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David Otten: Acts of mercy and early Christians

By David Otten
Contributing writer
updated: 7/1/2020 10:43 AM

Greetings from Faith Lutheran Church in Eldorado,

Last week I gave a quick review of how mercy was played out in Scripture. As our nation celebrates another birthday, that mercy needs to be demonstrated. Adolf von Harnack's 1908 article "The Gospel of Love and Charity" clearly shows early Christians within the first 300 years actively involved with acts of mercy toward Christians and non-Christians.

Though Harnack denied all the miracles in the Bible and redefined Christianity as the "Fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man" he is still recognized for his historical writings and applauds the mercy Christ showed and taught.

His article was reprinted in the book "Mercy in Action: Essays on Mercy, Human Care and Disaster Response," (MIA) edited by Dr. Ross Edward Johnson, Lutheran Church -- Missouri Synod, St. Louis, 2015.

Harnack classified acts of charity/mercy into 10 categories. Below, are summaries of the first three.

Alms in general
Alms is money normally given to the poor or a person in need. In the early church this was done both privately and by the congregation. The church father Tertullian (A.D. 160 -225) records, "Every Sunday, or once a month, or whenever one chose, gifts in money or kind were brought to the service and entrusted to the president, by whom they were laid on the Lord's table and so consecrated to God." The president of the congregation would distribute this money to needy in the worship service and the poor in their homes. (MIA pg. 77)

For a special need, the Carthaginian churches quickly raised about $95,000 according to St. Cyprian (A.D. 200 -258). In A.D. 250 the church in Rome supported 1,500 poor with food. It is estimated that would have cost between $125,000 to $250,000. (MIA pg. 78) Remember, Christianity was still not a legal religion in Rome until A.D. 311, but they were showing mercy.

Aid of Church Workers
Clergy, teachers, and missionaries were also supported through church alms. Though there is no doubt some needed to beg, others may have supported themselves through their own skills and vocations. Yet, early Christians were determined to evangelize and ensure the ministry was carried out.

Support of Widows and Orphans:
We can reach back in the Old Testament to read of God's concern for orphans and widows as well as the New Testament. Lucian the Pagan, (A.D. 125 -180) a popular satirist and rhetorician, noted that "Christians attend first and foremost to orphans and widows." (MIA pg. 79) It was also found that Christian women would regularly visit orphans and widows in their homes. Harnack concludes from his study that Christians "made an important contribution to the amelioration of social conditions among the lower class." (MIA pg. 80)

As we celebrate our nations birthday may we see our nation not only as "amber waves of grain" and "purple mountain majesties," but as people. People who need God's mercy each day.

David Otten is pastor of Faith Lutheran Church in Eldorado.

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