A Gathering Voices Post by Don McKim
I dipped further into President Edwards. Jonathan, that is. After reading his piece on “Christian Knowledge” (see previous blog post: http://blog.thethoughtfulchristian.com/2012/05/our-daily-business.html), I found it was followed in this edition of his Works with “Christian Charity: Or, the Duty of Charity to the Poor, Explained and Enforced.”
One does not naturally think of Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758) as a champion of the relief of the poor. But he speaks very strongly here in exactly that direction.
His text is Deuteronomy 15:7-11. In the NRSV, there is some punch here: “Do not be hard-hearted or tight-fisted toward your needy neighbor. You should rather open your hand, willingly lending enough to meet the need, whatever it may be” (Deuteronomy 15:7, 8). Edwards first explains these words, maintaining that God wants the people of God to give “bountifully, and willingly” to our “neighbor” (163). This duty is insisted upon by God: “It is repeated over and over again, and enjoined in the strongest terms.”
God even warns against objections to it (v. 9). This relates to the seventh or sabbatical year of “release” in Israel, when all debts were to be wiped out. If one lends to one’s needy neighbor and the seventh year comes and the neighbor has not been able to repay the lend, then the debt is cancelled. So, one might resist helping others if the prospect of having the debt cancelled is on the horizon. But God warns against this approach. Edwards wrote: “God foresaw that the wickedness of their hearts would be very ready to make such an objection; but very strictly warns them against it, that they should not be the more backward to supply the wants of the needy for that, but should be willing to give him: ‘Thou shalt be willing to lend, expecting nothing again.’”
Edwards is strong that this biblical teaching or doctrine is “the absolute and indispensable duty of the people of God, to give bountifully and willingly for supplying the wants of the needy” (164). It is “a duty to which God’s people are under very strict obligations. It is not merely a commendable thing for a man to be kind and bountiful to the poor, but our bounden duty, as much a duty as it is to pray, or to attend public worship, or any thing else whatever; and the neglect of it brings great guilt upon any person.” Our “bounden duty” is the care of the poor.
Edwards goes on in the second section of his piece to describe the “obligation of Christians to perform the duty of charity to the poor.” One of the points he makes here is that
to love our neighbor as ourselves, is the sum of the moral law respecting our fellow-creatures; and to help them, and to contribute to their relief, is the most natural expression of this love. It is vain to pretend to a spirit of love to our neighbours, when it is grievous to us to part with any thing for their help, when under calamity. They who love only in word, and in tongue, and not in deed, have no love in truth. Any profession without it is a vain pretence (165).
Then, Edwards went on to probe the souls of his readers with a series of penetrating questions:
Let every one examine himself, whether he do not lie under guilt in this matter. Have you not forborne to give, when you have seen your brother in want? Have you not shut up the bowels of your compassion towards him, and forborne to deny yourselves a little for his relief? Or when you have given, have you not done it grudgingly? And has it not inwardly hurt and grieved you? You have looked upon what you have given, as lost: so that what you have given, has been, as the apostle expresses it, a matter of covetousness, rather than of bounty. Have not occasions of giving been unwelcome to you? Have you not been uneasy under them? Have you not felt a considerable backwardness to give? Have you not, from a grudging, backward spirit, been apt to raise objections against giving, and to excuse yourselves? Such things as these bring guilt upon the soul, and often bring down the curse of God upon the persons in whom these things are found (165).
Edwards knew both his Bible and the human heart. He knew the ways of avoidance and self-justification that we excuse to try to excuse our actions, or inactions.
But even more, theologically, Edwards grounds his “exhortation to the duty of charity to the poor” in section three, Christologically. He appeals to the parable of the Last Judgment in which Jesus portrays himself as the judge:
Christ teaches us, that we are to look upon our fellow-Christians in this case as himself, and that our giving or withholding from them, shall be taken, as if we so behaved ourselves towards him; see Matt. xxv.40. There Christ says to the righteous on his right hand, who had supplied the wants of the needy, ‘In that ye have done it to one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.’ In like manner he says to the wicked who had not shown mercy to the poor, ver. 45. ‘Inasmuch as ye did it not unto one of the least of these, ye did it not to me.’—Now what stronger enforcement of this duty can be conceived, or is possible, than this, that Jesus Christ looks upon our kind and bountiful, or unkind and uncharitable treatment of our needy neighbours, as such a treatment of himself? (166).
This focus on the care of the poor as an expression of our encounter with Jesus Christ was, for Edwards, the strongest enforcement of this duty imaginable. It fulfills the Old Testament prescription by grounding it in one’s treatment of God’s Son.
In section four, in answering objections to the “exercise of charity,” Edwards wrote:
If you say that you read, and pray, and attend public worship, because that is the appointed way for you to seek salvation; so is bounty to the poor, as much as those—eternal life, is the way of the performance of all known duties, of which giving to the poor is one as much known, and as necessary, as reading the Scriptures, praying, or any other. Showing mercy to the poor does as much belong to the appointed way of seeking salvation, as any other duty whatever (169).
Nothing could be clearer. The care of the poor is as central and crucial to salvation as any other actions.
Jonathan Edwards’ wide-ranging theology includes a theology of the poor; and the strongest possible emphasis on meeting human need. Edwards believed that even when legislatures and towns set up ways to aid those in need, “I suppose not that it was ever the design of the law to make such provision for all that are in want, as to leave no room for Christian charity” (173).
In our day, when the needs of the poor are prevalent, we should turn again to President Edwards to be reminded of the strong biblical and theological injunctions for the care of the poor as “our bounden duty.”
 Jonathan Edwards, The Works of Jonathan Edwards, 2 vols. (London: William Ball, 1839), 2:163-173. Parenthetical page references are to this edition of Edwards’ Works. It is available at http://books.google.com/books?id=Z7fRAAAAMAAJ&printsec=frontcover&dq=%22works+of+jonathan+edwards%22&hl=en&sa=X&ei=EMzHT6_qBsbF6gGR2aTkDQ&ved=0CE8Q6AEwAQ#v=onepage&q=%22works%20of%20jonathan%20edwards%22&f=false