The economics of the Didache
The Didache, also known as The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles, is a pious work that gives a glimpse into the minds of some of the earliest Christians. The Didache probably originates in the latter half of the first century or the early part of the second century. While we certainly can’t accord it the same authority that we grant Scripture, we can use it to see how early Christian understood the teachings of Jesus Christ and his Apostles. With that in mind, let us look at how the writer or writers of the Didache understood the proper economic relationships Christians should cultivate.
The text begins by laying out a Way of Life and a Way of Death, echoing Psalm 1 and Jeremiah 21:8, and Matthew 7:13-14. The Didache defines the way of life as Christ’s twofold commandment:
The Way of Life is this: Thou shalt love first the Lord thy Creator and secondly they neighbour as thyself; and thou shalt do nothing to any man that thou wouldst not wish to be done to thyself.
This Way of Life has clear echos of Christ’s teachings in Mark 12:28-31, Matthew 22:35-40, and Luke 10:25-38. The Way of Life also reflects Old Testament readings, including Deuteronomy 6:4-5, Leviticus 19:18, and Tobit 4:15. The Didache expands upon exactly what it would mean to live according to the Way of Life like so:
Give to everyone that asks, without looking for any repayment, for it is the Father’s pleasure that we should share His gracious bounty with all men. A giver who gives freely, as the commandment directs, is blessed; no fault can be found with him. But woe to the taker; for though he cannot be blamed for taking if he was in need, yet if he was not, an account will be required of him as to why he took it, and for what purpose, and he will be taken into custody and examined about his action, and he will not get out until he has paid the last penny. The old saying is in point here: “Let your alms grow damp with sweat in your hand, until you know who it is you are giving them to.”
The teaching here is clear: as Christians we should share whatever extra we have with everyone in need because this is what God wants us to do (cf. 2 Corinthians 9:6-9, Matthew 6:19-21, Luke 3:11, 1 John 3:17-18, James 2:15-17, Hebrews 13:16, Tobit 4:7-11, Tobit 4:16, Deuteronomy 15:7-11) . However, Christians should also not con people into giving when the receiver is not in need. The sort of avarice that seeks money even when one lives in comfort is condemned. The condemnation of greed is reconfirmed in more general terms when the Didache states “You are not to be avaricious or extortionate” which accords with St. Paul’s teaching that the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil (1 Timothy 6:9-10).
The Didache also tells its readers:
Do not be like those who reach out to take, but draw back when the time comes for giving. If the labour of your hands has been productive, your giving will be a ransom for sins. Give without hesitating and without grumbling, and you will see Whose generosity will requite you. Never turn away the needy; share all your possessions with your brother, and do not claim that anything is your own (cf. Acts 2:44-45). If you and he are joint participators in things immortal, how much more so in things mortal?
Again, the understanding of Christ’s gospel is clear. We are to give to all who need unconditionally and not to view what we possess as our own property. All of Creation is a gift from God, but we are like sojourners passing through this world. What we may have gathered in it is no credit to us, but to God. This is what He taught the Israelites in Deuteronomy 15:1-18 when he declares that every seventh year all debts are to be canceled and all Hebrew slaves freed, in Deuteronomy 24:19-22 when he commanded that those who farm leave some of their crops in the field because it belong not to those who toiled, but to those who could not provide for themselves, and in Leviticus where the Lord declares the Jubilee Year in which slaves are freed and property is returned to its previous owners because “The land must not be sold permanently, because the land is Mine and you reside in My land as foreigners and strangers” (Leviticus 25:23). While there may be room for Christians to possess property in private, there is no room in Christianity for private property in the modern sense. All we have comes from the Lord and belongs to our neighbors.
The Didache professes an economic stance that reflects the consistent message of both the Old and New Testaments. God’s people are to be generous and selfless. We are to seek economic relationships with one another that emphasize giving rather than receiving, that places the common good above personal profits. We should avoid, as much as possible, participating in or promoting economic systems that exploit the poor, and we should reject the notion of private property. That is the economy of the Way of Life.
In contrast to the Way of Life, which is characterized by generosity, humility, and selflessness, the Didache declares that the Way of Death is characterized by self-will and avarice, among many other sins, and is walked by those
who persecute good men, hold truth in abhorrence, and love falsehood; who do not know of the rewards of righteousness, nor adhere to what is good, nor to just judgement; who lie awake planning wickedness rather than well-doing. Gentleness and patience are beyond their conception; they care for nothing good or useful, and are bent only on their own advantage, without pity for the poor or feeling for the distressed. Knowledge of their Creator is not in them; they make away with their infants and deface God’s image; they turn away the needy and oppress the afflicted; they aid and abet the rich but arbitrarily condemn the poor; they are utterly and altogether sunk into inequity.
Those who lack charity and generosity are soundly condemned. Those who ignore the plight of the poor and suffering, but who aid the rich and seek their own material benefit are “altogether sunk into inequity” and do not know God, no matter how much they might profess Him with their lips (cf. Luke 6:46-49). Every day we can see those who walk the Way of Death in America. They cut funding for food stamps and welfare. They seek to evict the homeless from their cities rather than helping to provide them with basic necessities. They pass beggars on the street and give them nothing because they think to themselves, “They’ll only spend it on drugs or booze.” They lay in bed plotting their next corporate merger or how much the next round of layoffs will line the pockets of their stock holders. These are the Godless and the condemned. Let us not choose their way, but the way of Christ, the Way of Life.