When Christians of late antiquity thought of religious giving, they went back to what for them was the beginning—to the words of Jesus. The words of Jesus to the Rich Young Man described a transfer of “treasure” from earth to heaven: “Jesus said to him, ‘If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.’ ”
Jesus repeated this challenge to his disciples: “Sell your possessions and give alms; provide yourselves with purses that do not grow old, with a treasure in the heavens that does not fail, where no thief approaches and no moth destroys.”
The transfer of treasure from earth to heaven was also current in Jewish circles. In the Jerusalem Talmud of the late fourth century, there is a story about King Monobazos, the Jewish king of Adiabene on the Euphrates. He was said to have spent his fortune providing food for the poor in Jerusalem. His infuriated relatives accused him of living up to his name, which was derived from the word bazaz—“to plunder.” Monobazos was plundering his earthly inheritance. He answered them: “My fathers laid up treasure for below, but I have laid up treasures for above. They laid up treasures in a place over which the hand of man may prevail: I in a place over which no hand can prevail.”
The words of Jesus and the story of King Monobazos urged or described heroic acts of renunciation and generosity. By the third century, however, in both Judaism and Christianity, the gesture of giving had become miniaturized, as it were. One did not have to perform feats of heroic self-sacrifice or charity to place treasure in heaven. Small gifts would do. For instance, Cyprian, who became the bishop of Carthage around 249, treated the steady, low-profile flow of alms to the poor on the same footing as the renunciation of all wealth that Jesus had urged on the Rich Young Man. Heaven was thus not only a place of great treasure houses, it included prime real estate in a state of continuous construction due to almsgiving performed on earth by means of common, coarse money.
When one turns to present-day scholarship on this theme, we find that the idea of a transfer of treasure to heaven is surrounded by a loud silence. Neither in the Catholic Dictionnaire de la Spiritualité nor in the Protestant Theologische Realenzyklopedie is there an entry for “treasure.” Nor can such an article be found in the Oxford Dictionary of the Jewish Religion. A large inscription erected over the tomb of the famous bishop of Arles, Hilary (430–449), declared that the bishop, through his renunciation of wealth, had “bought up heaven with earthly gifts.” There is no hint of embarrassment in those proud lines. Not so with their modern interpreters. The editors of a recent catalog of the early Christian monuments of Arles suggested, somewhat timidly, that such a phrase might strike a modern person as “a formula which certain of us…would no doubt have found somewhat abrupt or heretical!” Even the few articles devoted to the theme of “treasure in heaven” have approached it with ill-disguised discomfort. In one such study, the biblical historian Klaus Koch insisted that when Jesus spoke of “treasure in heaven,” he must have meant something very different from the meanings that came to be attached to it in later centuries. It is the same in Jewish circles. Faced by the tale of King Monobazos, the great Jewish scholar Ephraim Urbach felt ill at ease. He confessed that it was difficult to see, in Monobazos’s “prolonged and monotonous explanation…traces of a more refined doctrine.”
Altogether, it is a notion that causes acute embarrassment to modern persons. Such discomfort is calculated to make the historian sit up and take notice. Why is it that a way of speaking of the relation between heaven and earth that late antique and medieval Christians took for granted seems so alien to us? Why is it that we have such inhibitions in approaching the subject of the joining of God and gold?
One way of emphasizing the importance of the transfer of treasure to heaven is to view the question through the writings of St. Augustine. Augustine, who was bishop of Hippo (now Annaba, Algeria) from 395 to 430, developed a distinctive attitude to religious giving.
When Augustine became bishop of Hippo, he took the task of preaching on the relations between rich and poor. His audience may not always have included large numbers of the poor, but his preaching left those who heard him in no doubt as to their duties toward the poor. He also attempted to answer, if in a studiously cautious manner, some of the many questions that Christians had pondered about wealth since the early days of the church. His insistence that the giving of alms was intimately related to the expiation of sins would become dominant in future centuries.
By following Augustine on these issues we will be looking at a great figure from an unexpected angle. We will not see the author of great books—the Confessions, On the Trinity, the City of God, and innumerable volumes against various heresies. Rather, we will see a man constantly
responding to the questions of others about wealth and the afterlife in letters and sermons. Those who raised questions were usually fellow Catholics. They did not come to question basic dogmas, they instead wanted to be certain that what they imagined about the other world was correct. Above all, they wanted to know in what way their own notions of the effect of human rituals and human pious practices on the fate of souls in the other world corresponded to what really took place in that unknown territory. Augustine was expected to tell them.
The questions came especially from the rich; or, at least, they concerned the rich. The rich, after all, had more treasure on earth than anyone else. They wanted to know what benefits might accrue to them in the other world by transferring all or part of this treasure to heaven. But the questions also came from critics of the rich. Many critics claimed that the rich did not give enough—that most of them notably failed to “sell all and give to the poor,” as they had been urged to do by Jesus in the Gospels.
It took a lot of time to answer these questions. Among the letters of Augustine discovered by Johannes Divjak in 1975 there is a particularly poignant note to his friend Possidius, bishop of Calama, written in December 419, when Augustine was sixty-five. He told Possidius that he was preparing to get down again to writing the City of God, but he had been forced to put this project aside: “I am annoyed because of the demands that are thrust on me to write, arriving unannounced, from here, there, and everywhere. They interrupt and hold up all the other things that we have so neatly lined up in order. They never seem to stop.” In three months, Augustine wrote, he had dictated 6,000 lines of writing (roughly 60,000 words). Most of this had taken the form of immediate answers to challenges that came to him from all over Africa: the pamphlet of a recalcitrant Donatist bishop; questions on the origin of the soul; sermons edited on the nights of Saturday and Sunday, to be sent to Carthage. Questions abounded. Christians were no longer small groups of disciples addressing their teacher. They included persons drawn from the upper reaches of Roman society, as Christianity edged its way to becoming the majority religion of the Roman world.
His answers to the questions of colleagues and well-to-do laypersons consisted of a constant winnowing of current representations of the other world and how believers might reach heaven. What Augustine was doing, through his constant attention, one by one, to the small print of the questions posed to him by a wide variety of questioners, was to undertake nothing less than the grooming of the religious imagination of vocal and influential members of Christian communities all over Africa and, eventually, elsewhere. Indeed, precisely because so many of Augustine’s statements on religious giving were prompted by the questions of others, we find that we are not dealing with a series of ex cathedra pronouncements issuing from Augustine alone. We are listening to a vigorous conversation, and many of the concerns that Augustine addressed reached well beyond the privileged circle that heard his sermons, his upper-class correspondents, and the readers of his treatises. They ignited the chattering classes of Africa as a whole.
But why should almsgiving be so charged in Augustine’s Africa? Why so many questions? In order to understand this, we must step back in time, and look at the nature of giving in the secular world.
Roman North Africa was one of the last provinces of the western empire to have maintained a high standard of civic life. This was especially true of the region best known to Augustine: Carthage and the cities through which he traveled. Throughout the fourth century, gifts from wealthy citizens allowed buildings to be renewed, theaters to be repaired, and great circus games to be performed in Carthage and elsewhere.
Behind this last Indian summer of the African cities there lay an ancient ideology that determined the horizons of those who had continued to fund civic activities. This ideology has come to be called, by modern scholars, “civic euergetism.” Civic euergetism involved a potent constellation of ideas and practices that had dominated the minds and actions of the upper-class inhabitants of the classical Mediterranean for over a millennium. It only began to lose its grip in late antiquity. The ideology of euergetism effectively governed the patterns of giving among the rich, who were technically free to spend their money as they wished and were rich enough to spend it on any number of causes. When it came to the public use of wealth, the rich were hardwired for euergetism and for very little else.
In the late 1970s, two brilliant books—that of Paul Veyne and that of Évelyne Patlagean—drew attention to the tenacity of this ideology in late antiquity and made clear its sharp and distinctive profile. What Veyne and Patlagean showed was that the notion of civic euergetism had always assumed a strictly civic (one might say almost political) model of society. The wealthy were expected to spend their money on their city and on the comfort and entertainment of their fellow citizens—and on those only. It was a model that tended to look through the economic structuring of society. Poverty, in itself, gave no entitlement. Those who received benefits from the wealthy received them not because they were poor but because they were citizens.
For Christian bishops such as Augustine to preach in favor of giving alms to the poor was to do far more than stir the wealthy to occasional acts of charity and compassion. It was to undermine the traditional model of society that had directed their giving habits up to this time. Civic notables were challenged to abandon the notion of citizen entitlement. They were urged to look beyond their fellow citizens and to switch their giving toward the gray immensity of poverty in their city and in the countryside around them.
Altogether, to accept Christian preaching was to make a major shift in one’s image of society. In terms of the social imagination, it involved nothing less than moving from a closed universe to an open one. We begin, in the classical world, with a honeycomb of little cities, in each of which the rich thought of nurturing only their fellow citizens, with little regard to whether any of them were poor. We end, in Christian times, with an open universe, where society as a whole—in town and countryside alike—was seen to be ruled, as if by a universal law of gravity, by a single, bleak division between rich and poor. The duty of the Christian preacher was to urge the rich no longer to spend their money on their beloved, well-known city, but to lose it, almost heedlessly, in the faceless mass of the poor. Only that utterly counterfactual gesture—a gesture that owed nothing to the claims of one’s hometown or of one’s fellow citizens—would earn the rich “treasure in heaven.”
To put it mildly, this was a notion that thousands of well-to-do persons in the little cities that covered the Roman Empire still needed to be persuaded to accept. We cannot understand the prodigious output of Christian sermons from all over the empire advocating almsgiving, unless we bear in mind that we are dealing with a church and a society for whom the horizons of the possible had, relatively suddenly, been blown open.
As for the lay elites, they had to be persuaded to abandon, or at least to moderate, their most intimate and deeply rooted code of public behavior—the civic code of euergetism, which had been as much a matter of noblesse oblige to them as chivalry would be for knights in the Middle Ages. They found that they were being urged to direct some, at least, of their wealth in a markedly different direction from that to which they were accustomed—toward the unglamorous poor.
Despite many assertions in conventional accounts of the fall of Rome, there is little evidence that the later empire passed through a marked crisis of poverty in the course of the fourth century. Nor, alas, is there any evidence that Christians were suddenly engulfed in a wave of spontaneous compassion for the poor. What we are dealing with is a far more charged and interesting situation. An entire society found itself wrestling with its self-image. As a result, the division between rich and poor, and the insistence on the duties of the rich to the poor, took on an imaginative charge that had been lacking in any earlier period of the ancient world.
We have received recent confirmation of Augustine’s commitment to charity and the care of the poor in this context. A series of sermons written by Augustine on almsgiving have recently been discovered in the cathedral library of Erfurt, Germany. These sermons show that Augustine had planned an entire campaign of preaching on the topic of almsgiving. The sermons preserved in Erfurt have a particular value for us in that they are not rhetorical showpieces, as were many of the sermons Augustine preached in Carthage in the 400s. Rather, they were model sermons written for his own clergy to preach on a regular basis. In these sermons, Augustine did not urge the clergy to appeal only to the compassion of their Christian hearers. The clergy were to go straight for the jugular and attack the rival system of giving—the ideology of euergetism. It was this euergetism that needed to be demystified and eventually replaced. Augustine implied that only by setting the church on an imaginative collision course with the circus could the rich ever be persuaded to notice the poor.
For this reason, the clergy were to preach directly against the circus games. These games were the most spectacular—and understandably the most popular—demonstrations of the civic notable’s love for the citizens of his hometown. They were not simply occasions for riot and debauch; they had a serious purpose: reassuring the citizen body—the populus—of every city that the rich still loved them, and them alone. At the games, at least, the people were king.
Augustine expected his clergy to confront rich members of the congregation who supported such games, who presided over them, or who contributed to chariot races and wild-beast shows. They were to be “condemned, rebuked, and changed for the better.” The only use of their crazed displays of generosity was to challenge Christians to engage with equal enthusiasm in giving to the poor:
Lazy members of our churches are to be challenged to action, seeing that they barely break a single loaf of bread to feed the starving Christ [in the poor], while those who lavish wealth on the theater [spend so heavily that they] leave hardly a loaf of bread for their own sons.
Augustine had long preached in this way against the games and in favor of almsgiving. In late 403, for instance, he had combined a visit to Carthage with a series of sermons that coincided with a splendid civic occasion—the gathering of the priests of the imperial cult in Carthage, in a magnificent display of public loyalty to the emperor. The occasion would be celebrated in the traditional manner by public banquets, chariot races, and pitting human huntsmen against leopards or bears.
Augustine’s sermons at that time amounted to a direct challenge to the ideology that had rendered the poor invisible to the non-Christian and even to the Christian rich:
Driven crazy by this and puffed up with pride...they even wish to lose their fortunes by giving—giving to actresses, giving to cabaret artists, giving to wild-beast hunters, giving to charioteers. They pour forth not only their inherited fortunes, but their very souls. Yet they draw back with disgust from the poor, because the People [the populus—the citizens gathered in the hippodromes and amphitheaters] do not shout for the poor to receive largesse. But the People roar for the venator [the matador] to have his prize.
But it was not enough to define Christian almsgiving against its weighty rival in this way. Almsgiving itself had to become an everyday habit. It is fascinating to see how Augustine set about making this happen. His business was similar to that of any other bishop in the Christian world. To use the words of Jaclyn Maxwell, the time had come for his congregation “to pick up habits…the Christian ethic had to become a [form of] common sense.”
As Augustine made clear to his clergy in the Erfurt sermons and in his preaching as a whole, alms should be directed instead at three pious causes—care of the poor, support for the clergy, and the building and maintenance of churches. None of these, except, perhaps, church building, involved spectacular outlays. The cost of a church could be around 2,500 solidi—solid gold pieces. By contrast, the cost of public games at Rome (though probably not in Africa) could be as high as 144,000 solidi.
We can see Augustine’s method in his choice of metaphors. In order to inject the notion of a transfer of treasure from earth to heaven through almsgiving with a thrill that it may not have possessed in the minds of many, he appealed to the sense of risk that was part of the adrenaline of wealth for the landowners, artisans, and merchants of coastal cities such as Carthage and Hippo. “God wishes you to invest what you have [by sending it to heaven], not to throw it away,” was his refrain. He preached to persons who were used to the tense hiatus that the treacherous seas placed, every year, between their own landed wealth—their grain, olive oil, and fine pottery—and the hope of profit through successful sales on the far side of the Mediterranean, in Italy, and elsewhere. His audiences were accustomed to the complex loans that helped them to handle this situation. To give to the poor, Augustine explained, was no different: They were sending their wealth to a distant land.
Such images were more than mere jeux d’esprit. They were part of a molding of the consciousness not unlike that which ancient philosophers had always recommended. Philosophers had encouraged their disciples to make reality look different. They were to do so by telling stories to themselves about the nature of things—life, death, honor, wealth, and poverty—that were different from the usual stories. These countercultural stories were supposed to subvert everyday common sense by turning conventional values on their head. Augustine did the same, but his novel stories were about the paradoxical joining of wealth, heaven, and the poor. They caught a mood—the mood of Africa in the last days of its glory as the center of gravity of the economy of the western Mediterranean. He encouraged his hearers to think in blatantly commercial terms. They were to treat placing “treasure in heaven” as if it were an advanced purchase. They were to think of the poor as dockhands, loading wealth aboard for a distant port. They should regard a gift to the church as if it were that part of the family inheritance that would have gone to a dead son. Seeing almsgiving in this way involved a series of small and easily accomplished thought experiments that roused Augustine’s audience to cheers.
Almsgiving, however, was more than a way to support the poor and to show the financial muscle of the church in competition with the urban elites and their ideal of civic euergetism. It had a supernatural dimension. Augustine emphasized this supernatural dimension ever more strongly over time. He insisted that almsgiving was an obligatory pious practice because it had an expiatory function. Alms atoned for sins. Like Jesus’s great image of the transfer of treasure from earth to heaven, the idea of the redemption of sins through the giving of alms was calculated to startle the average person.
There is little need to linger on Augustine’s notion of sin. He had long been convinced that the life of a Christian was a life of continual penance. The pious Christian was a human hedgehog. He or she was covered from head to foot with the tiny, sharp spines of daily, barely conscious peccata minutissima—with “tiny little sins.” It was to expunge these tiny sins that the Christian should pray every day Dimitte nobis debita nostra: “Forgive us our sins.” One should note how, in the Latin of the Lord’s Prayer, “sins” were usually termed debita—“debts.” They were debts that could be canceled.
There was a concrete, financial corollary to this insistence on daily penance for daily sin. Like all other Christian preachers of his generation, Augustine never doubted that prayer for forgiveness should be accompanied by almsgiving. Alms provided the “wings” that brought the Lord’s Prayer up to heaven. Without such wings no prayer could fly.
This meant, in effect, that perpetual giving was the counterpart of perpetual sin. Augustine expanded the traditional idea of almsgiving as a payment for sin to include the more daring notion of the need for the daily expiation of sins. It seemed to Augustine that the human condition demanded this. The soul was a leaking vessel on the high seas. Little trickles of daily sins constantly seeped through the timbers, silently filling the bilge with water that might yet sink the ship if it were not pumped out. And to man the bilge pump was both to pray and to give alms: “We should not only pray, but also give alms,” he wrote. “Those who work the bilge pump lest the boat go down…do so [chanting sea chanteys] with their voices and working with their hands. Let the hands go round and round. Let them give, let them do good works.”
Furthermore, daily sin, wealth, and almsgiving were drawn together by a half-hidden homology. Augustine always stressed the way in which daily sin piled up, in and around the human person in a largely unconscious manner—like sand, like drops of water, like fleas. But, for the good Christian, wealth did much the same. Surplus wealth also seemed to pile up almost insensibly in the form of small sums that could be disposed of with little difficulty or regret in the form of alms or contributions to the church. The good Christian could learn to dispose of these small sums in a manner that was as painless and as much to be taken for granted as the regular trimming of one’s hair. The “daily sins” that could be expiated by alms alone were not the big, cold crimes of violence, fraud, avarice, and adultery. They were the humdrum sins of everyday life.
Augustine did not linger on these small sins of excess because he was unnaturally scrupulous. He did so because he was optimistic. He regarded them as precisely the sort of sins that could be dealt with by giving alms. Everyday sins and their remedy—everyday almsgiving—slid together in his mind. Wealth—the almost insensible buildup of a surplus—could be used on a day-to-day basis to counter sins that were, themselves, the result of a daily bubbling up of surplus energy. Such metaphors would only have carried weight with his audience if the sums of money involved in almsgiving had been modest. He did not expect heroic renunciations of wealth. Rather, “small change” sins were met by “small change” outlays to the poor.
The congregations of Africa—rich and poor alike—heard Augustine’s message with a certain relief. Augustine’s preaching fitted in well with the realities of their social condition. Even if they were good Christians and wealthy, none of them suffered from the overabundance of wealth that characterized super-rich Roman Christian families. They had no wish to be told to renounce their wealth in its entirety. The rich and poor alike were encouraged to save their souls, on a regular basis, by forms of giving that were as regular as the daily repetition of the Lord’s Prayer.
This attitude had social repercussions. Augustine never discouraged heavy giving by the rich, but his insistence on the expiatory nature of giving ensured that the rich did not see themselves as special. Their giving was associated with penitential habits they were assumed to share, as fellow sinners, with all other members of the congregation. Hence there was a significant contrast between almsgiving and euergetism. A citizen gave to the city, quite frankly, so as to show his own glory and that of his family. Citizens were not supposed to give in that way to the church. Rather, one gave “for the remission of sins.” Augustine received quite substantial legacies for the church of Hippo, but he always insisted they had been given because the donor was “mindful of the eternal safety of his soul.” This language brought to the gifts of even the wealthy a note of human fragility, a sense of risk and of a need for safety for the soul, such as could be shared by all Christians, rich and poor alike. There was room in such a view for relatively humble donors. Everyone was a sinner, and, so, everyone could give.
Above all, Augustine presented almsgiving as regular and dependable. His hearers were to think of almsgiving as a machinamentum, a well-known device in Africa. It was a wheel whose constant turning caused a chain of buckets to move up and down, like the noria of Spain or the shadoof of Egypt. The perpetual horizontal movement of a wheel (pushed by an animal or a human) was transformed, by a complex set of gears, into a vertical motion that drew the chain of buckets so that they poured water taken from a low river or canal on to the higher fields. Working ceaselessly to place water where no water was to be found, alms were the machinamenta occulta—the “hidden devices”—that raised treasure to heaven. In this way, Augustine gave his Christian contemporaries a doctrine for the long haul. Driven as it was by the perpetual motion of the need to expiate sin, religious giving endured.
Excerpted from The Ransom of the Soul: Afterlife and Wealth in Early Western Christianity. Copyright © 2015 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College.