Charity Begins at Home

Original Date: 
Sunday, August 19, 2018

1 Timothy 5:3-8 Christianisms: Charity Begins at Home

Foreign Aid?
On Tuesday, January 12, 2010, at approximately 4:53 in the afternoon local time, an earthquake struck the southwest part of Haiti. The earthquake measured 7.0 on the Richter scale, and its epicenter was just 16 miles away from Haiti’s capital and most populous city: Port-Au-Prince. It is estimated that three million people lived within the area affected by the quake.

The devastation was immense. Haiti’s history of impoverishment meant that many of the people affected by the quake lived in substandard housing. The Haitian government estimated that 250,000 residences and 30,000 commercial buildings collapsed or were severely damaged.

Accurate casualty numbers are hard to obtain, and estimates vary widely, but no matter which number you look at it is terrible. A University of Michigan study put the death toll, in the first six weeks after the quake, at 160,000. The Haitian government, at the one-year anniversary of the quake, said the death toll was 316,000. Regardless of the actual number, it was overwhelming and it was necessary to bury many of those who died in mass graves.

The international response to the quake was an outpouring of support and financial aid. In the immediate aftermath the Port-Au-Prince airport became a logistical nightmare as so many planes were attempting to fly supplies in. International governments pledged large sums of money and government and non-government organizations sent large delegations of workers. The United States government alone pledged $906 million dollars and sent a large contingent of military personnel.

In the years following the earthquake, however, questions have been raised as to where exactly all that money went, and who it actually helped. In 2013, three years after the quake, it was reported that only about 1/3 of the $900 million that was promised had actually been spent. Of that $300 million, the largest single recipient was the U.S. government itself, which reimbursed itself for the cost of sending in military personnel. The U.S. also awarded a large amount of money to contractors, only about 2.5% of which went to Haitian companies. Nearly 40% of the money given to contractors, on the other hand, went to companies based in the Washington, DC area. (Seven Places Where Haiti’s Earthquake Money Did and Did Not Go, by Bill Quigley and Amber Ramanauskas, Jan. 27, 2015

Moreover, one of the biggest “in kind” donations the U.S. made to Haiti were bags of rice and other grains bought at heavily subsidized prices from U.S. suppliers. This made a tidy profit for the American producers; but had the effect of undercutting Haitian farmers. One of the biggest investments the U.S. made in Haiti following the quake was some $224 million to create an industrial park in the north part of the country, well outside the quake zone. This industrial park is intended to house low-wage garment factories, which will help American retailers sell shoes and apparel at a higher profit margin. (Jonathan M. Katz, Disaster Aid: How US charity begins at home. Jan. 11, 2013

In other words, those who benefitted the most from U.S. aid for one of the worst natural disasters in the Western Hemisphere in the last century were the U.S. military, U.S. contractors, U.S. rice growers, and U.S. big box stores.

I found this story online at with a headline that read: “Disaster Aid: How US charity begins at home.” And, really, when you think about it, this is about the most literal application of that proverb that you can imagine: making sure that your spending for international aid leads to profits for your own national interests.

The Series
We are in the midst of a sermon series I have entitled Christianisms. The idea is that we are taking common phrases that are often heard in Christian circles—things that get quoted so often that you almost think they must come from the Bible—but which are not actually Biblical. And we’re examining these phrases to see where they come from, how they can be misleading, and whether there is deeper Biblical truth that we should hold on to instead.

And the phrase I picked for this week is: “Charity begins at home.”

Now, I should tell you, when I first conceived of this series almost 20 years ago, this is one of the first phrases I thought of. It’s a phrase that has always stuck in my craw a little bit. It probably stems from a board meeting I was involved in—not here—where we were trying to set our missions budget. One of the other board members started to complain that we were spending too much money outside of our organization. His reasoning was that we couldn’t be sure how the money we gave away was being spent, or even if the people receiving it really needed it. Besides, he said, wouldn’t it be better to spend the money we raised on our own organization? And then he said it: Doesn’t charity begin at home?

It seems to me, most of the time that I hear the phrase, that’s the context: we should keep the money we have to meet our needs and the needs of those in our immediate circle before we worry about helping faceless strangers in another community or country. Most of the time I hear the phrase, it is as a justification for not being generous.

I actually thought this was going to be an easy phrase to tear apart and tell us all to cut out of our vocabularies.

But as I really started to dig into it, I discovered this phrase has a lot more going for it than I first gave it credit for. In fact, two weeks ago I told you that “Everything happens for a reason” was the closest to being Biblical of all the phrases we would look at. But now, I’d like to revise that. We’re about to find out that “Charity begins at home” is very close to being a Biblical idea, and when used correctly this phrase can be very helpful and beautiful.

As we have through most of the series, we’re going to follow an outline of asking three questions. I’m going to ask about this phrase: 1) Is there Biblical truth? 2) What is wrong with the statement? And 3) Is there better news in the gospel?

Putting Your Religion Into Practice at Home
Let’s start with he first question: Is there Biblical truth? Is the idea of charity begins at home taught in the Bible? The passage we need to look at here is 1 Timothy 5:3-8.

3 Give proper recognition to those widows who are really in need. 4 But if a widow has children or grandchildren, these should learn first of all to put their religion into practice by caring for their own family and so repaying their parents and grandparents, for this is pleasing to God.5 The widow who is really in need and left all alone puts her hope in God and continues night and day to pray and to ask God for help. 6 But the widow who lives for pleasure is dead even while she lives. 7 Give the people these instructions, so that no one may be open to blame.8 Anyone who does not provide for their relatives, and especially for their own household, has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.

This passage is about caring for widows.

Now, we need to recognize that widowhood in the world of the Bible was about more than being grief stricken over the death of a husband, as terrible as that is. The time in which the Bible was written was not great for gender equality, to say the least. Women rarely worked outside of the home. They didn’t manage property or farm the land. They had very little legal standing in judicial matters. In other words, they had very little economic agency of their own.

I’m not saying this was right, it wasn’t. And the Bible is actually very progressive in the ways that it defends the rights of women. But that doesn’t mean it was easy to be an adult, single, female. And so, not only were widowed women in mourning over the death of their husbands, they were also in financial peril.

Widows are often mentioned in the Bible as special recipients of God’s love and favor. There are something like 80 references to widows in the Bible. Psalm 68:5 says God is “a father to the fatherless, a defender of widows.” Israelites in the Old Testament and Christians in the New Testament are told to have a special charitable concern for widows. That’s what this passage in 1 Timothy is about.

But notice, it starts with an interesting phrase: Paul talks about “those widows who are really in need.” He’s not talking about widows who are especially impoverished, like there is a certain income level they must fall below in order to be considered in need. Rather, the next verse explains what he means. A widow who is really in need is a widow who has no immediate family to support or care for her. These are the widows that the church should go out of its way to help, support and provide for.

But those widows who have living children and grandchildren? Those widows should not need the church’s support because their children and grandchildren should—verse 4--“put their religion into practice by caring for their own family and so repaying their parents and grandparents.” A widow with living children should not be in need because those children will step in to take care of her. Children and grandchildren who refuse to provide for these needs—and instead expect the church to do so—are denying their duty and displeasing God.

Verse 5, then, goes back to the widow who has no such immediate family. She is the widow who is really in need, and thus she is dependent on God to provide. By extension, Paul is saying that she is the one the church should care for.

Verse 8, then, wraps up this paragraph with a general principle:

8 Anyone who does not provide for their relatives, and especially for their own household, has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.

Here is where we can see the Biblical foundation for the phrase “charity begins at home.” What business do we have caring for orphans and widows across the globe, or even right across the street, if we do not provide for the relatives in our own homes? In fact, Paul says, even people who do not believe in Jesus know enough to care for their own relatives. So if Christians refuse to care for their own family, they are denying the faith.

Jesus makes a very similar point in Matthew 15 when He takes the Pharisees to task for some of their small-print religious rules. Apparently, the Pharisees had invented a rule that said any property you devoted to God was set apart and thus not subject to any other law. And so they made a big deal out saying this property or that was dedicated to God—even while they continued to use it—and thus they were unable to use it to care for their elderly parents. Jesus puts it like this:

4 For God said, ‘Honor your father and mother’ and ‘Anyone who curses their father or mother is to be put to death.’5 But you say that if anyone declares that what might have been used to help their father or mother is ‘devoted to God,’ 6 they are not to ‘honor their father or mother’ with it. Thus you nullify the word of God for the sake of your tradition. 7 You hypocrites! (Matthew 15:4-7)

Neglecting your own family out of some sort of religious devotion does not impress Jesus. I take this to mean that giving generously to missions and charities while your own immediate family is uncared for is not seen as an act of selfless worship, but as an act of selfish hypocrisy.

The Bible definitely teaches that we have an obligation to provide for our own families. We can argue if that kind of help fits into the modern definition of the word “charity,” but in this sense “charity begins at home” is a Biblical idea.

If Charity Begins at Home, Does it Stop There Also?
Now, let’s turn to the second question: What’s wrong with this phrase? Even though the phrase “Charity begins at home” is not a strict Bible quote, we can see where the idea is taught in the Bible. Is there anything wrong, then, with us using this phrase?

Here’s where I want to go back to the context in which I so often hear the phrase uttered. In my experience, the problem comes when we use this phrase to justify our decision to not be charitable outside of our homes. When we use the phrase “charity begins at home” we are often implying that it ends there as well. The impression is that because our need to provide for our own is so great, we couldn’t possibly afford to give to anyone else.

I see at least three things wrong with this kind of thinking:

1) It is selfish.

Philippians 2:3-4 says:

3 Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, 4 not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.

Let’s face it: when we use this phrase to justify a decision to not support a cause or a need, what we are really saying is that we would rather spend the money on ourselves than on someone else. More often than not, it is not because we have a widowed mother to care for or a new foster child to provide for, but because we are hoping to buy a new TV for the den or want to go out for supper on Friday night.

We also need to be careful about creating a false equivalence between our personal wants and the needs of the poor. There is a qualitative difference between many of the wants and needs of the average American family and that of the average Haitian family. That doesn’t necessarily mean that we need to impoverish ourselves to the same level as a Haitian family in an effort to improve their situation, but it certainly shows the superficiality of saying that “charity begins at home.”

2) It treats compassion as a zero-sum game.

A zero-sum game implies that if I win, you have to lose. It implies that the scales must always be in balance. So, when I use the phrase “charity begins at home” to justify a decision not to give money, I am implying that if I show concern in one area, I have that much less concern to show in another area. It treats compassion like a finite resource.

But compassion should not be a finite resource. Just because I care about one issue—like, say, feeding hungry school children in Spencer—that doesn’t mean I cannot also care about another issue—like, say, feeding hungry school children in Haiti. We need to stop assuming that standing up for one cause means you don’t care about any others.

1 Thessalonians 3:12 says:

12 May the Lord make your love increase and overflow for each other and for everyone else, just as ours does for you.

When you start to show love, you find it is something that never runs out.

3) It creates a “leftover” mindset for our giving.

The other big problem I see with the way we so often use the phrase “charity begins at home” is that it leaves us thinking that we give away what is left over after everything else is paid for. Under this mindset, we tell ourselves that first we’ll pay the mortgage or rent, then we’ll buy groceries, then we’ll make the car payment, then we’ll buy some clothes for the kids, then we’ll buy something nice for ourselves, then we’ll put some money in savings, then we’ll go out for a little entertainment and then, and only then, if there is anything left over, we’ll give some money to the church or to charity.

The problem with this mindset is that when we get to the end of the month, we often find there is very little left over.

This is one of the reasons the Bible uses the concept of firstfruits when it talks about giving. Proverbs 3:9 says:

9 Honor the Lord with your wealth,
with the firstfruits of all your crops;

The idea is that we should make our giving plan first, and fit all of our other obligations and goals around that plan. Similarly, when it comes to our volunteer time or other involvement in charity, if we only wait until we have free time to get involved we might just find it never happens.

Using the phrase “charity begins at home” does not justify bringing our leftovers to God.

Those are some of the things that are wrong with he way we commonly use the phrase “Charity begins at home.” It reveals our selfishness, it treats compassion like a limited resource, and creates a “leftovers” mindset for our giving.

Looking Out for the Stranger
Now, third question: Is there better news in the gospel? Does the Bible give us a better way to think about charity?

The gospel story, of course, is all about the selflessness of Jesus in giving up His privileges as the Son of God in order to sacrifice Himself for us. He did this not just for His immediate circle of family, but for love of the whole world. In fact, in the Philippians passage I quoted earlier about doing nothing out of selfish ambition, when the Apostle Paul needs an illustration of what that looks like, he tells the story of Jesus, who, though He was in very nature God, made himself nothing and took on the nature of a servant. (Phil. 2:5-11)

Earlier this year we spent several weeks in 2 Corinthians 8 and 9. That passage contains one of the best summaries of the gospel of Jesus, and it puts it in terms of giving and sacrifice. 2 Corinthians 8:9:

9 For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich.

The good news of the gospel is the story of Jesus sacrificing for us. And thus, as those who follow Him, those who are called by His name, we are also called to sacrifice. Not just for those within our own home, but also for those in need both near and far.

Here are some Bible verses which call us to have compassion, even for those we do not know. Proverbs 19:17:

17 Whoever is kind to the poor lends to the Lord,
and he will reward them for what they have done.

Isaiah 58:6 & 7, and verse 10:

6 “Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:
to loose the chains of injustice
and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free
and break every yoke?
7 Is it not to share your food with the hungry
and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—
when you see the naked, to clothe them,
and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?
10 and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry
and satisfy the needs of the oppressed,
then your light will rise in the darkness,
and your night will become like the noonday.

And Matthew 25:35:

37 “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink?38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’
40 “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’

As Christians, we are called to be involved in charity that is far-reaching and generous. Just as Jesus sacrificed a great deal for us, so we are called to be sacrificial in our care for the poor, the hungry, the oppressed, and the stranger.

Finally, let’s go back the phrase itself: “Charity begins at home.” We can see that there is Biblical backing for the idea that Christians have a moral and ethical obligation to care for their own families. We can also see that the way we often use the phrase—as a justification for not being generous—runs counter to the gospel of Jesus.

But let’s look a little more carefully at the phrase and consider if we really understand what it is saying. As I studied it this week, I learned that a good case can be made that the phrase does not mean that home is the place where our resources should first be spent; so much as home is the place where charity should be learned. In other words: “charity begins at home” means that the practice of charity is first learned in the home.

Part of this stems from the fact that the meaning of the word “charity” has shifted over time. This proverb, in English, is actually quite old, and can be traced back to the days before Shakespeare. You may be aware that in the King James Version of the Bible—which comes from Shakespearian times—the preferred translation for the word “agape,” which describes God’s love, is “charity.” Thus, in the King James Version, the Bible’s famous love chapter, 1 Corinthians 13, is all about “charity.” “Faith, hope and charity… But the greatest of these is charity.” More than a word that describes giving to the poor, it is a word that describes selfless acts of love.

With that in mind, a better way of expressing what this proverb originally meant would be “love begins at home;” meaning that, ideally, we learn love—and the practice of charitable giving—within our families so that we can exercise it with others outside of the home.

The point being, when people first started saying "charity begins at home," what they were trying to get across was that being a loving person in the home leads to being a loving person out in the world. It’s really an instruction about how to be more generous, which is kind of the opposite of the way it's used today as a warning against being too generous.

Now, allow me to wrap up with two quick points of application:

First, be generous in your family.

The home is the first place where we should be generous and giving. As tempting as it might be to say that we must pinch pennies at every point in order to give more away, there is something to be said for being liberal with our spouse and children and grandchildren. This is not the same as saying that we should indulge our personal comforts, but rather that we should forgo them for the sake of demonstrating care and concern and love for our family.

One of the ways that we demonstrate the lavish and generous love of God our Father is by showing lavish and generous love to our children. One of the best ways for them to learn about His generous love to them is when they see it in their parents. Generosity with our kids is one of the main ways that we can create kids who are generous.

Blogger David Mathis writes:

In our sin, we’re prone to cut ourselves financial slack while tightening the purse strings on others, sometimes especially those in our own household. But the gospel turns that on its head. When funds are limited, our inclinations should be to deprive ourselves in order to be generous toward others, especially those under our own roof. (

And then, second, teach your family to be generous.

If the meaning of the phrase “charity begins at home” is that charity is learned at home, then we must teach our children to be generous. Volunteer. Get them to volunteer. Find charities that you want to support financially and let them know that you are doing it. Find a way that they can contribute as well. Bring cookies to an ailing neighbor, and bring your kids along. Talk about your family plan for giving and explain to them why you do it.

Randy Alcorn writes:

We should be raising up a generation of givers, not keepers. But the next generation is growing up amid—and inheriting—vast wealth. They have no tradition of giving, no vision for investing in eternity, no sense that God’s purpose for prospering them is not so they can live in luxury, but so they can help their churches, aid the poor, and reach the lost. (Money, Possessions, and Eternity, p. 391)

Charity begins at home. That doesn’t mean spend only on yourself and those closest to you. It means that the practice of charity, and the mindset of generosity, is only going to happen if it is learned in our homes first.