Monday, February 19, 2007

"When you give alms": Almsgiving in the Bible (An Ash Wednesday Reflection)

Tobit burying the dead
Andrea di Lione (Italian, Neapolitan, 1610–1685)
(photo grab:

Here's an article on the biblical understanding of almsgiving. The text was first written on Ash Wednesday of 2003.

Every Ash Wednesday, through the Gospel reading from Matthew (6:1-6.16-18) the church exhorts us to observe the three traditional Jewish acts of piety namely, almsgiving (vv. 2-4), prayer (vv. 5-15), and fasting (vv.16-18). In Greek, the word,"piety" is dikaiosýnē, its Hebrew translation, sedaqa, means, "justice".

In other words, these traditional acts of piety are also acts of justice. As faithful Jews, Jesus and his disciples could have observed them especially on Yom Kippur ("the Day of Atonement"), an annual Jewish festival celebrated on the 10th day of the 7th month (Lev 16:29; 23:27). It would be interesting to know what the Bible says of almsgiving, prayer, and fasting, so as to guide today’s Christians who, with sincerity to follow the Gospel’s exhortations, would want to observe these three acts of piety especially on Ash Wednesday, the Christian version of Yom Kippur.

In this post, let me deal wth the first, almsgiving.

Almsgiving as charity to the poor is a common practice in the Bible. Every three years, tithes are reserved to the poor (Deut 14:28-29) and at every harvest, some portions are allotted to them (Deut 24:19-22). It is, however, in later books of the Bible (Greek period) that almsgiving becomes one of the principal works of charity (Prov 3:27ff.; Sir 7:10; Dan 4:24). A book in this period, the book of Tobit which has a number of passages on almsgiving so that it can be called “the book of charity” (e.g. Tob 1:3.16; 4:7-8), states that even burying the dead is considered an act of charity (Tob 1:16). Almsgiving became an increasingly valued practice in Hellenistic and rabbinic Judaism. Likewise, the early Christian community gives special importance to almsgiving. The gentile commander of the army, Cornelius (Acts 10:2ff.), and a woman, named Tabitha (Acts 9:36), are known in the community for their acts of charity. Paul speaks of fulfilling the duty of almsgiving in Jerusalem(1 Cor 16:1-3 and Acts 24:17).

Iconography of Tabitah (or Dorcas), a woman
devoted to "good works and acts of charity"
here being raised back to life by Peter
(see Acts 9:36-42)
(photo grab:

The social background of the practice of almsgiving is the increasing number of poor people and the widening gap between the rich and the poor during the Greek period. The obligation incumbent upon the rich to give alms to the poor arises in the context of a culture that considers all goods as limited in supply and already distributed. Anyone with a personal surplus will normally feel shame and/or considered greedy (Lk 12:15) or rapacious if that surplus is not shared with less fortunate "neighbors" (Lk 11:41). Another reason to give alms is to remind the Jews of their humble and poor beginning, " slaves in Egypt", and care for the poor is a concrete gesture of gratitude to God who liberated Israel out of Egyptian bondage (Deut 5:12-15). This two-fold basis of almsgiving can be perceived in the Filipino values of paglingon sa pinanggalingan and pagtanaw ng utang na loob.

The technical word for almsgiving in Greek is poieîn éleēmosýnēn (hence the word, "limos") and it means literally "to do an act of mercy". By doing an act of mercy or almsgiving, the human being performs a divine act inasmuch as one of the attributes of God in the bible is mercy (Exod 34:6; Eph 2:4). It is no wonder then that Jesus exhorts his disciples to practice almsgiving. However, he warns them that almsgiving must not be an act done to draw the attention and admiration of others which is tantamount to a fake and insincere care for the poor.

The warning of Jesus against "blowing a trumpet" provides such scene (Mt 6:2) which is a simple metaphor for broadcasting to the public one's donations. The Jews did not have trumpets announce donation, contrary contrary to what we usually hear in the church from popular preaching. Jesus calls those who act in this way as "hypocrites". The word, hypokritaí originally denotes the Greek stage actors who performed behind their masks. In other words, these people have hidden motives. In the end, they are not giving, but buying. They buy people’s respect and admiration. The Filipino term for this is "pakitang-tao"—one who renders help to others but whose motive is not really to help the person in need but to be praised by others (and gain more votes in the next elections). Social scientists label this religious syndrome as "split-level Christianity".

A shofar made from the horn of a kudu,
in the Yemenite Jewish style
(photo and citation grab: wikipedia)
In contrast, the disciples must give alms in complete secrecy, which is expressed by the hyperbole of the ignorant left hand (v.3). The left hand is probably a metaphor for one’s best friend, as in a contemporary Arabic proverb, implying that even one’s closest friend must not know when one gives alms. The reason is that genuine deeds of justice are done "in secret" where only God, "who sees in secret," which is to say that only God knows the heart (Fil. loob). The twelfth-century Jewish philosopher Maimonides advocated secret almsgiving as the second-highest of his eight levels of "tzedakah."

The good deeds of Christians will of course be seen by others. According to Mt 5:16, the followers of Jesus should let their light shine "before others so that they may see your good works." Although this may seem to be a contradiction, the passage goes on to say: "that they might glorify your Father who is in heaven," which is in bold contrast to the desire of the hypocrites that "they might be glorified by others" (6:2). The basis then for eschatological reward is good deeds done ad maiorem Dei gloriam ("for the greater glory of God").

R. Bultmann, " e'leoj e,lee,w e,leh,mwn e,kehmosu,nh a,ne,leoj a,neleh,mwn " in TDNT II, 477-487.
D. Hagner, Matthew 1-13 (WBC 33A; Dallas, Texas: Word Books, 1993).
J.Pilch – B. Malina (eds.), Handbook of Biblical Social Values (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson, 1998).
J.L. McKenzie, Dictionary of the Bible (NY: Macmillan, 1965).
J. P. Meier, Matthew (New Testament Message 3; Wilmington, Delaware: Michael Glazier, 1980).

1 comment:

doming rayco said...

you seem to have a "scholarly"
bent in your blood! more power.
during my time at DWS-T, we
studied biblical greek under
fr. herman mueller, svd. only 4
of us survived by the grace of god. i admire your ability to put life into these "dead" languages and make them more palatable to lay and religious alike.
keep writing. may the Spirit
continue to inspire you and use
your gift to let the light of the
Word enlighten our hearts so that
Jesus may live there.
doming rayco :-)