Q: Archbishop J, why almsgiving?
The tradition teaches us that almsgiving covers a multitude of sins. Does this mean we can sin all we want, then give alms, and it is okay; that somehow our salvation is dependent on, or tied to, our human works? Or is there another relationship between almsgiving and salvation that we need to see and explore?
Our Lenten practice of prayer, fasting and almsgiving finds its foundation in the Ash Wednesday reading of St Matthew’s Gospel: “So when you give alms, do not have it trumpeted before you; this is what the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets to win men’s admiration. I tell you solemnly, they have had their reward. But when you give alms, your left hand must not know what your right is doing; your almsgiving must be secret, and your Father who sees all that is done in secret will reward you” (Mt 6: 2–4).
Uppermost in Jesus’ mind is the secrecy of the act of almsgiving. It is a matter between you, God, and the needy person. This is vital because of the dignity of the person receiving alms.
Our giving should not be used as a badge of honour or as a poster for all the good works we do. Our only reward is from God. The push here is for us to give a pure act of love to the person and to God. This is a call to check the ego and enter humbly into this space where two humans who are equal in God’s eyes meet and have a meaningful exchange.
Leviticus 19:18 counselled that you must love your neighbour as yourself. This imposed on Israel a great burden for love and care for the needy. Deuteronomy 15:4,11 proposes that care for the poor is vital for the people to fulfil the law. This is qualified by care for those who are Israelites, not for the foreigner.
Tobit 4:7–9 says: “Give alms from your possessions to all who live uprightly, and do not let your eye begrudge the gift when you make it. Do not turn your face away from any poor man, and the face of God will not be turned away from you. If you have many possessions, make your gift from them in proportion; if few, do not be afraid to give according to the little you have. So, you will be laying up a good treasure for yourself against the day of necessity.”
This text is very practical: You need to give alms! Our treatment of the poor is directly connected to our spirituality and our relationship with God. Our giving alms is about our spiritual health.
Jesus in His teaching on wealth says: For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also (Mt 6:21). Here we get a peek into the heart of the tradition.
If we value our treasure more than we value the person who is poor, then we are not seeing as God sees: our value system is corrupted and disfigured.
“Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen,” says 1 John 4:20.
Our love for God and our love of neighbour are inseparably tied. If I love my neighbour as I love myself, then I must give food to the hungry and drink to the thirsty, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked and visit the sick and prisoner (Mt 25: 35,36).
The Catholic Dictionary defines almsgiving this way: “Any of the corporal works of mercy undertaken from motives of charity for the relief of our neighbour’s necessity may be called almsgiving.” The dictionary goes on to say that this obligation extends to everyone regardless of race, religion, or circumstance.
To the forms of charity found in Matthew 25, the Catholic tradition adds “burying the dead” to give us the seven corporal works of mercy. To perform these is an obligation for every Catholic, to the extent they can.
Again, it is inseparably tied to our devotion to God. This is not philanthropy done for the motives of being helpful, this is charity done to live more deeply our vocation as a Christian and deepen our relationship with Jesus Christ.
Acts 2:42 speaks of the four devotions of the early Church: Teaching of the Apostles, fellowship, breaking of the bread and prayer.
Fellowship here covers a very wide concept. The Greek word is koinonia which is the friendship and relationship between Christians. This extends to charity with all people. There is an obligation to help the needy when we meet them.
This notion of charity was so profound that the early Church institutionalised charity in its official ministry when deacons were called forth to wait on tables (Acts 6:1ff), so connecting them directly to the ministry of charity.
The early Church view was radical: you gave up all your possessions and everyone had what was needed (Acts 2:42–45).
When St Paul was taking a collection for the Church in Jerusalem his instruction was clear: “Let each one do just as he has purposed in his heart, not grudgingly or under compulsion; for God loves a cheerful giver” (2 Cor 9:7).
There is no obligation, but each one is invited to have a conversation with God about his or her response and then give accordingly.
St Paul also challenged the Corinthians to a giving that is sacrificial, giving till it hurts (2 Cor 8:1–5).
We are also instructed to give expectantly in 2 Corinthians 9:6, “Now this I say, he who sows sparingly shall also reap sparingly; and he who sows bountifully shall also reap bountifully.”
For the early Church, almsgiving was an essential part of their religious observance, their devotion to God. It needs to be part of our daily practice of faith.
As a family, discuss almsgiving and choose to make a Lenten sacrifice for the sake of a needy person, a family or charity. Involve the whole family.