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The Advent of Modern Almsgiving

By Todd Madigan

There was a certain rich man who was clothed in purple and fine linen and fared sumptuously every day. But there was a certain beggar named Lazarus, full of sores, who was laid at his gate, desiring to be fed with the crumbs which fell from the rich man’s table. Moreover, the dogs came and licked his sores (Luke 16:19-21).

Although his suit is no longer likely to be purple, everything else in this passage depicts a scene that is re-enacted each day throughout our society. The elderly wander alone through our cities eating from garbage dumpsters; the sick and homeless languish uncared for on our sidewalks; children sleep cold and frightened in parked cars; and all the while life for the rest of us goes on. We live in a prosperous nation, yet poverty is all around us. And those who like Lazarus are bent beneath the burden of indigence call out to us for a response.

But today, especially during Advent, the call to give alms is just as likely to come from a heart-wrenching T.V. ad, an email blast, a plastic box at a cash register, or a guy in a red suit ringing a bell outside a department store. With the rise of public benefit corporations—hospitals, schools, soup kitchens, clothes closets—giving alms has become increasingly associated with giving to charity. And with this shift in emphasis toward institutional giving (and institutional fund raising) the perspective through which we approach almsgiving has been transformed.

There are several points to make about almsgiving in the modern world, almsgiving viewed as an act of charity. And these points have much to commend them.

First, giving to charity is optional. It is at our sole discretion as to when, where, or even whether to give. To compel people to give charitably would hardly be charity at all. It would be taxation—or worse.

Second, the virtue of giving to charity is divorced from the amount given. In other words, it’s the thought that counts. Although this is the way we generally talk, we also know that in reality especially large gifts are accorded unique status. Buildings are named after the givers of sizable contributions, platinum membership is noted in newsletters, special banquets are thrown for those who exhibit considerable largesse.

Third, giving to charity focuses on the need of the other. When we give to charity, we recognize a need in the life of another and set about meeting that need.

While these points seem just and right, there is another way to view almsgiving—a perspective rather at odds with the charity model.

Then he said to the multitudes that came out to be baptized by him, “Brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath to come? Therefore bear fruits worthy of repentance, and do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I say to you that God is able to raise up children to Abraham from these stones. And even now the ax is laid to the root of the trees. Therefore every tree which does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”

He answered and said to them, “He who has two tunics should give to him who has none; and he who has food, let him do likewise” (Luke 3:7-11).

So the people asked him, saying, “What shall we do then?”

As John the Forerunner preached his call to repentance, we see that giving alms was chief among its fruits. To those of us in the twenty-first century this is a peculiar way to think of almsgiving, for the implication—if we are being asked to repent—is that we have been engaged in some particular sin. But what sin? Of what are we repenting when we give alms? This is what Saint John Chrysostom had to say:

The rich usually imagine that, if they do not physically rob the poor, they are committing no sin. But the sin of the rich consists in not sharing their wealth with the poor. In fact, the rich person who keeps all his wealth for himself is committing a form of robbery.

These are challenging words. But after all, they are addressed to the rich, are they not? Indeed. And who are the rich? Our instinct might be to imagine that they are simply those who have more than us, but this temptation should probably be resisted in favor of a different metric. Most of us live lives of modest comfort, but the testimony of Saint Basil the Great is anything but comforting in this matter.

The bread which you do not use is the bread of the hungry. The garment hanging in your wardrobe is the garment of the one who is naked. The shoes you do not wear are the shoes of one who is barefoot. The money you keep locked away is the money of the poor.

If we begin to suspect that almsgiving might be more appropriately viewed though the lens of repentance, then we might have to challenge the perspective that the amount we give in alms is immaterial. This point is illustrated through the following incident:

And He looked up and saw the rich putting their gifts into the treasury, and He saw also a certain poor widow putting in two mites. So He said, “Truly I say to you that this poor widow has put in more than all: for all these out of their abundance have put in offerings for God, but she out of her poverty put in all the livelihood she had” (Luke 21:1-4).

Why would Jesus say such a thing? Surely the rich gave substantially more than the poor widow. Perhaps it is worth considering that while giving to charity tends to find the gift’s virtue directly proportional to the size of the gift, there exists another paradigm. What if the virtue of our almsgiving lie not in how much we give, but in how little we retain?

Finally, as the emphasis of giving to charity is on the need of the other, it can all-too-easily obscure our own need—our need to love our neighbors as ourselves. When we read the harrowing account of the Son of Man’s judgment of works, we quickly realize that it is we who are in need.

Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?” Then He will answer them, saying, “Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to Me.” And these will go away into everlasting punishment …” (Matthew 25:44-46).

Those in this teaching who failed to give alms, those who failed to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, welcome the stranger, etc., were cast away from the Lord forever. In light of this, it is evident that there exists a mysterious link between our eternal relation to Christ and our relation to almsgiving.

Saint Isaac of Nineveh points out our profound need to give alms when he asks us to “Love the poor that through them you might find mercy.” And Saint Chrysostom reminds us why this is so: “If you want to honor Christ, do it when you see Him naked, in the person of the poor.” This is to say that when we give alms, we are encountering Christ and bestowing on Him a blessing. However, whenever we encounter Christ, it is ultimately we who are blessed.

All this talk of repentance is a sobering, even disconcerting message to hear during Advent, a time when as a people we do our best to focus on the joy of the season. But even this assessment—that the message is a hard one to hear—assumes the viewpoint of those who have more than they need. For those mired in destitution, this message of repentance—and its fruit of giving alms—is truly a most joyous component of the good news that Jesus came to preach to the poor.