by Piet Coetzer

Where does charity begin?

Or when did charity begin at home?

Final word - Charity

A recent newspaper editorial, referring to vast business networks established by senior political leaders, claimed that this apparent attitude of 'charity begins at home', is a threat to our democracy. This attitude, and its dangers, is not only found with senior, and lesser political leaders such as Julius Malema. It was also evident in recent developments on the labour front in the gap that has developed between trade union leaders and ordinary workers. 

Where does this notion, and the proverb that encapsulates it, originate?

A number of sources we consulted claim that its roots can be traced back to the Bible. None, however, offer any direct quotation from the Bible and only a few make use of deductions from some Bible verses. A typical example is the website Bible or not where the argument is made that while the expression is 'not verbatim' from the Bible, the concept definitely is. Furthermore, those who are most quoted as saying ‘charity begins at home’ were well read in the Scriptures. 

We see in the first letter of Paul to Timothy,“But if any widow has children or nephews, let them learn first to shew piety at home, and to requite their parents: for that is good and acceptable before God." 1 Timothy 5:4 KJV.

According to Wikipedia Answers, the phrase, as we know it today, was first recorded in English in slightly different form in John Wycliffe's Of Prelates (1380); "Charity should begin at himself."

Some 500 years later author Charles Dickens coined the phrase “Charity begins at home, and justice begins next door”.

Stuart and Doris Flexner’s 1993 book, with its extraordinary long title, Wise Words and Wives' Tales: The Origins, Meanings and Time-Honored Wisdom of Proverbs and Folk Sayings Olde and New, references the proverb to the Muslim Sunnah from around the year 800. This states: "A man's first charity should be to his own family, if poor."

Yet more sources attribute the modern form of the proverb to Sir Thomas Browne, an English physician, writer and theologian from the 17th century. Browne wrote in 1642 that “Charity begins at home, is the voice of the world".

In fact the full quote from Browne’s book Religio Medici, in which he attempted to bring together science and religion, reads: "But how shall we expect charity towards others, when we are uncharitable to ourselves? 'Charity begins at home' is the voice of the world; yet is every man his greatest enemy, and, as it were, his own executioner."

This quote from Browne might not be the very first use of the proverb but, for me at least, it illustrates what has become the slogan of those more fortunate in life, who choose to look the other way when confronted by the plight of those in need of charity.

This attitude is well underscored by a delightful story I found in Morris Mandel’s 1974 book A complete Treasury of Stories for Public Speakers. It tells us that there once was a wealthy man who prided himself on being a good and pious Jew. 

Each day he would lead his family in prayer for all the sick and needy in the world. In particular, he prayed that God might help an aged couple who lived near his estate and who were ill as well as poor.

One morning his son asked him whether he ever stopped to visit the unfortunate couple. The father answered that he had not.

The boy said, “Dad, I wish I had your money.”

“Why?” the father asked.

“Because,” the boy said, “then I would answer your prayers.”

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