Five points from Jesus about doing tzedakah.
by Rich Robinson | October 24 2023
Does anyone remember the “Blue Box” from the Jewish National Fund? Or maybe you have one now. This “tzedakah box”—sometimes called a pushke—is used for collecting your loose change and sending it to charity.
However you do it, giving to charity is considered a core value of Judaism. As one pamphlet puts it: “‘Tzedaka’ is usually translated as ‘charity,’ but it comes from the word ‘tzedek’ meaning justice. Giving tzedaka is not an act of generosity or mercy. It is an act of fairness. It’s not a ‘nice’ thing to do; it’s the right thing to do.”1
The concern for giving tzedakah is reflected in the New Testament as well, especially in the teachings of Jesus.
Here is Jesus on five points about doing tzedakah:
Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven.
Thus, when you give to the needy, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.2
Maybe you heard about the man who stood up in synagogue one day and announced, “I wish to pledge $10,000—anonymously!” Jesus, however, encourages anonymous giving so that the recipients have no idea who the givers are. It is all too easy to give as a way of stroking our own egos. Disentangling our motives for giving is difficult; being truly anonymous makes that easier.
And if you lend to those from whom you expect to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to get back the same amount. But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return, and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, for he is kind to the ungrateful and the evil.3
Was there a side glance here at the famous Rabbi Hillel’s legislation called prosbul?
Rabbi Hillel was addressing a serious problem: every seven years in Israel was a “sabbatical year” in which all outstanding debts had to be forgiven. The thing was, as the sabbatical year approached, people stopped lending money, knowing it would never be repaid if the seventh year arrived before the loan was due. So Hillel encouraged loans by stipulating how they could be repaid even in the sabbatical year.
Jesus, in encouraging loaning without the expectation of payback, may well have relied on moral persuasion to accomplish the same goal. And perhaps he intended to go even further than the biblical law: seventh year or no seventh year, when you loan, do so as though the loan were a gift.
Give, and it will be given to you. Good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap. For with the measure you use it will be measured back to you.4
The idea here is a basic one: you reap what you sow; you get out what you put in. Jesus, though, seems to be implying more. God will reward generosity with overflowing abundance.
Maybe you’ve seen food containers marked, “Bag has been packed by weight, not by volume. Contents may have settled during shipping and handling.” In other words, you might have a big container, but inside is only the allotted amount. Jesus implies that tzedakah works in the opposite way. He uses the image of a grain container. The grain is first poured in; then it’s shaken to compress the grain into as small a volume as possible; and then, even more is put in until the container is so full that the grain spills out. That’s the kind of abundance Jesus says will come from sincere generosity in obedience to God.
Tradition reports that in the first century there were 13 boxes in the part of the Temple known as the “Court of the Women.” This was not an area exclusively for women but the part beyond which women could not go. Here, people of both genders could put gifts earmarked for the Temple into these 13 ancient equivalents of tzedakah boxes.
That’s where Jesus has this to say to those who mistreat widows:
Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes and like greetings in the marketplaces and have the best seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at feasts, who devour widows’ houses and for a pretense make long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.5
Judaism had structures in place to help the unfortunate, and caring for widows was certainly part of the Jewish value system. But then, as now, there were always some individuals who were corrupt or greedy. Values express an ideal, and life on the ground does not always match that ideal.
The problem seems to have been that certain individuals—or perhaps the collective “establishment” of the time—were eating up the financial resources of many widows. Possibly the powers-that-be were levying excessive monetary tithes on them.
Religious tithing, in which a portion of your income was given over to the Temple, was a requirement in first-century Judaism—a kind of ancient income tax. Some people, just as some modern politicians do, appeared to have added additional tax burdens that ended up “swallowing up” the possessions of poor widows. And that’s what Jesus was teaching prophetically against.
In contrast to such actions by the wealthy, which contravened the Jewish value system, Jesus commended a particular widow as a person to emulate. The passage continues:
And he sat down opposite the treasury and watched the people putting money into the offering box. Many rich people put in large sums. And a poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which make a penny. And he called his disciples to him and said to them, “Truly, I say to you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the offering box. For they all contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”6
This episode reminds me of a story in the Talmud, which relates a comment made by Rabbi Isaac.7 Rabbi Isaac observed something unusual in the Hebrew text of Leviticus 2:1, a passage that prescribes the kinds of sacrificial offerings that people in ancient Israel were expected to make.
Rabbi Isaac noticed that this is the only verse in the first few chapters of Leviticus that uses the word nefesh, or “soul.” Literally it reads, “When a soul presents an offering of meal to the Lord, his offering shall be of choice flour.”
Rabbi Isaac took the use of the word “soul” to point to something deeper. He opined that since most offerings of meal or grain—as opposed to those of animals—were brought by poor people, the lesson is that God counts the offering of the poor as though they had offered their own souls—their very lives.
In other words, concluded Rabbi Isaac, it costs the poor much more than the rich when they offer of their own sustenance. That’s the same basic point that Jesus had made centuries earlier. The poor woman exemplified the value of giving tzedakah. She had just sacrificially given to the Temple, which to a person of faith was, in effect, giving to God.
There is an important subtext here. While certain people were robbing widows of their livelihoods, God could be expected to vindicate the poor woman for her humble and sacrificial attitude in giving tzedakah. What people were pulling down, God would build back up.
These are just a few of the examples of Jesus’ teaching about the importance of tzedakah. But perhaps the ultimate proof of Jesus’ commitment to tzedakah is the fact that his followers continued to teach and live out the values that he had taught.
The most well-known statement of this comes from the mid-first century historical work, the Acts of the Apostles (a.k.a. Acts), which describes the earliest community of Jesus’ followers in Jerusalem this way:
There was not a needy person among them [the early community of Jesus’ followers], for as many as were owners of lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold and laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.8
Another example in the New Testament is found in the letters of the apostle Paul to the early churches around the ancient Mediterranean. These communities were started by Jewish believers in Jesus, but they also had a surprising number of Gentile pagan converts to faith in the Messiah.
In several of his letters, we see Paul working hard to take up a collection among these Gentile-heavy churches to deliver to the Jewish Messianic community in Jerusalem, who were, at that time and by comparison, poor.
Paul’s attitude was: If we’re all in Messiah, then we’re all brothers and sisters, Jewish and Gentile alike. Therefore, it’s only fitting that we should serve one another, as we are able, with acts of tzedakah.
There might not have been blue boxes in the first century, but had there been, Jesus, the poor widow, and the apostle Paul would probably have been the first to put something in.
2 Matthew 6:1–4.
3 Luke 6:34–35.
4 Luke 6:38.
5 Mark 12:38–40. See also the parallel in Luke 20:45–47.
6 Mark 12:41–44. See also the parallel in Luke 21:1–4.
7 The Talmud dates from several centuries after the time of Jesus, so it is not really
“background.” But many of its traditions, and certainly its ethical values, go back much earlier. The story about Rabbi Isaac is found in b. Menachot 104b.
8 Acts 4:34–35.