"To Share Your Bread with the Hungry": Justice or Charity?

Giving to the poor is often described both in modern advocacy and by preachers of the early church as justice, rather than charity. Arguably, this harks back to a biblical tradition that is older than that dominant since the Exile, in which sedaqah simply means ‘alms’ (eleemosune), and hesed ‘compassion’ (eleos). No text likely to be earlier than the 6th cent BCE urges the relief of hunger (etc.) as a duty; they rather reprove the active exploitation of the poor. Alongside this goes a tradition of state action to protect the poor (mishpat usedaqah). But the relief of hunger is urged or praised in post-587 works; and in post-canonical works becomes the main or exclusive expression of sedaqah: hence its change of meaning. (Several passages speak of people ‘eating at the table’ of a ruler or powerful person, i.e. subsisting at their expense. These official ‘meals’ are not examples of justice or even charity, but of patronage.) The change may be explained by the loss of state and community structures resulting from the invasions and the incorporation of Israel and Judah into world empires. Has justice thus been reduced to charity, or is charity actually justice? It is justice, but it is not all that justice requires. For its full implementation political structures are needed. Injustices accumulating in their absence can only be ameliorated by the personal exercise of justice/charity, sharing one’s bread with the hungry.