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Almsgiving and Righteousness



Sedāqâ, the Hebrew word for alms, also means justice or righteousness. So, the Bible translators use almsgiving and righteous acts interchangeably, though righteousness has a wider meaning than almsgiving or acts of mercy. Based on the trend of the time when the rich made a show of their charity, Jesus taught if the motive is public reputation and not kindness towards others, the reward for it is paid off in the self-glory attained. The publicity that others give us in whatever role we play is generally undesirable, motivation behind every action being more important before God.

Almsgiving involves compassion for the less fortunate and a thirst for justice in society. Prosperity or poverty can happen regardless of one’s merits or demerits. But as children of God, humans have to consider each other as siblings and support one another in this world. When we do it in the name of God who is the common Father of all, He will reward us for our good intentions.

The precept of almsgiving and justice developed with the settlement of the Israelites in the Promised Land. Until then, they were a semi-nomadic group without considerable inequalities. God miraculously provided them food and water during the 40 years of their wandering in the desert. After the possession and distribution of the Promised Land among the tribes and families, inequalities grew owing to various reasons. Therefore, God made regulations that required the wealthy to provide for the poor:

1. The hungry could legally eat from another’s field with no guilt – “When you go through your neighbor’s vineyard, you may eat as many grapes as you wish, until you are satisfied, but do not put them in your basket. When you go through your neighbor’s grain-field, you may pluck some of the ears with your hand, but do not put a sickle to your neighbor’s grain” (Deut 23:25-26).

2. The deprived had the privilege of collecting the leftovers after the harvest and from the corners of the grain-fields. “When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not be so thorough that you reap the field to its very edge, nor shall you gather the gleanings of your harvest. Likewise, you shall not pick your vineyard bare, nor gather up the grapes that have fallen. These things you shall leave for the poor and the alien” (Lev 19:9-10).

(3) Once in three years, the Israelites gave tithe for taking care of the Levites and the poor – “At the end of every third year you shall bring out all the tithes of your produce for that year and deposit them within your own communities, that the Levite who has no hereditary portion with you, and also the resident alien, the orphan and the widow within your gates, may come and eat and be satisfied; so that the LORD, your God, may bless you in all that you undertake” (Deut 14:28-29).

(4) During the sabbatical year, the debts were forgiven (Deut 15:1), and the poor could eat from the land that was left uncultivated during the sabbatical year (Ex 23:11).

(5) At every 50th year, the poor who had sold their property could reclaim the same so that equality be maintained. “But if the person does not acquire sufficient means to buy back the land, what was sold shall remain in the possession of the purchaser until the year of the jubilee, when it must be released and returned to the original owner” (Lev 25:28).

God gave these commands because He is the owner of the world and of everything in it. “Look, the heavens, even the highest heavens, belong to the LORD, your God, as well as the earth and everything on it” (Deut 10:14). “The land is mine, and you are but resident aliens and under my authority” (Lev 25:23). We will have to leave all worldly achievements in this world at the end of our lives. “As they came forth from their mother’s womb, so again shall they return, naked as they came, having nothing from their toil to bring with them” (Eccl 5:14). So, Jesus advises that we share the resources of this perishable world for the imperishable savings in heaven (Mk 10:21).

John the Baptist presented sharing resources as a sign of repentance – “Whoever has two tunics should share with the person who has none. And whoever has food should do likewise” (Lk 3:11). Jesus has advised us to love and to help enemies. “Love your enemies and do good to them, and lend expecting nothing back; then your reward will be great and you will be children of the Most High, for He Himself is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked” (Lk 6:35). Jesus and the apostles used to give money to the poor from the little donations they had received (Jn 13:29). John the Apostle taught, “If someone who has worldly means sees a brother in need and refuses him compassion, how can the love of God remain in him? Children, let us love not in word or speech but in deed and truth” (1 Jn 3:17-18).


We shall see almsgiving and righteousness from different angles:

1. Righteousness primarily means doing justice to God and to others. Giving alms from the wealth gained through unfair means or exploitation of others is unjustifiable. “Almsgiving with righteousness is better than wealth with wickedness. It is better to give alms than to store up gold” (Tob 12:8). It is the injustice meted out to the needy and their exploitation by greedy people that constitute the cause of poverty. They need to be restituted after the example of Zacchaeus: “If I have extorted anything from anyone I shall repay it four times over” (Lk 19:8). Such restitution would help to reduce the poverty of the exploited.

2. The donor must respect the dignity of the recipient. God created all humans in His image and likeness. Some became poor by birth, because of their disabilities, sickness, socio- political situations, accidents, or even because of the person’s own fault. When help is offered as a show up, the person’s self-esteem can be hurt. In the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, the affluent person ignored Lazarus and let him feed from his waste bins, competing with wild dogs. He should have treated Lazarus as his brother in a dignified manner.

3. When possible, we have to make the recipient self-reliant. There can be people seeking help without making use of their own resources, like health, skills, and job opportunities. We must provide education, empowerment, skill development, job training, and support for income generation programmes to make a dependent person or family self-supporting. As goes the proverb: “If you give a man a fish, you feed him for a day. If you teach a man to fish, you feed him for a lifetime.”

4. Providing for the necessities of life is not enough for us, humans. People are known to send the elderly, the physically and mentally disabled, or children with special needs to welfare institutions. Their families ought to take care of them in their homes with love and care. Helping such families to support them is better than helping welfare institutions that offer residential programs for those who can well be brought up in their respective families. Social workers would do well to train such families on how to care for the weak with love and respect.

5. While providing emergency relief during accidents, sickness, pandemics, and natural disasters, we have to adopt scientific measures to avoid such catastrophes in the future.

So, almsgiving is not sharing leftovers from our surplus resources, but wholeheartedly sharing for the self-reliant life of the beneficiary as much as possible. Almsgiving can have a negative impact if it does not constitute responsible giving. So, the best approach is helping people in emergencies, motivating them to make use of their available talents and abilities, supporting a person to become self-reliant, developing the self-esteem of the person concerned, and expressing love as a fellow human. The gospel passage doesn’t imply that we have to hide every good deed. Jesus wanted his followers to be the light of the world (Mt 5:14). He said, “Your light must shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your heavenly Father” (Mt 5:16). Jesus also did many good deeds in public because he came as the light of the world (Jn 8:12). However, he tried to avoid publicity by often telling his beneficiaries not to publicize the favors he did for them. So, Jesus cautions us against seeking vainglory in this world for any act of righteousness on our part. Jesus said, “When you have done all you have been commanded, say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have done what we were obliged to do’” (Lk 17:10).

Any act of mercy is meritorious before God, and He will reward every good deed done on behalf of Him. “When you give, give generously and not with a stingy heart; for that, the LORD, your God, will bless you in all your works and undertakings” (Deut 15:10). During Old Testament times, such rewards were expected in this life. According to Jesus, this can be true, but the full and final reward will be in heaven. The Last Judgement is based on our virtuous deeds or our sins of omission in relation to the poor (Mt 25:31-46). Jesus even raised the dignity of the poor by equating them with himself – “Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me” (Mt 25:40). So, we have the privilege of serving Jesus through those who need our help. Denial of support to the poor is punishable. “Those who shut their ears to the cry of the poor will themselves call out and not be answered” (Prov 21:13). At the last judgement those who deny help will hear the harsh judgement from Jesus, “‘Amen, I say to you, what you did not do for one of these least ones, you did not do for me.’ And these will go off to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life” (Mt 25:45-46).

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