“Withhold not good from them to whom it is due, when it is in the power of thine hand to do it. Say not unto thy neighbour, Go, and come again, and to morrow I will give; when thou hast it by thee ” (Proverbs 3:27-28).
Here it is the ninth of the month, and I’m still posting on something from Proverbs 3. Running behind, as usual. 🙂
Part one was a side note on utilitarianism/pragmatism, and part two from Saturday dealt with the first of the two parallel instructions in these verses. As I said in that post, “We have two parallel instructions here. The first verse speaks of duty, the second appears to speak of charity.” Today, I’d like to speak briefly about the “charity” half of the instruction.
The concept of charity is implied rather than explicit in this verse. It does use the word “give”, but I “gave” our milkman a cheque last week to pay for our milk, so we can’t assume that “give” necessarily means charity, nor does the original Hebrew require that. That said, charity fits both the words and the context, since the concept of what is due is left out of this second verse. The evidence supports the interpretation that this is talking about giving something which you aren’t obligated to give — in other words, charity in some form or other.
To Give or not to Give — That’s NOT the Question!
This verse doesn’t tell us we are obligated to give every time someone asks. That isn’t the focus at all, and if we look at the rest of Scripture, we can see that this couldn’t be the case. We are commanded to provide for our families, and you simply can’t do that if you give to everyone who asks. Everywhere you turn, someone is asking.
Sometimes it is wrong to give. The person who is simply being irresponsible or lazy isn’t being helped if we facilitate their laziness. It is wrong to give an addict money just so they can buy drugs. That just helps them further along a self-destructive path. The same is true of the laziness addict — if you know that you are just helping someone “buy more laziness”, you shouldn’t do it.
So why did I say, “That’s NOT the question”? This proverb isn’t talking about whether or not we should give, or how we make that assessment. That is a right question to ask, but not the question in this proverb at all. The case here is clear — it is describing a situation when it is appropriate to give, and you are able and intending to do so. The “give or not give” question is already decided.
Attitudes to Avoid
Don’t say, “Come again tomorrow and I’ll give,” when you could simply give now. That’s the instruction. We could stop right there, and that would be valuable — but as is often the case with proverbs and other poetry, there are some other things to consider packed away in there. I’ll mention three attitudes which might lie behind the proscribed behaviour, three attitudes to avoid.
Avoid Arrogance About the Future. As I said in my first post on this, Jewish tradition had added to this the following: “for you do not know what the morrow will bring forth.” They were wrong to add it to Scripture, and wrong to suggest that is the reason for right behaviour. On the other hand, delaying charity when you are fully able and intend to give is acting as if you know the future. The traditionalist who added these words correctly identified a wrong attitude which might drive this behaviour.
Avoid a “Controlling” Attitude. If you are going to give, just give. Why are you making your neighbour come back again tomorrow? Are you simply asserting your control? We are naturally proud, so that controlling attitude is a dangerous temptation for us. It is entirely appropriate for us to decide we only want to give for a specific purpose or cause. That isn’t necessarily a controlling attitude. But by requiring someone to come back and ask again later, you are controlling his behaviour, making him jump through hoops to get that which you intend to give anyway. Why would you do that? Check your heart for a prideful attitude of wanting to exert control over others.
Avoid a Self-Centred Attitude. “Look not every man on his own things, but every man also on the things of others” (Philippians 2:4). We must, must, must learn to think on things from the other person’s perspective, to see situations through other people’s eyes. If someone has to come to you for help, it’s a little bit (or a lot) humbling. They often feel awkward and embarrassed. If you were in their shoes, would you want to be told to come back tomorrow and ask again, when there is no reason for it? The charitable thing to do when giving charity is to make it as easy and comfortable for the other person as you can.
“Charity” used to be closely synonymous with “love”. When the Authorised Version of the Bible was translated, the translators used “charity” in the great love chapter in I Corinthians 13, to reflect the truth that the chapter is defining true love as selfless giving.
Charity has mostly been redefined since then, into an impersonal giving to “good causes”. Rarely now does charity directly touch a life, connecting the giver with the recipient. People often give to feel good about themselves, or in some cases, even to get publicity for their great generosity. The human connection has gone missing.
This proverb calls us back to a simpler and better way, where charity takes place between those who know, respect, and appreciate each other. It tells the giver to give charitably, in a way that is truly consistent with love and concern for the recipient. Our manner of giving, when possible, should not leave the recipient exposed to the uncertainties of the future or to immediate needs. Nor should we give in a way that asserts control over or humiliates another person. We need to be generous in spirit as well as in deed.