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.”
The early church categorized the poor in two ways: those who were destitute and those who lived, as we would say, “paycheck to paycheck.” In 380, St. John Chrysostom preached that most people in the Christian churches were of the second kind—a “middling sort” of economic class, that could slide easily into destitution. With regard to charity, Chrysostom advocated liberality. “When you see on earth a man who has encountered the shipwreck of poverty,” he preached, “do not judge him, do not seek an account of his life, but free him from his misfortune.”
By the 12th century, Christian ethicists were much more discriminating. Building on the work of earlier theologians, medieval writers took up the debate of the “deserving” and “undeserving” poor. Should eligibility for alms be determined by need alone? Should there be a hierarchy of need? Should there be an effort to reform or punish those seeking aid?
The scrutiny was not placed primarily on the individual in poverty, but on her community. “Undeserving” poor were those who had family or a kinship network with the means to care for them. “Undeserving” meant they did not deserve the church’s care because the responsibility for their care rested with the family. The “deserving” poor were those who had no one to care for them—no family, no safety net. These the church recognized as its own and deserving of its resources.
The “deserving” and “undeserving” poor were not classes of people. These determinations were made on a person-by-person basis. This required intimate knowledge of local families and their means. For example, was the family of the “middling sort,” such that caring for a destitute member would push the whole family into deep poverty? The church understood that it had a responsibility to protect and sustain its majority “middling sort” families.
These distinctions—deserving and undeserving—could be applied only when the person in need was known to the community. An unknown person who came asking for food or lodging or aid was to be given what he or she needed, in moderation, if it was available. “Strangers were to be given the benefit of the doubt,” writes historian Brian Tierney, and “should be helped without prior inquisition as to their merits.”
Finally, the church was never to turn away the destitute—known or unknown, morally upright or not, in good times or in bad. They were to be served as Christ, no matter the circumstance or the sacrifice required.
Under Dunkin’ Donuts’ orange and pink banner, I look at the woman’s wan and watery blue eyes. I keep one chocolate doughnut for myself and hand her the coffee (extra cream and sugar) and the other donut.
“Is all this for me?” she asks, mouth wide in surprise.
“All for you,” I say, embarrassingly aware of the difference between my want and her need. “Pray for me, will you?”
Rose Marie Berger, an associate editor of Sojourners, is a Catholic peace activist and poet.