his flock to give to non-Christians as well, in imitation of their heavenly father who ‘causes the sun to rise on the good and the evil, and causes the rain to fall on the just and the unjust’ (Matthew 5:44f). John Chrysostom, nicknamed ‘Golden Mouth’ for his eloquence, reflected on the generosity of the early church in a sermon on Acts: ‘Grace was upon them all because there was no-one that lacked. That is, due to the exceeding devotion of the givers, no-one was in need … And what is more, they lived in great abundance—they removed all inequality from among them and made a right order.’ Given that so much was accomplished through only several thousand people, he imagines that if the hundred thousand Christians in Constantinople imitated them, there would be no more poor and no more pagans—heaven on earth.
Despite the fall of the Roman Empire, status anxiety remains. People who already have way too much are worried they’ll never have enough. But Jesus still offers us freedom from the endless pursuit of earthly treasure by assuring us of God’s constant care and provision. And the experience of the early church reminds us that living generously will transform the world. If we focus on giving to those in need, we’ll discover that God provides what we need, and we will become conduits of God’s abundant grace to those around us.
Dr Edwina Murphy is Lecturer in Church History at Morling College, Sydney.
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