It’s Sunday morning. I’m on my way home from church. The epistle reading from Acts 2 is still bumbling around in my head. At the Dunkin’ Donuts walk-up window, I line up for the “hot coffee plus two glazed” special.
Then a woman approaches. Her gray hair is unkempt. She has few teeth. Her clothes don’t fit. She asks: “Can I get money for a cup of coffee?”
It’s a dilemma as old as the “thou shalts” in Exodus, as direct as the declaration in Luke to “give to everyone who asks of you,” and as complex as the admonitions in 1 Timothy that the wealthy “be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share” (6:18). Here at the Dunkin’ Donuts window, I have an opportunity to reflect on salvation and the rights of the poor. How have Christians dealt with this moment in the past?
In classic Greek and Roman societies, “doing good” was a practice of the very wealthy. To much public acclaim, they gave in support of the arts. Their philanthropy had nothing to do with poverty, social need, or addressing economic disparity.
According to Poverty and Leadership in the Later Roman Empire, by Peter Brown, a great change occurred with the rise of Christianity. Suddenly, the poor were brought into “ever-sharper focus.” The church made visible what previously had been politically invisible.
It was not that poverty was something new in Rome. Instead, as church historian Roland Bainton puts it, “Christianity brought to social problems … a new scale of values.” Christians remembered that Jesus said when they fed the hungry and welcomed the stranger, they did these things for him. As a result, they valued the poor and cared for them as a necessary part of serving Christ. In fact, bishops were given a specific charge to be “lovers of the poor.”