Almsgiving has been an important practice in the Christian faith, even though the word is not one often used today. More often, we will talk about “charity” or “outreach” or “service”. While those words certainly describe the Christian value of “loving neighbor as oneself,” enacted in our good works toward neighbor.
However, those terms do not get quite to the heart of the traditional concept of giving alms, passed down from the teachings of Jesus Christ, and rooted in the earliest expressions of the Christian religion.
The concept of almsgiving is a particularly selfless kind of giving, a merciful generosity, an act of pity. Almsgiving is done in private, with no promise of even an indirect reward like the admiration or esteem of others.
At the beginning of the season of Lent, on Ash Wednesday, Christians read the words of Jesus, when he called his followers to practice good works hidden out of sight.
“Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven. ‘So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” (Matthew 6.1-6)
Almsgiving is an act of generosity and kindness to be seen only by God. God gives the only reward, or the only repayment of the debt.
One of the great church fathers, Basil the Great, of the 4th century, taught of the nature of alms like this:
“If you help a poor person in the name of the Lord, you are making a gift and at the same time granting a loan. You are making a gift because you have no expectation of being reimbursed by that poor person. You are granting a loan because the Lord will settle the account. It is not much that the Lord receives by means of the poor, but He will pay a great deal on their behalf. And then quoting from the book of Proverbs: 'They who are kind to the poor lend to the Lord' [Prov. 19:17]"
Mother Theresa used to speak of the poor as “Christ in his distressing disguise.” Jesus himself makes reference to this when he says: “I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’” (Matthew 25:36 RSV) To lend compassion to the naked, the sick, and the imprisoned is to love and have mercy upon our neighbor in an incarnate way – in the flesh – especially to those who most distress us.
Almsgiving expresses the conversion of heart toward our neighbor, while fasting expresses a conversion in relationship with self, and prayer a turning to God.
Christians are challenged, particularly in the season of Lent, to be converted, let by God into purer relationship with self, with God, and with Others. In turning toward others, the practice of giving alms forms us as people of love.
I close with these words, also from Basil the great:
“The bread in your cupboard belongs to the hungry man; the coat hanging unused in your closet belongs to the man who needs it; the shoes rotting in your closet belong to the man who has no shoes; the money which you put in the bank belongs to the poor. You do wrong to everyone you could help, but fail to help.”