One of the chief concerns of the Shepherd of Hermas24 is neglect of community and personal responsibility to the poor by the irresponsible wealthy. The neglect is both of the common charity funds and of private patronage for poverty relief. The riches of the wealthy are a severe hindrance to them (Vis. 1.1.8; 3.6.5-7; Mand. 8.3, 10; 12.2.1; Sim. 8.9.1; 9.20.1-4; 9.30.4-5; 31.2) and lead them to neglect the poor (Vis. 3.9.3-6; Sim. 9.26.2). Rather, they should give with simplicity to all those in need (Mand. 2.4; Sim. 1.8-11). The second Similitude likens the relationship of rich and poor to a common method of viticulture in ancient central Italy, in which the small Atinian elm tree is trimmed flat on top and forced to grow horizontally so that grape vines planted at its base can be supported on its branches. The fruitless elm which supports the fruit-bearing vine is like wealthy benefactors whose intercessory prayer is not as effective as that of the poor, those who depend on them for material survival and who, because of their position, have the ear of God when they pray.
Tertullian gives quite a bit of detail about the common fund of charity collected in the church of Carthage in his day. A monthly voluntary offering from everyone goes not towards common banquets, as was customary in the burial clubs and trade guilds ofthe time, but to the feeding and decent burial of the poor, to the support of boys and girls without parents or property (oddly, he does not mention widows), for old domestic slaves presumably abandoned by their owners, for shipwrecked sailors, and for those in prisons or condemned to the mines, or in exile on an island for the sake of their Christian identity (Apol. 39.5-6). Here is a treasure of information about Christian charitable enterprises. We would like to know if those abandoned slaves and shipwrecked sailors were all Christians; probably they were. The common funds of charity were undoubtedly intended for members of the community only, and were in fact one of the attractive things about Christianity. Tertullian goes on to quote the familiar saying about Christians: 'See how they love one another' and 'See how they are ready to die for one another' (39.7).
The Apostolic tradition gives us a glimpse not of a common fund, but of private patronage to widows and others. Anyone who has been given a gift for a widow, sick person or someone dependent on the church must deliver it the same day; if not, the next day with something of one's own added to it, a penalty for having kept what belongs to the poor (29B (24)). Private patrons give meals for widows in their homes, which must be done in a respectable manner and concluded before evening. Alternately, one who cannot receive
24 Osiek, Rich andpoor in the Shepherd of Hermas; as well as Shepherd of Hermas: acommentary.
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