Something especially challenging about the English language is how much it seems to have changed in the past century. Those who are over 50 years old tend to be fairly aware of this, but my generation is reasonably clueless unless one has happened to read a lot of classic literature from before our time. Gender-neutral language, political correctness, and such thorny issues have transformed many words and phrases through the late 20th century.
One (less controversial) example is the word charity. Back in the day, it was reasonably synonymous with the word love. Either that, or their lexical ranges overlapped. Today, love is a relationship, and charity is doing nice things for people in need. Today, the big three Christian virtues are “faith, hope, and love.” Back then, they were “faith, hope, and charity.” One of the best ways to begin to understand the relationship between love and charity in pre-20th-century English-speaking Christianity is to compare the King James (1611) Bible with modern translations, especially if you’ve got some commentary from back then to help piece it together better. Chapter 12 of George Herbert’s A Priest to the Temple is entitled “The Parson’s Charity,” and is really helpful in explaining this whole love/charity thing.
Herbert writes, “the Country Parson is full of charity; it is his predominant element.” He then lists ten scripture references which state various perks of having charity. “To charity is given…”
- “…the covering of sins” (1 Pet. 4:8) – now translated as love
- “…the forgiveness of sins” (Matt. 6:14) – forgiveness yields forgiveness; see the next point
- ditto (Luke 7:47) – forgiveness is attributed to love
- “…the fulfilling of the Law” (Rom. 13:10) – now translated as love
- “…the life of faith” (James 1:26) – we would describe the following verse as charity today
- “…the blessings of this life” (Prov. 22:9) – now translated as generous or bountiful
- ditto (Psalm 41:1) – now translated as regarding the poor or weak
- “…the reward of the next [life]” (Matt. 25:35) – this verse describes what we could still call charity today
- “…the body of religion” (John 13:35) – now translated as love
- “…and the top of Christian virtues.” (1 Cor. 13) – now translated as love
So charity in George Herbert’s day was a broader concept than it is today. It includes brotherly love among equals (not just from the privileged to the needy), forgiveness in more than just monetary debt (considering the Lord’s Prayer), and a virtue or disposition or acted-out conviction that is ultimately more powerful than sin itself.
Herbert then goes on to give suggestions on how a Pastor should go about showing this charity to everyone. The general gist can be summarized as follows:
- Make sure there are no beggars or idle persons in his parish (using his bounty, persuasion, or authority, as needed)
- Helping the rich realize their duty to assist the poor
- Giving to the poor intentionally and generously, but not in such a way that they start expecting it like an inheritance (this means in particular being very personable in his giving so they get to know him better than they do his money or food)
- To those outside of his parish, he’s to be generous also, but with a little more discernment, since there’s less regular personal contact with them. In their case he might test them on their knowledge of the Lord’s Prayer, Creed, and Ten Commandments first, making a point of providing spiritual assistance along with the physical.
Funnily enough, after giving such a broad definition of charity/love at the beginning, George Herbert applied it in practice to almost the very narrow definition of charity that we know today. Clearly, generosity with friend & stranger (with our money, dinner table, or whatever) is a very important ingredient to loving our neighbor.
To wrap this up, perhaps I could observe that (in our modern words), charity needs to be loving. If we write a check to a good cause once a month and think nothing of it again, is that really Christian charity? What investment do we have in such giving? Granted, not everyone is able (or even called) to spend time with everyone they are charitable to, but can we really go to the opposite extreme and still call it charity proper to a Christian?