“What has been will be again,
what has been done will be done again;
there is nothing new under the sun.”
That is how the book of Ecclesiastes begins. It is quite a statement but I am not sure that it is the truth. When Jesus said that he gave His disciples a “new” commandment, and that was that they love one another as he loved them (John 13:34) it was indeed a “new” thing. Nothing like it had been seen in the world before. It was such a radical concept that Gerhard Uhlhorn calls the world before Christ, “a world without love”. What he means is that there was in no sense of the word anything that we would recognize as an organized charity or concern for the poor. There were random acts of kindness and thousands that had to rely, like Blanche Dubois, on the “kindness of strangers”. There were programs to feed the poor that grew out of political and practical machinations of powerful men, but nothing that we would call true “caritas”. Loving someone because of love received from a Creator and a Savior and testified and witnessed to by a Holy Spirit was nonexistent because the promised Savior had not arrived.
Even in Israel where the true God was worshiped, this kind of love was not in existence. It was called for, and Prophets pronounced that it was what God wanted. As we see in Isaiah 58:5-9 –
Is it a fast that I have chosen,
A day for a man to afflict his soul?
Is it to bow down his head like a bulrush,
And to spread out sackcloth and ashes?
Would you call this a fast,
And an acceptable day to the LORD?
6 “ Is this not the fast that I have chosen:
To loose the bonds of wickedness,
To undo the heavy burdens,
To let the oppressed go free,
And that you break every yoke?
7 Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
And that you bring to your house the poor who are cast out;
When you see the naked, that you cover him,
And not hide yourself from your own flesh?
8 Then your light shall break forth like the morning,
Your healing shall spring forth speedily,
And your righteousness shall go before you;
The glory of the LORD shall be your rear guard.
9 Then you shall call, and the LORD will answer;
You shall cry, and He will say, ‘Here I am.’
Here we see what Uhlhorn calls the “seeds of a free and universal exercise of charity” that the Old Testament Prophets tried desperately to sow and bring to flower that was smothered and withered and killed by the exiles. Post exilic Israel was fettered by national pride and works of the law.
I am reading and rereading Uhlhorn’s book because it is truly fascinating and I think that we can learn alot from it about the nature of Prayer and what we call “stewardship”. It is called “Christian Charity in the Early Church” and it is a great read. I plan to work on presenting some ideas gleaned from that book on these pages in the future and I hope we can have a conversation about them.
In closing think about the feeding of the five thousand. The disciples demand that the people gathered be sent away to get something to eat and Jesus makes this profoundly simple statement – “You feed them”. It seems to me that the essence of discipleship is taking the blessings that God gives and using them to feed others.