To everyone asking you for anything, give it and do not ask for it back; for, to all, the Father wishes to give these things from his own free gifts….But also, concerning this rule, it has been said: “Let your alms sweat in your hands, until you know to whom you might give it.” (Didache 1:5a, 6)
The community which lived by the teachings of the Didache was made up of mostly poor people. They lived in the first century and were trying to live by the example of Jesus. There wasn’t any social safety net in their day – no welfare, no Medicaid or medicare, no food stamps. And their lives were very hard. Often people living on the edge saw their children sold into slavery to pay debts they couldn’t avoid. Like Tennessee Ernie Ford used to sing, they “owed their soul to the company store.”
One thing that attracted these people to the followers of Jesus was the way they cared for one another. This wasn’t just shown by the fact that they liked one another and got along well. When someone was hungry, they ate at the common table. When they were homeless, someone gave them a place to sleep under a roof at night. When they were widowed or orphaned, the community kept them from being sold into slavery by providing them a home. These were often poor folk, but they shared what little they had with one another.
So before people joined this community, they needed to demonstrate that they could understand and demonstrate generosity. They had to have the kind of spirit that would divide the last cookie into two pieces and give away the bigger part. Jesus had said, “when someone asks for your cloak, give them your shirt as well.” He wasn’t talking in symbols there. He meant take the one extra shirt you own and give it to someone who has nothing to wear.
There’s a comfort in living in a community of folks like that. It means they’ve got your back and you won’t starve or go naked. There’s also a danger in that kind of community, as you may really be asked to give away all you’ve got. Years ago I had a friend who served a church in a very poor neighborhood. People always needed something, and he’d help as much as he could. I heard his wife say one day that she never knew if there’d be towels in the closet when the kids took a bath because he may have given them away. That’s real generosity. It’s also foolhardy. Your own kids need towels and going without isn’t a good idea.
The Didache says, “Let your alms sweat in your hands until you know too whom you might give.” There’s the balance to asking for utter generosity – make wise decisions about what you give and to whom. Most of us have the ability to give to others, and we are blessed by doing that. Most of us don’t have the ability to give everything we’re asked for. So we have to make choices. My mom has a stack of junk mail by her coffee table. Those are the folks she’s going to give a donation to when she wins the lottery. But she’s not going to give to them until then because she can’t do that and pay her own bills. She has a few folks she supports now, and it makes her happy to give those gifts. And when she can, she’ll give more.
All of us make those decisions every day. The Didache encourages us to make them carefully. Do you remember carrying a nickel to Sunday School to put in the offering? It made your palm sweaty. Hang on to your gift now like you did then. And when you do give it, it will make you just as happy as it did then.
When we make careful decisions about what to give and to whom, we find we can be more generous than we thought we could. When you give away 5% of your income, it becomes easier to give 10%. When you give an extra gift to the Salvation Army at Christmas, you find you can make an extra gift to someone else in January. When you see a real need, your practice in giving makes it possible for you to meet those needs that come up along the way. Making careful decisions makes more gifts possible than you imagined. And when each of us does what we can, and finds we can do a little bit more, then the needs around us are met.
Having the community of Jesus followers take care of one another and the folks in their neighborhoods is God’s plan for caring for the world. In the 21st century, we learn that our neighborhood is the world. And God’s provided what we need to care for one and all. It just takes all of us working together, carefully, and joyfully.