There are always going to be poor and needy people among you. So I command you: Always be generous, open purse and hands, give to your neighbors in trouble, your poor and hurting neighbors. [Deuteronomy 15:11 (MSG)]
The Hebrew word for what we call “charity” is tzedakah; its nature, however, is far different than acts of benevolence or generosity. Rather than being a magnanimous act by someone more fortunate, tzedakah is considered an act of justice and righteousness. It is remedying a wrong, doing what is right and just, and fulfilling a duty; in short, it is giving the poor what they deserve.
In writing about charity, Rabbi Yanki Tauber tells of a wealthy man who often supported his rabbi’s charitable activities. One day a letter requesting a large sum for a good cause arrived. At the time, money was a little tight and making a donation was inconvenient so the rich man ignored the request. Shortly after that, his businesses began to fail and the wealthy entrepreneur lost his entire fortune.
The distraught fellow went to the synagogue and berated the holy man for not warning him that he’d suffer if he ignored the rabbi’s plea. “I would have given you the money had I known what punishment I would suffer!” he said. The rabbi calmly responded that the loss of money wasn’t a punishment. “Nothing that was yours has been taken from you,” he explained, adding that God had allotted a certain amount of resources to the rabbi in his work. Since the time he spent in prayer, studying, teaching, counseling and helping others left him no time to manage finances or property, the rabbi’s resources had been placed in the trust of several people who acted as “bankers” for that wealth. In turn, those bankers recognized the value of the rabbi’s work and supported it. When the once rich man failed to carry out his banking duty, the money was simply transferred to another, more responsible, “banker.”
God loves all of His children but that does not mean that He allots equal portions of blessings or sorrows to each of them. Some are healthier, wealthier, smarter, more talented or more attractive than others. Some people seem to escape misfortune while others seem to encounter storms at every turn. Because of an accident of birth, we may live comfortable lives in a wealthy nation or suffer in poverty in a corrupt or war-torn land. Some people have power and are easily heard while others are powerless and often ignored. That we are not given equal portions, however, does not mean that we are not equally deserving. If we have been blessed with wealth, education, influence or opportunities, we should think of ourselves as God’s bankers. We’re just holding on to other people’s resources and it is our job to distribute those resources to their rightful owners. Like our Jewish brothers and sisters, Christians should be dispensers of tzedakah. Unlike them, however, we don’t do it to buy our way into heaven (which it won’t). We do it because God tells us it is the right thing to do!
God does not need your good works, but our neighbor does. [Martin Luther]