1) Interested Giving and the Prosperity Gospel
Among the defining characteristics of the so-called prosperity gospel, one prominent motif is the connection between giving and reward. As we have all seen, the definition of the prosperity gospel provided in the Cape Town Commitment helpfully highlights this connection by indicating that, according to prosperity teaching, blessings of health and wealth can be obtained “through positive confessions of faith and the ‘sowing of seeds’ through financial or material gifts.” According to this definition, there are two human actions that result in physical or material blessing: (1) confessions of faith and (2) the bestowal of financial or material gifts. And I want to focus on the latter of these two, namely, what I will call “interested giving.”1 In this understanding, material possessions can be exchanged for other blessings, particularly other material or financial blessings.
It does not take long reading the literature or hearing the sermons of “health and wealth” teachers to encounter strident appeals to this kind of interested giving. Expressed by American Robert Tilton as God’s “law of compensation,” scriptural texts such as Mark 10:29-30, Luke 18:29-30, 2 Cor 9:6, and Gal 6:7 are invoked promote the idea that the more one gives—usually to the preacher or the organization requesting donations— the more God will bless the donor with material gifts. Famously, Gloria Copeland once wrote in her book God’s Will Is Prosperity, “You give $1 for the Gospel’s sake and $100 belongs to you;; give $10 and receive $1000;; give $1000 and receive $100,000.… Give one airplane and receive one hundred times the value of the airplane. Give one car and the return would furnish you a lifetime of cars. In short, Mark 10: 30 is a very good deal.”2 This is giving for a return: the motivation for one’s bestowal of material goods is the hope of reward, namely, a greater abundance of material blessing.
These kinds of appeals to a formulaic system of cosmic benefit exchange represent what historian Kate Bowler calls “hard prosperity,” a theological perspective in which what I will call “interested giving” plays a prominent role: one gives in order to receive. And while the crass and prescribed “laws of compensation” set forward by hard prosperity representatives like Tilton and Copeland are relatively easy to dismiss, the more subtle, and I suspect more common, approach is regularly to emphasize that giving provides blessing to givers.
It is not surprising, then, that opponents of the prosperity gospel—whether in its hard or softer manifestations—regularly insist that giving must be altruistic, selfless, or dis-interested. In a recent and frequently reproduced article on the “Errors of the Prosperity Gospel,” for example, Baptist ethicist David Jones tackles the “error” that “Christians should give in order to gain material compensation from God,” concluding that “the prosperity gospel’s doctrine of giving is built upon faulty motives. Whereas Jesus taught his disciples to ‘give, hoping for nothing in return’ (Luke 10:35 [sic: 6:35]), prosperity theologians teach their disciples to give because they will get a great return.”3 Jones’s response seems to me to summarize a common and simple objection leveled against proponents of the gospel of health and wealth: not only are the calculated laws of giving and receiving deeply flawed, but so is the basic assumption held by prosperity proponents that there is a necessary connection between giving and reward. If I may be so bold, I might even suggest the that Cape Town Commitment itself can be read as offering a rejection of interested giving, for the charge in the section entitled “Walk in simplicity, rejecting the idolatry of greed” is to “replace self-interest and greed with the biblical teaching on self-sacrifice and generous giving as the marks of true discipleship to Christ.” But is interested giving, or “self-interest,” inherently opposed to self-sacrifice and generous giving?
2) A (Brief!) Sketch of Questions about Giving for a Return
There is, to be sure, a long history behind this unease about interested giving, one that significantly predates the modern emergence of the prosperity gospel. A basic assumption about gifts held by many modern Westerners at least is that giving must be free and disinterested and that, conversely, giving with the expectation of return invalidates the nature of the gift as gift. There is a larger cultural narrative that informs this assumption, although time does not permit a full investigation of this point. It would be possible to highlight the Protestant Reformation, for example, as a signal moment in which theologians wrestled with the relationship between giving—or, more specifically, the purchase of indulgences—and divine reward, and this may explain something of a Protestant unease about emphasizing, or even acknowledging, a connection between material contributions (to a religious organization?) and recompense from God. Looming large in the Western world also is Immanuel Kant’s contention that only actions performed out of duty—those that conform to universal moral law— have moral worth, and that deeds performed for some extrinsic end, such as the procurement of present or even heavenly reward, have no moral worth.4
As early as Marcel Mauss’s seminal essay The Gift (1925) anthropologists have challenged this position on disinterested giving, yet it remains deeply entrenched in Western culture.5 Many people assume that a gift, in the words of philosopher Jacques Godbout, is “any exchange of goods or services with no guarantee of recompense in order to create, nourish, or recreate social bonds between people.”6 If this is the case, then it is easy to see why Godbout—along with Marcel Mauss, Mary Douglas, and others—understands Christian almsgiving as a perversion of the gift, which is why Godbout describes “alms” as “a unilateral gift to an unknown recipient . . . a gift that excludes, that asserts the giver’s dominant position and seems designed to expose the recipient’s inability to reciprocate.”7 And if gifts are given or encouraged for the purpose of “sowing a seed” or obtaining some future reward for donors, this seems to many people to introduce a kind of market exchange that is inherently opposed to the practice of Christian charity or gift-giving.
To be clear, questions about this tension between interested and disinterested giving did not emerge only after the Protestant Reformation, or the European Enlightenment, or the global dominance of late-modern capitalism. Some of our earliest Christian thinkers bear witness to this wrestling with motivations for sharing resources. Augustine, for example, along with a host of other early Christian writers, believed that acts of mercy and care for the poor and needy could atone for post-baptismal sin, and yet Augustine worried about the motivations of those who performed alms-deeds. “We must beware, however, lest anyone should suppose that gross sins, such as are committed by those who shall not inherit the kingdom of God, may be daily perpetrated, and be daily atoned for by almsgiving. The life must be changed for the better; and almsgiving must be used to propitiate God for past sins, not to purchase impurity for the commission of such sins in the future” (Enchr. 70).
A little more than two centuries before Augustine, Clement of Alexandria wrote a fascinating treatise entitled Quis dives salvetur—The Rich Person’s Salvation—in which he uses Jesus’ conversation with a rich man in Mark 10:17-31 to reflect on the dangers of wealth for believers who posses it, an increasingly important pastoral issue in the context of emerging Christian affluence in late second-century Alexandria. As a means of dealing with the potential problem of riches among his readers, Clement identifies the desire for wealth as an evil to be avoided (Quis div. 12) and calls prosperous believers to live modestly and simply as the exterior result of their inner detachment from goods (Quis div. 26; cf. Paed. 3.10-11). While rich believers are not instructed to abandon their possessions altogether, they are challenged to share their resources generously with their materially impoverished brothers and sisters, for the poor can serve as advocates with God on behalf of the rich. Clement famously describes this exchange of alms for prayer with a commercial metaphor:
What beautiful business! What a divine market! You purchase with money something incorruptible, and you give the perishing things of this world in exchange for heavenly things. Set sail, O Rich Man, for this festal assembly, if you are wise. And if it is necessary, go around the whole earth without considering dangers or toils, that here you might purchase a heavenly kingdom. (Quis div. 32)
Yet in some of his later writings Clement offers a rather different perspective on the motivation for Christian care for the poor. In a section his Stromata, or Miscellanies, devoted to topic of martyrdom, Clement of Alexandria draws upon the apostle Paul, 1 Peter, and a late-first century writing called 1 Clement in order to describe the attitude toward death held by “the gnostic” (ὁγνωστικός). It is important to realize that “the gnostic” for Clement of Alexandria in the Stromata is almost a technical term that reflects Clement’s Platonic epistemology. Clement makes a distinction between three types of knowledge: (1) sensual knowledge, which is false, (2) “spiritual knowledge” and (3) “logical knowledge,” the latter two of which are true.8 In short, for Clement the Christian gnostic is the individual who, through faith and love, possesses true knowledge, able to undertake a journey of detachment from the world and union with God (Strom. 7.12.74-80). It is this philosophical and epistemological context that frames Clement of Alexandria’s apparent denial, or at least diminishment, of the meritorious nature of almsgiving in his commentary on 1 Corinthians 13 and 1 Peter 4 in Stromata 4.18.9 There Clement writes:
Therefore, the noble and holy manner of our philanthropy, according to Clement (i.e., the author of 1 Clement), seeks the common good, either by martyrdom or by teaching in deed and word, the latter of which is twofold, unwritten and written. This is love: to love God and to love neighbor. This leads to indescribable heights (cf. 1 Clem. 49.4). Love covers a multitude of sins (1 Pet. 4:8). Love bears all things. Love is patient in all things. Love joins us to God. Love does all things in harmony. Everyone chosen by God has been made perfect in love. Without love nothing is pleasing to God. There is no explanation of the perfection of love, it is said. Who is worthy to be found in it, except the one whom God considers worthy? (1 Clem. 50.1-2) Take, for example, the apostle Paul. “If I give my body,” he says, “but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging symbol.” If it is not from an elective disposition, by gnostic love, that I testify, Paul says, but by fear; and if, then, by anticipated reward I rattle my lips to testify to the Lord that I confess the Lord, then I am an ordinary man, ringing out the Lord’s name, but not knowing him. For there is indeed a people that loves with the lips, and there is another that hands over the body to be burned (cf. Isa 29:13). “And if I give away all my possessions,” he says, not according to the principle of affectionate fellowship, but according to the principle of recompense, either from the person who received the benefaction or from the Lord who has promised, “and if I have all faith so as to move mountains,” and repel shadowy passions, and if I am not faithful to the Lord on account of love, “I am nothing,” as one reckoned with and no different from the multitude, especially in comparison with the one who testifies as a gnostic (Strom. 4.18.111-12; my translation).
Clement’s gloss on Paul’s encomium to love in 1 Cor 13 reflects Clement’s conviction that “gnostic love” (δι’ γάπης γνωστικῆς) cannot be motivated by fear, for fear, as the opposite of faith, demonstrates a lack of knowledge (Strom. 6.9.75-76; 6.12.98). Nor can the anticipation of reward motivate authentic love: the Christian gnostic must demonstrate love because of the good itself, not because of the hope of honor (cf. Strom. 18.104.22.168). With regard to the dispossession of material resources, Clement interprets the first condition in 1 Cor 13:3—κἂν ψωμίσω πάντα τὰ ὑπάρχοντά μου— to mean a dispossession of goods not based on a principle of affectionate fellowship (οὐ κατὰ τῆς κοινωνίας τῆς γαπητικῆς λόγον) but on the basis of an expectation of recompense for the charitable action ( λλὰ κατὰ τὸν τῆς νταποδόσεως), recompense either from the one who receives the benefaction or from the Lord. The one who engages in almsgiving with the hope of human or divine requital is nothing, particularly when compared with the Christian gnostic. There is, therefore, a very different presentation of the motivation for benevolence than one finds in Quis dives salvetur: whereas in his earlier text, Quis div., Clement encourages almsgiving because of the benefits accrued for the donor—including remission of sin— in Stromata Clement insists that the Christian gnostic will be motivated to show love by knowledge and faith, not by any self-interest on the part of the giver of alms.
3) Giving for a Return in the NT
But what of the relationship between giving away resources and reward in the NewTestament? Earlier I cited David Jones’s critique of the prosperity gospel on this point: “Whereas Jesus taught his disciples to ‘give, hoping for nothing in return’ (Luke 10:35 [sic: 6:35]), prosperity theologians teach their disciples to give because they will get a great return.” I would suggest that this emphasis on giving without any expectation of return actually flattens the text of Luke’s Gospel and is insensitive to the complex interplay between giving and reward in the Jesus tradition and in the New Testament more broadly. What Jesus actually says in Luke 6:34-35 is this: “And if you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what benefit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, in order to receive back the same amount. But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, for he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked.” The point that Jesus makes in Luke 6 is not that disciples should never give with the expectation of reward; the point is that disciples should not lend to others expecting repayment from those to whom they lend, for in refusing to participate in this kind of reciprocal exchange, they will receive a reward in another exchange economy, not from other humans but from God. This text from Luke 6 is entirely consistent with the portrayal of Jesus throughout the narrative of the Third Gospel, for Jesus regularly advocates almsgiving with the hope of receiving some reward in return. But what is the nature of that reward, and to whom are followers of Jesus called to give? Let us briefly trace those questions in the Gospel of Luke by looking at some key texts.
Luke 11:37-41 recounts Jesus’ conversation with an unnamed Pharisee at a meal hosted by that Pharisee. In response to his host’s astonishment that he does not wash before the meal, Jesus says:
“Now you Pharisees clean the outside of the cup and of the dish, but the inside of you is full of greed and wickedness. Foolish people! Did not the one who made the outside make the inside also? So give alms with respect to the things within, and see, everything is clean for you” (vv. 39-41).
Here as elsewhere in Luke the language of almsgiving denotes the provision of material assistance to those in need, whether those distributions are monetary, or the haring clothes or food (3:11), or invitations to meals (cf. 11:41; 12:33; Acts 3:2, 3, 10; 9:36; 10:2, 4, 31; 24:17).
As Christopher Hays has effectively argued, careful attention to this narrative context suggests that English translations, like that of the ESV, that suggest the phrase τὰ ἐνόντα δότε ἐλεημοσύνην be rendered “give as alms those things that are within” make little sense, since Jesus has just said in v. 39 that the inside of the Pharisees is full of greed and wickedness (τὸ δὲ ἔσωθεν ὑμῶν γέμει ἁρπαγῆς καὶ πονηρίας). How can greed and wickedness be given as alms? Instead, τὰ ἐνόντα is an accusative of respect, best rendered “give alms with respect to the things within,” in the sense that the act of giving alms alleviates the problem of what is “within” the Pharisees, namely, greed and wickedness.10 The phrase that punctuates this conversation then reiterates the cleansing effect of almsgiving: give alms with respect to the things within, and see, everything is clean for you, that is, both the outside of the cup and the dish (since the Pharisees will continue to dine with clean vessels) and the inside of the Pharisees. The “reward” offered to the Pharisees here—if we may use the language of “reward”—is internal purity from greed and wickedness.
The next passage in which almsgiving is connected with reward comes immediately after the Parable of the Rich Fool (12:13-21) in a discourse directed to the disciples (12:22)11:
32 Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. 33 Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. 34 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
The string of imperatives in vv. 33 (πωλήσατε τὰ ὑπάρχοντα ὑμῶν καὶ δότε ἐλεημοσύνην· ποιήσατε ἑαυτοῖς βαλλάντια μὴ παλαιούμενα) suggests that these injunctions are closely related: selling possessions and giving alms enable the making of purses that do not wear out, a treasury that will not be exhausted. In this sense, almsgiving is the antidote to the punishment experienced by who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God, as exemplified in the Parable of the Rich Fool in 12:16-21. Much as in the Gospel of Matthew, where this is also a key theme, reward for almsgiving in Luke 12:33-34 is the accumulation of heavenly treasure.
In chapter 14, at another Lukan meal scene that takes place at the home of a leader of the Pharisees, Jesus also instructs his host about the need to care for the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind by sharing food with them.12 Jesus informs the one who had invited him that in extending table fellowship to the destitute and to those whose disabled bodies open them to economic vulnerability the Pharisee will be blessed because the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind cannot repay him (presumably with a return invitation, cf. 14:13), for he will be repaid “at the resurrection of the righteous” (14:14;; νταποδοθήσεται γάρ σοι ἐν τῇ ναστάσει τῶν δικαίων). Given that v. 12 speaks of repayment in terms of a return invitation to a lunch or dinner by one’s friends, kin, or wealthy neighbors, it may be that the repayment at the resurrection for provisioning the needy in the present is here envisioned as an invitation, on the basis of one’s care for the marginalized, to an eschatological (messianic?) banquet.13
The next key, though admittedly puzzling text, is found in Luke 16:1-9, a parable of a dishonest manager that Jesus tells to his disciples. In light of the connection between almsgiving and reward throughout the Gospel of Luke, I am inclined, following the suggestion of Francis Williams, to interpret the parable of the dishonest manager as a story about meritorious almsgiving. In this reading, the dishonest manager is held out as a model of imitation for the disciples of Jesus because he employs his master’s resources to procure future security. The reasoning is a fortiori: if such dishonest man ( δικία, v. 8) is commended because he acts shrewdly in safeguarding his future by giving away things that are not his own, how much more will this apply to the disciples as they make use of God’s possessions.14 The parable is punctuated in v. 9 by an exhortation to make friends with the poor or those in need by means of unrighteous wealth so that when the money is gone those friends will welcome the disciples into the eternal homes. In this sense, already the contrast between the rich man and Lazarus is anticipated (16:19-31): whereas the rich man, who did not welcome Lazarus into his home before death, is not welcomed by Lazarus to Abraham’s bosom, the disciples, through almsgiving, will make friends in this life with those who need assistance and who cannot reciprocate, and those needy friends will, in turn, welcome the disciples into heavenly abodes.
18:18-30: Rich Ruler
Jesus’ encounter with the rich ruler in Luke 18 offers another opportunity to reflect on the relationship between almsgiving and reward in the Gospel of Luke. Famously, Jesus instructs the man, “Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me” (18:22). As in Luke 12, dispossession of goods in order to care for the marginalized leads to heavenly treasure.15
In the ensuing discussion between Jesus and those who hear the conversation, Peter’s question shifts the focus from Jesus command to the rich man to sell everything and give to the poor to the issue of renunciation. Peter’s assertion— “Look, we have left everything and followed you”— does not specify that his and others’ dispossession resulted in any beneficence to the needy. Nevertheless, in response Jesus offers a statement that connects abandonment of possessions and family with this-worldly return instead of eschatological reward: “Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or wife or brothers or parents or children for the sake of the kingdom of God who will not get back16 many times more in this age and in the age to come eternal life” (18:29-30). A favored statement of preachers of the so-called prosperity gospel, Luke 18:29-30 can only be read to support the claims of the prosperity preachers if it is completely severed from its present literary context, for the “many times more” in the context of Luke’s Gospel signifies participation in the new family, oriented around Jesus, comprised of those who “hear the word of God and do it” (8:21).17 That is, far from promising nicer clothes, bigger houses, or fancier cars for individuals who give to churches and their leaders, Jesus in Luke 18 suggests that the dispossession of goods by those who leave behind homes and families signals their participation in new networks of kinship and household found among the community of Jesus’ followers. And in addition to reaping the benefit of sharing in kinship networks reconfigured around Jesus in this age, those who abandon homes and relatives are also promised life in the age to come. That is not a bad return on one’s investment.
Finally, the account of Zacchaeus’s encounter with Jesus in 19:1-10 punctuates and elucidates the theme of almsgiving and reward in the Gospel of Luke. As an exemplar of the Lukan motif of reversal, this wealthy chief tax collector is one whom readers might initially expect to be an outsider with regard to the Kingdom of God (cf. 6:24; 12:16-21; 16:19-31), yet the story concludes with Jesus’ declaration, “Today, salvation has come to this house, because he, too, is a son of Abraham.”
The question of what provokes this response from Jesus has occasioned no small debate. First, should Zacchaeus’s statement in v. 8 should be read as a defense of habitual practices in which he is already engaged, or as a statement of repentance and resolution, marking acts of economic justice and restitution that he will demonstrate in the future?
ἰδοὺ τὰ ἡμίσιά μου τῶν ὑπαρχόντων, κύριε, τοῖς πτωχοῖς δίδωμι, καὶ εἴ τινός τι ἐσυκοφάντησα ποδίδωμι τετραπλοῦν
Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I am going to give to the poor, and if I extorted anyone of anything I am going to pay back four times as much.
I am persuaded by arguments that the present verbs δίδωμι and ποδίδωμι should understood to denote Zacchaeus’s future resolve, in light his meeting with Jesus, to commit himself to new practices of economic justice.18
If this is the case, then what is the relationship between Zacchaeus’s embrace of almsgiving and reparations, on one hand, and Jesus’s declaration of salvation, on the other? Is Zacchaeus “saved” by his changed economic practices? If, as my colleague Joel Green has argued, salvation in the Gospel of Luke principally means status reversal, participation in the kingdom of God, and membership in the community gathered around Jesus, then it is easy to see how Zacchaeus’ statement of repentance in v. 8 both symbolizes and effects the salvation of his household, even as Zacchaeus’s’ response would also be impossible without Jesus’ intentional (v. 5) and boundary-crossing (v. 7; cf. 5:30; 15:2) initiative personally to engage Zacchaeus.19
The Gospel of Luke, which has more to say about matters of wealth and poverty than any of the Gospels, offers ample evidence to support the notion of meritorious almsgiving, namely, the concept that providing material assistance to the needy is a means of accumulating some reward for the donor. This is “interested giving,” and in this sense perhaps the popularity prosperity gospel offers Protestants an opportunity to rethink their traditional aversion to the notion that people should share material resources in hopes of obtaining reward. If proponents of the prosperity gospel are right to press this biblical connection between giving away material resources and the receipt of some reward in return, they also mislead on at least two points. First, in the theological imaginary of Luke’s Gospel those to whom gifts are given are the poor and marginalized instead of an institutionalized church and its leaders. Second, and perhaps more importantly, reward for financial or material gifts in the Gospel of Luke is imaged in eschatological terms or as participation in God’s kingdom community in the present, not, as some would suggest, as some would insist, more material blessings in this life.
The apostle Paul also has much to say about monetary matters. And the theological picture in the Pauline epistles closely resembles what we have just seen in Luke’s Gospel. Let me touch briefly on two issues in Paul’s letters, namely, (1) care for the poor in local and translocal contexts and (2) the funding of missional work.20
Perhaps the most interesting text from the Pauline corpus is 2 Cor 8-9. In those two chapters, Paul delicately exhorts the Corinthians to resume their financial support of his efforts to gather and dispatch a relief fund for impoverished believers in Jerusalem. To judge from the complex story of Paul’s relationship with the Corinthians, it seems that the church had ceased participation in the relief effort after an earlier conflict with the apostle over financial matters (see, e.g., 2 Cor 1:15-16). In the context of his appeal for this voluntary contribution, Paul writes:
6 The point is this: the one who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and the one who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. 7 Each of you must give as you have made up your mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. 8 And God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance, so that by always having enough of everything, you may share abundantly in every good work. 9 As it is written, “He scatters abroad, he gives to the poor; his righteousness endures forever.” 10 He who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will supply and multiply your seed for sowing and increase the harvest of your righteousness. 11 You will be enriched in every way for your great generosity, which will produce thanksgiving to God through us; 12 for the rendering of this ministry not only supplies the needs of the saints but also overflows with many thanksgivings to God. 13 Through the testing of this ministry you glorify God by your obedience to the confession of the gospel of Christ and by the generosity of your sharing with them and with all others, 14 while they long for you and pray for you because of the surpassing grace of God that he has given you. 15 Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift!
Paul’s comments here obviously provide proponents of the prosperity gospel with the metaphor of “sowing seeds.” It is impossible to avoid the sense that Paul encourages the Corinthians to give to the collection because their generosity will benefit both the recipients of their gift and the Corinthians themselves. Paul applies an agricultural maxim: “the one who sows sparingly, sparingly that one will reap.” The motivation for giving here is not merely self-interest, since both the poor believers in Jerusalem and the Corinthians benefit from this exchange, but some measure of reward is implied.21 This is clarified in v. 10, when Paul returns to the agricultural metaphor of sowing:
10 He who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will supply and multiply your seed for sowing and increase the harvest of your righteousness. 11 You will be enriched in every way for your great generosity, which will produce thanksgiving to God through us; 12 for the rendering of this ministry not only supplies the needs of the saints but also overflows with many thanksgivings to God.
It would be hard to overstate the extent to which Paul in these two chapters frames contributions to the collection for Jerusalem as acts authenticated and empowered by God’s gracious action.22 Yet even as the God of abundance supplies the Corinthians with the very material resources that they are called liberally to share with believers in Jerusalem, God also increases “the material and spiritual benefits that would accrue to them and to the poor in Jerusalem as a result of their generous benevolence.”23 The Corinthians are enriched in every way for their great generosity, generosity that produces thanksgiving not to the Corinthians but to the God who stands behind and empowers their munificence. It should be clear that Paul’s call for the Corinthians to care for impoverished believers is hardly “dis-interested” giving. On the other hand, the reward for this divinely graced charity is not more financial prosperity for the Corinthians, but rather the harvest of being in right-relationship with God and others.
Were there more time, we might explore other Pauline texts that reflect this same conviction that those who care for the needy are recompensed with divine reward. In Phil 4:17, for example, this relates to the funding of Paul’s missional activity, for in the context of Paul’s acknowledgment of how the Philippians had demonstrated their concern for Paul by providing him with material assistance during his imprisonment and even earlier during his ministry in Thessalonica, Paul tells the Philippians that he does not seek gifts from them, “but I seek the profit that increases to your account” (4:17). Here Paul depicts the assistance that the Philippians have rendered to him as an investment that accrues interest in a corporate, perhaps heavenly, bank account shared by community of saints in Philippi. Their gift to Paul results in heavenly reward.
Or we might cite 1 Tim 6:17-19, where those who are rich in the present age are to be instructed “not to be haughty, nor to hope in the uncertainty of wealth, but to hope in God, who richly grants to us all things for enjoyment.”24 Verses 18-19 provide a string of infinitives that describe how, exactly, wealth is to be enjoyed by listing three actions through which enjoyment of wealth is manifested: “to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous, sharing, storing up for themselves a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of the life that is truly life.” As I have argued in a recent essay, the purpose of wealth in 1 Tim 6 is “enjoyment,” a notion that advocates of the prosperity gospel might initially be inclined to endorse. But the “enjoyment” of wealth here is defined in a very particular way: true enjoyment of wealth is found in the employment of material resources to perform good works, most specifically through the generous and charitable disposal of wealth. This “hedonistic” liberality, moreover, allows those who practice benevolent sharing to “[store] up for themselves a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of the life that is truly life” (v. 19). It seems entirely appropriate to speak of “meritorious almsgiving” in 1 Tim 6:19 in the sense that acts of mercy and distributions of material assistance have the potential to secure merit for donors.25 Here the metaphor is mixed, combining the economic and/or agricultural imagery of “storing up” or “treasuring up” goods (ποθησαυρίζω) with the architectural image of laying the foundation (θεμέλιος) of an edifice.26 And to return to the language I have u sed earlier, this is “interested” giving, in the sense that givers are encouraged to anticipate some return, even if the reciprocity comes from God in the form of heavenly reward and not from the human recipients of the assistance.27
In conclusion, I have suggested that, at least in the Gospel of Luke and in the Pauline Epistles, the hope of reward regularly features as a ground for appeals to care for the poor. To be sure, recompense is far from the only motivating feature in exhortations for charity or demonstrations of justice within the New Testament, and it would be deeply problematic not to recognize that expectation of reward is but one ethical warrant among many found in NewTestament appeals for material assistance for the needy. Other ethical warrants would include:
- warnings about God’s judgment upon those who defraud and even murder the poor (Jas 5:1-6) or who greedily cling to possessions (Luke 16:19-31);
- the contention that authentic faith is shown through acts like clothing or feeding a brother or sister in need (Jas 2:14-26);
- the notion that caring for the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick, and the prisoner is itself a ministry to Christ (Matt 25:31-49);
- the idea that care for the poor in the Greco-Roman world is a counter-cultural practice that establishes solidarity between the largely Gentile churches of Paul’s mission and Christ-believing Jews, on the one hand, and that marks communities of Jesus’ followers, regardless of their ethnicity, as participants in Israel’s story, a story unimaginable without a deep commitment to justice, given this emphasis in Torah (Gal 2:10; Rom 15:25-31);
- or the conviction that in sharing the world’s goods with a brother or sister in need believers imitate the self-giving love of Christ (1 John 3:16-17; cf. 2 Cor 8:9).
So if we ask the question, How or why does the New Testament encourage the people of God to meet the needs of the marginalized?, there are a variety of answers. No responsible articulation of the gospel and its demand to care for the poor can fail to give voice to this diverse set of perspectives regarding the reasons that the people of God must share generously with the poor and powerless. But one of those answers, which I have focused on in this presentation, and which I think tends to be marginalized in Protestant ethics, is that those who dispose of possessions in order to care for the needy will be rewarded by God. Almsgiving in the New Testament is not merely dis-interested, for regularly appeals to give to the needy come with the promise or hope of recompense for those who “enjoy” possessions by giving them away. My hunch is that on this point the prosperity gospel actually has something to teach the church, perhaps especially Protestants, for proponents of the prosperity gospel may be more sensitively attuned to the connection between giving and reward than many evangelicals. At the same time, representatives of the gospel of health and wealth are frequently tragically wrong in their outworking of this connection, for they tend to frame the objects of giving as institutions and church leaders—as opposed to the poor and marginalized— and they tend to view reward as material prosperity in this life— as opposed to eschatological reward or participation in God’s kingdom community in the present. Perhaps, then, the prosperity gospel might push evangelicals to reconsider the connection between giving and reward in Scripture, even while at the same time we resist in the strongest terms the ways in which this connection is worked out among advocates of prosperity teaching.
In your context or theological tradition, how is the relationship between giving and reward understood and/or practiced, and what are the most significant factors that shape that understanding and/or practice?
Can a faithful interpretation of the New Testament support the notion of meritorious almsgiving?
If so, does this connection between giving and reward potentially (and problematically?) offer believers of means privileged access to heavenly reward?
How might giving with the expectation of divine reward be integrated with other motivations for the sharing of possessions in Scripture?
1 Anthropological and economic literature tends to speak of “self-interested giving,” (e.g., Serge-Christophe Kolm, “Introduction to the Economics of Giving, Altruism and Reciprocity,” in Handbook of the Economics of Giving, Altruism, and Reciprocity: Foundations), although I prefer not to limit the concerns of interested givers to the concerns of the self, particularly because the construction of the “self” in the world of Greco-Roman antiquity was far more collectivist than in the post-Enlightenment West. See, e.g., Judith Perkins, The Suffering Self
2 Cited in Kate Bowler, Blessed: A History of the American Prosperity Gospel (Oxford:Oxford University Press, 2012), 99.
3 http://www.9marks.org/blog/errors-prosperity-gospel : Pain and Narrative Representation in the Early Christian Era.
4 See the discussion in Eubank, Wages of Cross-Bearing and Debt of Sin, 5-11.
5 Marcel Mauss, The Gift: Forms and Functions of Exchange in Archaic Societies (trans. Ian Cunnison; London: Cohen & West, 1966); trans. of “Essai sur le don: Forme et raison de l’échange dans les sociétés archaïques,” Annee sociologique 1 (1925): 30–186.
6 Jacques T. Godbout and Alain Caillé, The World of the Gift (trans. Donald Winkler; Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1998), 20.
7 “Alms, a unilateral gift to an unknown recipient, is a curious phenomenon . . . Logically, it is a gift that excludes, that asserts the giver’s dominant position and seems designed to expose the recipient’s inability to reciprocate. With the giving of alms in the street in aid of the Third World, we see the same perversion of the gift, except that it is transposed into a religious system, as it will be “returned to you a hundred times over” by none other than God himself. The spiritual dimension can neutralize the perverse effects of a unilateral gift to an unknown who cannot reciprocate (but it does not necessarily happen),” Godbout, The World of the Gift, 224.
8 Strom. 6.2.4-6.3.1; 4.54.1; 7.1.1; cf. Hägg, Clement of Alexandria, pp. 208-12.
9 On Clement’s concept of ὁ γνωστικός, see Andrew C. Itter, Esoteric Teaching in theStromateis of Clement of Alexandria (VCSup 97; Leiden: Brill, 2009), pp. 175-96; and Judith Kovacs, “Divine Pedagogy and the Gnostic Teacher according to Clement of Alexandria,” JECS 9 (2001), pp. 3-25.
10 Hays, “Beyond Mint and Rue,” 385-6.
11 That the disciples are the recipients of this teaching is additionally emphasized by the phrase τὸ μικρὸν ποίμνιον in 12:32.
12 Carroll, “Luke’s Portrayal of the Pharisees.”
13 See Dennis E. Smith, From Symposium to Eucharist: The Banquet in the Early Christian World.
14 I would differ from Williams, however, who understands the friends of v. 9 as “a personification of the almsdeeds which are performed with the ‘mammon of unrighteousness’” (295).
15 Jesus’ commands provoke his interlocutor to sadness (v. 23), although I would suggest that the ending of the rich man’s own narrative is open, since the text does not specify whether he obeyed or disregarded Jesus’ directives, a point often glossed over by an interpretative history that simply assumes the man’s failure to become a follower of Jesus.15 The man’s grief (περίλυπος) need not indicate a refusal to heed Jesus’ charge, although that could be the case. His downcast response could just as well signal his awareness of the difficult cost of discipleship, manifest in the hard choice he will make to sell his possessions, give to the poor, and follow Jesus. Or his sadness could reflect grief over the fact that had devoted his life to the accumulation of possessions without recognizing that he could have been acquiring heavenly treasure through almsgiving instead. The point is that none of this is stated in the text, and we should be careful to assume some specific closure to his narrative.
16 Assuming the reading πολάβῃ
17 So Joel B. Green, The Gospel of Luke, 658-9; in addition to 8:19-21, see also 9:5-62; 12:51-53; 14:25-26.
18 See Dennis Hamm, “Luke 19:8 Once Again: Does Zacchaeus Defend or Resolve?,” JBL 107 (1988): 431-7.
19 See Joel B. Green, The Theology of the Gospel of Luke, 76-101.
20 I prefer the term “missional” because, while some Pauline communities funded the sending of missionary to other context, Paul also assumes and addresses support of local Christian leaders (e.g., Gal 6;6-7; 1 Thess 5:12-13; 1 Tim 5:17-18).
21 Pace Martin: “The appeal is to a motive which is not one of reward so much as a disinterested concern to reach out to the Jerusalem saints in their need, and the issue is not the amount of the gift so much as the involvement it reflects (8:12). Martin, Ralph P.: Word Biblical Commentary : 2 Corinthians. Dallas : Word, Incorporated, 2002 (Word Biblical Commentary 40), 289
22 See Downs, Offering of the Gentiles.
23 Harris, Second Epistle, 644.
24 On what follows, see Downs, “The God Who Gives Life That Is Truly Life: Meritorious Almsgiving and the Divine Economy in 1 Timothy 6,” in The Unrelenting God.
25 I prefer to distinguish between “meritorious almsgiving” and “redemptive almsgiving.” The former focuses on alms as a means of accumulating reward; the latter focuses on alms as a means of redeeming (or cleansing or canceling) human sin.
26 Jerome D. Quinn and William C. Wacker present an interesting argument that the term θεμέλιος “has a double meaning of the base for a building and a deposit of money that produces interest” (The First and Second Letters to Timothy: A New Translation with Notes and Commentary, Eerdmans Critical Commentary [Grand Rapids and Cambridge: Eerdmans, 2000], 555-56).
27 See, e.g., Jacques T. Godbout and Alain Caillé, The World of the Gift, trans. Donald Winkler (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1998).
This is a paper presented by the author at the 2014 Lausanne Global Consultation on Prosperity Theology, Poverty, and the Gospel. You may find a video version of this paper in the Content Library. The views and opinions expressed in this paper are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the personal viewpoints of Lausanne Movement leaders or networks. For the official Lausanne Statement from this consultation, please see ‘The Atibaia Statement on Prosperity Theology‘.