Charity is central to the Bible’s message. But did the biblical writers intend for us to give every time we’re asked? I don’t think so.
If you’re in a room full of Christians discussing charity, you can almost guarantee that you will hear someone quote this line from Jesus:
“Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you” (Matthew 5:42 NIV).
At first reading, it certainly seems like Jesus is telling us that every time we’re asked for charity that we should give. But this verse is not actually about charity. Let’s look at the larger context. Just before Matthew 5:42, Jesus says:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles” (Matthew 5:38–41 NIV).
Jesus is first addressing how we handle a conflict or dispute. He is telling us that it’s simply not worth it to spend your life in a court battle, seeking revenge, or attempting to take justice into your own hands. Jesus is also telling us to be generous, even to those who treat us poorly. The larger question about this passage, then, is not what we should do with Jesus’ view on charity but what we should do with Jesus’ view on lawsuits, revenge, and those inconvenience or wrong us. And how about those who ask for a loan but don’t deserve one? That’s what Matthew 5:42 is really about.
Jesus is still suggesting unbelievable generosity; in fact, he is suggesting we show incredible love to even those who wrong us. But we can’t, for example, use this passage to justify giving every homeless fellow on the street money. Wouldn’t God have us use more intelligence in our giving? Paul the apostle has some thoughts on this.
The issues that happen with charity today are not new. As long as charity has existed, there have been people who misuse it and abuse it.
An early example occurred at the church at Thessalonica. Paul the apostle tells the Thessalonian Christians:
“In the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, we command you, brothers and sisters, to keep away from every believer who is idle and disruptive and does not live according to the teaching you received from us” (2 Thessalonians 3:6 NIV).
There were some among the church at Thessalonica who refused to work (see 2 Thessalonians 3:7–11). Paul knew that a swift action had to be taken to stop the abuse of charity. He goes on to say:
“For even when we were with you, we gave you this rule: ‘The one who is unwilling to work shall not eat.’ We hear that some among you are idle and disruptive. They are not busy; they are busybodies. Such people we command and urge in the Lord Jesus Christ to settle down and earn the food they eat” (2 Thessalonians 3:10–12 NIV).
Paul’s rule is simple: If you’re able to work and there are available jobs, you should work—you don’t need charity. Charity was a mainstay of the early church (see Acts 6:1–7). Thus, it’s easy to envision how some in the community had decided that they simply no longer needed to work. There may have been some other theological confusion involved (compare 2 Thessalonians 2:3–5), but the plethora of available charity certainly seems to have been a contributing factor.
The problems with charity at Thessalonica also involved people finding themselves with too much time on their hands—and thus becoming “busybodies.” That’s Paul’s not-so-technical way of saying: “They’re sinning, and causing you trouble, because you made it easy for them to do so.”
If we continue to give handouts to those who refuse to work, we will continue to see an abuse of charity. We will also continue to see other problems in our churches and society. That is the conclusion of Paul’s logic—and it’s a lesson we need to take to heart.
But this doesn’t stop Paul from suggesting that people give or consider the impoverished (see Romans 15:25–29; 2 Corinthians 9). Instead, Paul is suggesting a more intelligent approach be built into our giving. Paul is suggesting accountability and real, authentic relationships that call people to a higher standard.
When it comes to giving, we should be intelligent in our approach. The biblical solution is to love people sincerely, which requires making them more than charity cases who receive handouts. The biblical answer is to be generous but smart.