When we hear the author of the first letter of Peter speak on “social benefaction” or “good deeds”, we may be tempted to think that this is a new and novel concept for the people of God, but upon further inspection, we would find that such practices are well rooted in the Hebrew Scriptures that codify the story of Israel and serve as the basis for the self-understanding of those that are called out as the people of God, be it Israel or the church. This is not the place to make an exhaustive search of the Scriptures to find this practice of social benefaction concretized, as a minor example should serve admirably. One could consider the detailed examples of the remission of debts that are to be found in the Torah (or Pentateuch), and the practice of the Jubilee, but these would be considered grand examples that might have gone unfulfilled by Israel, held up as unrealized ideals. Jesus, of course, used the language of the Jubilee (the remission of all debts), taken up by Isaiah, as part of His personal introduction that is recorded in the fourth chapter of Luke. If Jesus is informing the people that the Jubilee, at long last, is finally being fulfilled in Him, then it stands to reason that the Jubilee, long expected of His people by God, has gone unobserved for centuries, if ever.
A more minor example, in which nearly all would be able to engage, and which would be instrumental in its application in an era and an area in which one’s daily food was a constant concern and in which debt and debt slavery were extraordinarily pressing and very real problems, would be something like the brother-directed insistence that “You must not lend money at interest and you must not sell him food for profit” (Leviticus 25:37). The need to borrow is here wrapped up with the need to purchase food, so the directive takes aim at capitalizing on misfortune, and doing so in such a way that increases the likelihood that slavery will result. This is not a blanket statement, insisting that it is wrong to sell food or anything else for profit or that it is even necessarily wrong to charge interest, as the prohibition against charging interest is linked to a brother’s ability to obtain the necessities of life. Surely, we can differentiate between charging interest for that which is not wholly necessary, with ideas about that which is wholly necessary complicated by modern day cultures that are bent on acquisition and the portrayal of all things as needs. However, we must note that in this section of Leviticus, the prohibition is provided context by “If your brother becomes impoverished and is indebted to you, you must support him… Do not take interest or profit from him, but you must fear your God and your brother must live with you” (25:35a,36). This does not deny that some would be wealthier than others, nor does it offer up a value judgment on the mere fact or presence of wealth (defined as the excess of what is needed), but it does have an underlying message that God’s people are to be conscientious of the plight of their brothers and to be ready to have their hand out to make ready assistance, though this is a matter for another dissertation.
It would be far easier, in a manner of speaking, for Christians of the first century (and for Christians of the twenty-first century who live outside of the remarkably affluent western world) to relate to these words from Leviticus, and to engage in such activity as part of their call to be benefactors for their communities. Imagine what would be stirred by a person, in the marketplace during times of scarcity and need, who, seeing all as brothers and potential brothers within the always advancing kingdom of God, sold his food at no profit to himself. What if that person, acting counter to the supply and demand equation in that time of scarcity, which would naturally see prices for scarce items rise, actually began selling sustenance items at below his own cost, so as to bring down the cost? What if that person did so as an obvious sacrifice on his or her part, and did so as a conscientious actor for the kingdom of God? Would that not be a monumental display of costly love? Would that not be living out the cross? Would that not be the power of the resurrection and the Gospel at work? Again, this is not meant to be applied at all times, as it is unsustainable in practice, but it does inform the body of Christ of its need to engage with the world at multiple levels, as the kingdom of God invades every aspect of life, never saying “I go here and no further.”
At the same time, all of these considerations serve to remind us just how important a role food and considerations about food played in the ancient world (and in many parts of the world today), in which gaining one’s sustenance is actually the primary, daily concern. When work is engaged upon primarily to obtain food for self and family, and secondarily to meet the remainder of life’s basic needs, it is not difficult to assert that a divergent set of priorities will be in effect. Little wonder then, that the church’s meal table, open to all and for all to share equally, with the wealthier and more well-to-do providing for all while sharing equally with all with no expectation of receiving honor for the provision (ideally), was a table that served to draw people in, while also being ripe for corruption and a new and more insidious form of oppression, whether wantonly or through neglect, by ingrained social forces and sensibilities. Little wonder then, that the stories of Jesus’ miraculous feedings, with enough for all and to spare, with all sharing equally at the hand of the One that represents the church (and that the church represents), gained such prominence in the community that called Jesus Lord and for whom the meal table was a prominent feature.