Timeless Duties towards the Hungry Poor

[1] Christians have a serious obligation to respect and provide for the hungry and needy. This is not only the position of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America based on one possible interpretation of the Bible, but was an essential teaching of Christianity in its first two centuries, at a time before it was divided into present-day denominations, a time when most Christians today believe that the Holy Spirit was still guiding the church. This obligation is no less binding now that Christians are in the majority and can influence governments.

Sources studied

[2] This article examines the thoughts of Christian writers who lived so early that they—or Christians not many generations earlier—personally knew Jesus or at least his first followers, and thus could remember his unwritten teachings and interpretations of Scripture. Dating before the division into modern-day denominations, their teachings apply to all Christians today.

[3] The first generations of Christians, those referred to in this article, were much closer in time, geography and culture to the Lord Jesus than are 21st-century Americans. They wrote down many of his sayings and teachings that are not in the New Testament, which means that a study of their writings should lead us to a fuller knowledge of both the content and the spirit of the precepts relating to how he wants us to regard the poor and poverty. The unity in ideas by a wide variety of Christian writers in a great diversity of geographical locations indicates that their beliefs and practices regarding the poor stemmed from a common earlier source.

[4] Of course, many passages in the Bible encourage private help to the needy, giving on a one-to-one basis, without public involvement. However, the New Testament itself and the earliest tradition as recorded by the first generations of Christians show that there were and are much wider duties which permeate(d) the lives of Christians in their public and private capacities.

What not to do

[5] Starting with the negative side, with what Christians were forbidden to do, early Christian literature is full of statements about how not to treat the poor. According to Matthew 25.42-46, Jesus will consign to punishment everyone that did not give food to the hungry. First John 3.17 rhetorically asks “How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?”[1] At least three other early Christian writings condemn turning away a person in want: one writing was a first- or second-century Syrian or Palestinian church manual,[2] another was the related Letter of Barnabas of about the same era,[3] and the third was by Tertullian, a church father around A.D. 200 in what is now Tunisia.[4] In the same vein as the Scriptures quoted above, the church father Origen in Palestine sometime between A.D. 238 and 244 chastised those who have money yet similarly shut their hearts.[5] Origen was the most outstanding Christian teacher and Bible scholar of the first half of the third century, and led prominent Christian institutes of learning in Egypt, then Palestine.

[6] Nobody ought to oppress the poor, according to The Shepherd of Hermas,[6] a book on the Christian life by a brother of a bishop in the City of Rome in the early- or mid-second century. Agreeing with him in this were Bishop Irenaeus of Lyons in France writing in the A.D. 180s,[7] and the Didascalia, a Syrian manual for clergy and laity, dating from the first three decades of the third century.[8] Origen also said that we should not despise or abase the poor,[9] or shame their faces.[10] It was (and is) forbidden to view economic marginality as a due punishment, say for laziness: the church father Clement of Alexandria, who flourished in Egypt as the dean of Christianity’s foremost educational institution in the A.D. 190s, wrote that “those who have paid the penalty of protracted penury should not suffer a life-long punishment.”[11]

What to do for the hungry

[7] Christian authors in the first two centuries of the church spoke also of positive duties, especially by the wealthy, to help the poor; these included Luke 6.30, Hermas,[12] Origen,[13] 1 Clement (a first-century letter from the church at Rome to that at Corinth),[14] and Justin Martyr (an educated and well-traveled scholar who suffered martyrdom around A.D. 165).[15] In addition, the New Testament Letter of James also says there is a duty to give the necessities of life to the needy.[16] The Letter to Diognetus, which may have been written by a tutor of a Roman Emperor who lived from A.D. 121 to 180, commended those who give to the needy what they have received from God.[17] Dating from before A.D. 150, the Sentences of Sextus, a collection of sayings on Christian life, said that readiness to share food with the needy may seem small to the giver but in God’s sight it is very great.[18] The Sentences were widely accepted in their day, and translated into many languages.

[8] These early believers were especially fond of two Bible passages. One was Isaiah 58.6-7, where God asks “Is not this the fast that I choose:…Is it not to share your bread with the hungry?” Irenaeus wrote that sharing one’s bread with the hungry poor applied in both Old Testament times and in the Christian era.[19] This was repeated by the Bishop Theophilus of Antioch sometime shortly after A.D. 180.[20] Tertullian said in A.D. 213 the passage means that God always and everywhere commands that we protect, help and refresh the poor. It is part of the nature of any righteous person, Tertullian wrote, to give bread to the hungry.[21] Tertullian also quoted Ezekiel 18.5-7 to the effect that a righteous person “gives his food to the hungry”.[22] Similar sentiments were expressed several times by Origen.[23]

[9] The other favorite passage was Matthew 25.31-46, in which Jesus teaches that God’s blessings, and mansions in heaven, will be granted to people who gave food and other necessaries of life to the least in the family of God, and that giving food to these hungry people is the same as giving to Christ personally.[24] Origen wrote that Christians who put this passage into practice deserve praise for doing what was commanded and will receive what was promised. Clement of Alexandria wrote in the A.D. 190s that the person who truly loves Christ also loves and cares for those who believe in Him, and the Lord accepts this care and food as done to Himself and considers the whole as His.[25]

Look for the hungry poor

[10] At least to Christians before A.D. 250, giving food to the needy was not to be pursued half-heartedly. The Didascalia required deacons to search through the parish to find anyone in need, and then they and their bishop were to spend church funds to feed them, and draw from their own incomes if necessary.[26]

[11] There were subsidiary duties, affirmative ones, to search out the economically marginalized, instead of waiting for the poor to come around asking for a handout, and a duty to raise funds for them. Clement of Alexandria[27] and Origen[28] commanded Christians to actively seek out those in need who ought to be benefited by their gifts and compassion. The elder church father also taught that when deciding whether to give to a poor person but in doubt about whether s/he is deserving, we should give anyway on the chance that the person might be in real need.[29] Tertullian held it to be a law of God to give even to the poor man who does not ask.[30]

Who should help?

[12] The Epistle of the Apostles in the middle of the second century describes Jesus as instructing that even people of modest means are to give to the truly impoverished: “If any man who is not rich and possesseth a small livelihood giveth unto the poor and needy, men will call him a benefactor.”[31]

[13] Christians with only enough food for themselves were not exempt, not even if they possessed no surplus to spare for the less fortunate. Concerning such cases, four ancient Christian writers exhorted the marginally better off to fast, i.e. go without food themselves, so that they would have something to contribute to the more unfortunate.

[14] Describing Christian ethics in A.D. 125, a Christian in Athens wrote:

[15] And if there is any among them any that is poor and needy, if they have no spare food, they fast two or three days in order to supply to the needy their lack of food.[32]

[16] When fasting, said Hermas,

[17] Taste nothing but bread and water; and having reckoned up the price of the dishes of the day which you intended to have eaten, you will give it to a widow, or an orphan, or to some person in want.[33]

[18] Origen[34] and The Sentences of Sextus[35] advocated the same practice. Remember that the Didascalia said the clergy may have to go without. The Didascalia also counseled the practice in order to raise enough money to feed Christians imprisoned for their faith, in the days when prisoners were obliged to eat at their own expense rather than the government’s.[36]

[19] Just as the poor share the food of better-off Christians—if only minimally better off—so also believers that fast share the hunger of the needy. This was expressed another way by Clement, who said Christians share food and everything else—except wives and sex.[37] In developed countries, such fasting would be equivalent to all taxpayers paying a little extra to ensure that the poor have enough to eat.

Action in America today

[20] One homily by Origen stated that it was also a Christian duty to rebuke people who abase the poor.[38] In another, he preached that a person who has greater resources should carry the burden of the poorer, and that “abundance should relieve poverty.”[39]

[21] The above were written before there were publicly-funded social safety nets, regular benefits to the poor by governments, or Christian influence on governments; in fact, even before Christianity was legal. Today the attitude and practice of governments are much changed, although in recent years we have been falling into erosion of both Christian influence on secular rulers and of the social safety net itself. Nevertheless, as the oldest surviving Christian sermon outside the New Testament exhorted, we should heed and listen to the church’s teaching not only while we are being admonished in church but also when we go home and live our daily lives.[40] Part of these lives is the influence that American Christians enjoy in governments, if only in voting. Members of ELCA in the United States can contact their members of Congress and their state and municipal legislators (most of whom are at least nominally Christian) and threaten them with their votes if they do not implement or continue a policy that takes due regard of Christian teachings about the poor as witnessed by the undivided church of its first two centuries. Specific topics to raise would be critiques of government benefits policies, a minimum wage that supports basic needs, micro-loans to start small businesses, and foreign aid that helps the impoverished masses instead of their rulers; in short, whatever will result in a sufficient and sustainable standard of living.

[22] If letters, protests, and telephone calls do not immediately work, we can pray. Indeed, we should pray before beginning any endeavor on behalf of the less fortunate. In the New Testament, 1 Timothy 2.1-2 urges that “supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone, for kings and all who are in high positions”. During the mid-second century, Justin Martyr in the City of Rome wrote that it was a Christian practice to pray that secular rulers possess sound judgment, and that if government officials do not regard Christian teachings they would be punished later by God.[41] This obligation of Christians was also mentioned by Theophilus in Syria,[42] Tertullian in Tunisia,[43] by Origen in Egypt and Palestine, [44] and by Polycarp, a disciple of the Apostle John in very early second-century Turkey and teacher of Irenaeus.[45] If this does not work, American Christians should contact their legislators and—in the words of Origen—rebuke those who abase the poor.[46]

Catholicity and application

[23] In Egypt, France, Greece, Italy, Palestine, Syria, Turkey, and Tunisia, Christian authors before the middle of the third century were unanimous that we have a duty to give food to the hungry and needy, and not by half-measures. This teaching being recorded in so wide a geographic area and at such early dates indicates that it could have come only from Jesus Himself or His apostles.


[1] Scripture quotations in this article are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America.

[2] Didache 4.8 and 5.2.

[3] Barnabas 20.2.

[4] Tertullian Against Marcion 4.16. These last three writers were probably alluding to Tobit 4.7 and Sirach 4.4.

[5] Origen Homilies on Exodus 7.6.

[6] Shepherd of Hermas Mandate 8.10.

[7] Irenaeus Against Heresies 4.17.3.

[8] Didascalia 18.

[9] Origen Homilies on Jeremiah 7.3.2; Homilies on Psalm 36 3.4.

[10] Origen Commentary on Romans 8.10.4.

[11] Clement of Alexandria Stromata 2.18 trans. W. Wilson ANF 2.366. Except for Origen’s Commentary on Romans, direct quotations from the church fathers are from The Ante-Nicene Fathers; Translations of The Writings of the Fathers down to A.D. 325, edited by Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson. American reprint ed. by A. Cleveland Coxe (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1885-96; reprinted Grand Rapids, Mich.: Wm. B. Eerdmans; Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson). Herein abbreviated to “ANF”.

[12] Shepherd of Hermas Similitude 2.7; Mandate 8.10; Vision 3.9.4.

[13] Origen Commentary on Romans 10.6.3.

[14] 1 Clement 38.2.

[15] Justin Martyr 1 Apology 67.2.

[16] James 2.15f.

[17] Letter to Diognetus 10.6.

[18] Sentences of Sextus 379.

[19] Irenaeus Against Heresies 4.17.3.

[20] Theophilus To Autolycus 3.12.

[21] Tertullian Against Marcion 4.16.

[22] Tertullian Against Marcion 4.16.

[23] Origen Commentary on Romans 3.3.2; De Principiis 3.1.6; Homilies on Jeremiah 9.4.2; Homilies on Leviticus 9.4.3; Homilies on Luke 3.6; Homilies on Luke 23.4; Homilies on Psalm 36 3.12; Letter to Sextus Julius Africanus 13.

[24] Origen De Principiis 3.1.6

[25] Clement of Alexandria Quis Dives Salvetur 30.

[26] Didascalia 18.

[27] Clement of Alexandria Quis Dives Salvetur 31.

[28] Origen Commentary on Romans 6.4.2.

[29] Clement of Alexandria Quis Dives Salvetur 33.

[30] Tertullian Against Marcion 4.16.

[31] Epistle of the Apostles 46.

[32] Aristides Apology 15 ANF 9.277; 10.277 in Hendrickson reprint.

[33] Shepherd of Hermas Similitude 5.37 ANF 2.341.

[34] Origen Homilies on Leviticus 10.2.6.

[35] Sentences of Sextus 267.

[36] Didascalia 19.

[37] Clement of Alexandria Stromata 3.4.

[38] Origen Homilies on Psalm 36 3.4.

[39] Origen Commentary on Romans 10.6.3 trans. Thomas P. Scheck Origen: Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans Books 6-10 (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 2002) Fathers of the Church series vol. 104 p. 264. Copyright 2002 Catholic University of America Press.

[40] 2 Clement 17.3.

[41] Justin Martyr 1 Apology 17.

[42] Theophilus To Autolycus 3.14.

[43] Tertullian Apologeticum 30.

[44] Origen Letter to Friends in Alexandria; Against Celsus 8.69-8.75.

[45] Polycarp Letter to the Philippians 12.3.

[46] Origen Homilies on Psalm 36 3.4.

David Brattston

Dr. David W. T. Brattston is member of the oldest Lutheran congregation in Canada. Since 1995 he has been a volunteer at the Lunenburg Inter-Church Food Bank.