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Religious Roots of Service

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No ancient holy book mentions "volunteering" by that name, but every religion in the world encourages charity, service to others, and personal risk for one's beliefs. Here's a brief survey of how various religions preach the essence of the work we do.

Despite technological advances and modern conveniences, life remains basically unpredictable and tenuous, as recent and occurring world events are constantly reminding us. From the beginning, humans had to group together and aid each other simply in order to survive. It is not surprising, therefore, that most of the world's religions address giving, volunteering, and service in one form or another within the context of their particular system of beliefs.

Because there are various words to describe giving aid, comfort, or assistance without expecting monetary compensation, the exploration of the religious roots of service was a bit of a challenge, until I focused on the word "charity," the concept which seemed to be the most universal (though a variation on the theme of volunteering). Interestingly enough, in most religions, "charity" is actually considered an obligation or a duty. Similarly, doing good deeds or performing acts of "charity" is seen as a potent way to assure personal redemption, salvation, or good favor in the eyes of whatever higher power(s) that be. Sounds a bit like the debate over mandatory volunteering, doesn't it?

Beyond a survival strategy, an obligation, and a path to salvation, charitable acts in most societies are seen as moral and ethical - "good" in the most religious sense. This has been true since ancient times.

Ancient Egypt and Pre-Greek Societies

In varying degrees, all societies, even primitive ones, had to have some sort of recourse for their poor and needy. The moral/ethical obligations and rewards seem to have been the same even then. According to the Dictionary of the History of Ideas:

Personal generosity to those in need, especially to strangers, widows, and orphans, was commended or enjoined in the sacred writings and the ethical teachings of pre-Greek civilizations. In some instances the practice of charity was advocated as a personal virtue, in others it was enjoined as a religious duty pleasing in the eyes of the Gods (486-87).

The Encyclopedia of Religion, notes that documents of ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt describe charity "in the sense of social justice" and it was believed to be a divinely decreed principle (222).

Ancient Egyptian society (like most pre-Greek societies) was built around the placating, praising, and appeasing of various deities. So it makes sense that their view of "service" or "charity" was enmeshed with pleasing the gods. "Charity was perceived as an inner disposition toward fellow human beings and as a means of propitiating the gods for the purpose of achieving immortality" (EoR 223). Noted examples of charitable acts recorded in Egyptian documents are: feeding the hungry, giving water to the thirsty, clothing the naked, and providing a boat to one who has none.

Greek and Roman Thought

In ancient Greek society, charity was synonymous with love. In fact, philanthropy is a Greek word meaning "love of mankind." One of the word's first appearances was made in Aeschylus' Prometheus Bound. "Broadly speaking, in Greek thought the word [philanthropy] connoted good citizenship and democratic, humanitarian inclinations" (Dict. 487). Will Durant, author of The Life of Greece, observed: "The well-to-do are generous givers in both public and private philanthropy, the practice as well as the word is Greek" (294).

The Encyclopedia of Religion notes that charity is present in the earliest Greek poetry, drama, and philosophy: "The care of strangers and suppliants was an ethical imperative because such people had been placed under the direct aegis of the divinity. Zeus became known as Xenios, 'protector of strangers' "(223).

Remember Aesop's Fables? Aesop was a Greek who lived around 600 BC. The fables taught moral lessons, including charity and doing good deeds, using animals as characters. Rosalie Baker in Ancient Greeks: Crating the Classical Tradition quotes Aesop as saying " No act of kindness, no matter how small, is ever wasted" (33).

Roman thought on charity and philanthropy did not vary greatly from the Greeks. In Rome there was the alimenta, "measures introduced to assist orphans and poor children." The policy was begun privately, but was later adopted by the government after the reign of Nerva (96-98 AD) (EoR 224).


Jewish thought was influenced by the Egyptian people and other cultures throughout the near east, but based on Hebrew scriptures.

The age old and possibly ubiquitous compassionate impulse to relieve suffering through personal service and the giving of personal substance to the needy, whenever a society developed marked inequalities in possessions, found its most notable exemplification among the ancient Hebrews (Dict. 487).

Jews believe that God's will for humankind was expressed in commandments called mitzvot or mitzvahs, by which individuals are to regulate their lives in interacting with one another and with God. One of the most important mitzvot is called tzedakah. Rabbi Avrohom Chaim Feuer, author of The Tzedakah Treasury, says that:

…the very term tzedakah, which literally means "justice," suggests that this is not merely almsgiving or compassionate benevolence. Tzedakah means equity and balance. It is a reapportionment of resources that realigns the scales of society so that the distance between the "haves" and the "have-nots" is not divided by such a wide chasm (34).

The Encyclopedia Judaica notes that "charity is considered by rabbis of all ages to be one of the cardinal mitzvot (or obligations) of Judaism" (235).

Similarily the Encyclopedia of Judaism states that:

Judaism acknowledges the free will aspect of charity and the extent to which it represents a special act of human kindness. At the same time, at its foundation, Judaism views supporting the needy to be a duty imposed upon each person under the terms of the covenant with God. Unlike secular notions that see in charity only an act of individual free will, under Jewish law, individuals are obligated to provide for the community (51).

This makes sense because, for the Jews under bondage in Egypt, charity and service were no doubt matters of survival not only physically but also of their religion and their faith:

Tanna D'vei Eliyahu states that when the enslaved Jews sought salvation from the terrible Egyptian bondage, they assembled as one and entered a solemn covenant to act kindly and charitably towards one another. The interpersonal compassion between Jews aroused God's compassion for them and He redeemed them from slavery. This is as we read in the Song as the Sea, "with Your kindness You guided this people that You redeemed" (Exodus 15:13).

And from Deuteronomy in the Old Testament:

If there be among you a poor man of one of thy brethren within any of thy gates in thy land which the Lord thy God giveth thee, thou shalt not harden thine heart, nor shut thine hand from thy poor brother: But thou shalt open thine hand wide unto him, and shalt surely lend him sufficient for his need, in that which he wanteth. . .Thou shalt surely give him, and thine heart shall not be grieved when thou givest unto him: because that for this thing the Lord thy God shall bless thee in all thy works, and in all that thou puttest thine hand unto.

In making charity to all needy Jews an obligation (however gladly it was executed), Judaism associated charity and justice. However, as the Dictionary of the History of Ideas notes:

Although the sense of justice was the animating note in the concept of charity, love of one's fellow men as the Children of God was a fervent and even passionately expressed value. . .The idea of righteousness in the interest of ultimate salvation figured only later in Jewish thought (487).

The repeated theme of Egyptians helping Egyptians or Jews helping Jews is not surprising. Unless one helped one's own, one's own could die, which jeopardized as well the survival of one's entire race. "Jewish adherence to the religious duty of charity was reinforced by historical experience as an 'out-group' in need of social cohesion, a need that was to continue through the Middle Ages and modern times"(Dict. 487).

Rabbi Rambam's Eight Levels of Charity state: "The greatest form of charity, which is unsurpassed by any other, is to give a helping hand to a Jew who is on the verge of financial ruin" (Feuer 55). Today we might have broadened our scope a bit, but helping in one's own community, culture, or faith group is still very important to many volunteers. Think how often you've heard people say that they want to "give back to their community."

Tzedakah is truly the most all pervasive and predominant of mitzvots. It is a mitzvah which must be performed at any time of day or night, each and every day of the year, by men and women and children (in training) alike. (Feuer 39)


Christianity has no shortage of exhortations to its followers to practice charity, but:

Christianity emphasized the idea that charity enhances life in this world by bringing the giver into a closer spiritual relationship with God. If acts of charity, including personal service, were not executed for the most lowly and for those in greatest need, then they were not being executed for God (Dict. 488).

The New Testament particularly emphasizes the concept of doing unto others as you'd have done unto you, otherwise known as "The Golden Rule." Other references (New King James version) include:

Blessed are the merciful: for thy shall obtain mercy. Blessed are the peacemakers: for thy shall be called the children of God (Matthew 5:7, 9).

Master, which is the great commandment in the law? Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all they soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment and the second is like unto it, thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets (Matthew 22:36-39).

Once again, giving of money or service was cited as a way to please God, to come closer to being Christ-like, and thereby assured of a place in heaven. "The early commitments to those in need, to the equalization of wealth, and to enhancing the sense of fellowship in the community of believers were regarded as expressions of Christian love" (Dict. 488). In Matthew 25:36-39, Jesus tells his disciples that the most important evidence of their faith will be the record of their care for and service to those most vulnerable or most in need:

For I was hungered, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in: naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me. Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee hungered, and fed thee? Or thirsty, and gave thee drink? Or when we saw thee sick, or in prison, came unto thee? And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.

The bias of Jesus toward the poor and disinherited, as those most apt to receive the message of God's kingdom, and the feeling that wealth endangers the soul, provided an undertone for early Christian precept and practices in the sphere of Christianity (Dict. 488).


Eastern religions such as Hinduism and Buddhism do not view charity as a synonym for love. In fact, though alms-giving is a duty, Hindus and Buddhists also see compassion to one's fellow humans as important, particularly because putting others first is a part of the path to self-enlightenment.

At first, Buddhism was not truly a religion. It was founded by Gautama (BC 563-483), son of a rich Hindu. Buddhism was a system of morality and philosophy which, according to the editor of The Sacred Writings of the World's Great Religions, S.E. Frost, Jr., was: "based on the belief that life was too full of suffering to be worth living" (133). This moral code started to appeal to people of many backgrounds. Gradually, Gautama was deified as the Buddha, or the "Enlightened." People told stories about his life, and what was originally an important system of morals became a religion.

The teachings of the Buddha proclaimed giving as a personal virtue, associated with the virtue of self-restraint. "Buddhist institutionalization of philanthropy became evident in the establishment of hospitals," according to the Dictionary of the History of Ideas (487). In Religions of the World: The Illustrated Guide to Origins, Beliefs, Traditions and Festivals, Elizabeth Breuilly notes of Buddhism that:

According to Buddha's teaching, all pain and suffering is caused by desire and self-centeredness. According to the 7th step of the Eightfold Path, all actions should be performed with mindfulness-attention to thought and action and their effect on other people. Compassion is very important in Buddhist practice: putting others before oneself (87).

The Dhammapada is a sacred book of the sayings of Buddha. It is written in the style of a teacher talking to his students, and sheds some light on charity and service in the Buddhist tradition. The word "liberality" is frequently a synonym for charity.

There is no good deed which brings remorse,
whose reward one receives with tears and lamentation.
But that is the good deed which brings no remorse,
whose reward the doer takes with joy and gladness (Frost 146).

If one does well, let him repeat his well-doing: let him set his heart upon it./Glad is the storing up of good (Frost 147).

Misers go not to the realm of the gods: therefore he is a fool who does not delight in liberality. The wise delighting in liberality come thereby with gladness to the other world (Frost 148).


Hinduism is the oldest living organized religion in the world, with at least a half dozen individual sects. Followers of Hinduism, as Buddhists, also follow various paths (depending on the type of Hinduism) toward spiritual enlightenment. The Path of Karma requires that one perform good works in order to counteract the negative Karma that keeps a person in the cycle of birth and death. In this way, the path of Karma benefits society as well as the individual's spiritual progress (Breuilly 76). "Hindu scripture says giving to the needy, especially to holy men dependent on alms, was an imperative duty, the fulfillment of which also rewarded the donor in a future state of existence" (Dict. 487).

Among the Hindu sacred texts is the Rig-Veda (Veda of Verses). This contains prayers to 70 objects, each serving as a deity, along with affirmation of a high ethical idealism. Again, charity is referred to as "liberality."

X117. To Liberality

The riches of the liberal never waste away, while he who will not give finds none to comfort him. The man with food in store who, when the needy comes in miserable case begging for bread to eat,

Hardens his heart against him-even when of old he did him service-finds not one to comfort him.

Bounteous is he who gives unto the beggar who comes to him in want of food and feeble.

Success attends him in the shout of battle. He makes a friend of him in future troubles (Frost 15-16).

According to Ainslie T. Embree, author of The Hindu Tradition: Readings in Oriental Thought:

The stress in the Vedic hymns on the offering of gifts to the gods as an essential feature of religious experience was generalized to include the concept of the duty of liberality to all who were in need. The motivation for charity is not, therefore, an appeal to compassion based on an understanding of human suffering or of common brotherhood, but rather a recognition of the right of the recipient of a gift to share in the good fortune of the donor (33-34).


In Islamic society, the Muslim community or ummah is the beneficiary of charity. Ummah not only means "community" but also "brotherhood" and "way of life." Within the ummah there is a shared sense of responsibility to care for each other in practical ways, such as by visiting the sick or bereaved, and giving hospitality freely.

Let there arise among you an ummah advocating all that is good, enjoining what is right and forbidding what is wrong. They are the ones to attain peace and prosperity (Koran 3:104).

The Koran is a sacred book avowed to be a direct revelation of God to the Prophet Mohammed. These passages address charity in the Islamic tradition:

"Consume not your wealth among yourselves in vain things" (Frost 313).

"Give freely for the cause of God, and throw not yourselves with your own hand into ruin; and do good, for God loveth those who do good" (Frost 313).

"O ye who believe! bestow alms of the good things which ye have acquired, and of that which we have brought forth for you out of the earth, and choose not the bad for almsgiving" (Frost 314).

"And whatever alms ye shall give, or whatever vow ye shall vow, of a truth God knoweth it: but they who act unjustly shall have no helpers. Give your alms openly? It is well. Do ye conceal them and give them to the poor? This, too, will be of advantage to you, and will do away your sins: and God is cognizant of your actions" (Frost 314).

There are five "Pillars of Faith" in Islam. The fourth pillar is zakat, which confers upon a community of Muslims the right to the surplus wealth of an individual. It is usually calculated at 2.5% and is most often distributed among the needy. In his book, Islam: Its Prophet, Peoples, Politics, and Power, George W. Braswell, Jr. states that zakat in the Koran is associated with practicing regular charity and the gaining of paradise (66). However, many Muslims go over and above the required amount and these gifts are called sadaqat, which comes from a word meaning "true" or "sincere." Almsgiving for the Muslim is a means to repentance and divine forgiveness. It is also a way to reconciliation with the ummah. "You will never attain righteousness until you give freely of what you love" (Surah 3:92).


As expected, each of the major religions I have touched on have some provision in their key writings for showing compassion to others through service or charity, and they all specify doing charitable things as a way to please and become closer to the Deity(ies). When the great writings of each religion were developed they were a daily guide to living and had the effect of law. Over the centuries, therefore, the forces of history and tradition have made the obligations of charity an accepted part of a moral life.

The religious roots of service go deep and are far-reaching because the concepts of charity and service were the building blocks for creating a prosperous, thriving, and safe faith community, and the faith community was the community.

Further, as especially in the case of Buddhism and Hinduism, charitable acts created a thriving spiritual existence for the individual. Perhaps we should begin again to encourage a view of service, volunteerism and charity for the individual as a necessity, almost a duty, without which our towns, cities, and communities would be in jeopardy. What do you think?

Readers: Please share other religious passages relevant to service and charity that you like - or contribute additional information about religious beliefs in this area.
Works Cited

Baker, Rosalie F. and Charles F. Ancient Greeks: Creating the Classical Tradition. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997.

Breuilly, Elizabeth, et al. Religions of the World: The Illustrated Guide to Origins, Beliefs, Traditions, and Festivals. New York: Fernleigh, 1997.

Braswell, George W., Jr. Isam: Its Prophet, Peoples, Politics, and Power. Nashville: Broadman and Holman, 1996.

Dictionary of the History of Ideas. Vol. 3. Charles Scribner's Sons, Publishers, 1973.

Durant, Will. The Life of Greece. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1966.

Eliade, Mircea. The Encyclopedia of Religion. New York: Macmillan, 1987.

Embree, Ainslie T., ed. The Hindu Tradition: Readings in Oriental Thought. New York: Random House, 1972.

Encyclopaedia Judaica. New York: Macmillan, 1972.

Feuer, Rabbi Avrohom Chaim. The Tzedakah Treasury. New York: Mesorah Publications, 2000.

Frost, S.E., Jr., ed. The Sacred Writings of the World's Great Religions. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1972.

Jeavons, Thomas H. When the Bottom Line is Faithfulness: Management of Christian Service Organizations. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994.

Monroe, Charles R., Ph.D. World Religions: An Introduction. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 1995.

Neusner, Jacob, et al. ed., The Encyclopedia of Judaism. Vol. 1. New York: Continuum, 1999.