For Bible Study Nerds

In ancient Israeli society, giving to the needy ranked among one of the highest religious duties. As such, it was a regular, ordinary part of the Jewish person’s experience.

Historians tell us that, “In every city there were collectors who distributed alms of two kinds, i.e. money collected in the synagogue chest every Sabbath for the poor, and food and money received in a dish.” Contrary to our modern experience, it was not the government that shouldered responsibility for the welfare of the poorer and needier members of the locality. It was the religious community.

In spite of the intent of this provision, poverty was rampant in Jesus’ time. “There were few middle-class Jews,” scholars report. “If you were not rich, you were probably poor. And in the cities, divorced from the productive land, that meant that you were very poor indeed.” This economic disparity, coupled with the unique circumstances of living in a Roman-conquered territory, created a large population of beggars and day laborers who woke up each morning not knowing how they’d meet the day’s necessities.

It was in this setting that Jesus took to task those who viewed others’ poverty and hardship as an opportunity for self-aggrandizement. Although almsgiving was a basic responsibility everyone shared in that society, some demanded public praise in repayment for fulfilling this obligation. They would announce with fanfare the amount of their gifts in the synagogue, or call attention to themselves when delivering a coin or sustenance to a beggar on the street. Generosity toward God’s loved ones was irrelevant unless it also gave them better social or political standing in the community.

“When you give to the needy,” Jesus rebuked his hearers, “do not announce it…”

Giving to others, he seems to be saying, is a matter best left between you and God.


Works Cited:

[ID1, 33; JHT, 74-75]



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About: Mike Nappa

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