Last week we looked briefly at the Lenten practice of fasting as a way of purifying and preparing ourselves to celebrate Easter and to commit ourselves afresh to living the Christian life more faithfully. But fasting is not a stand-alone work; it has to be accompanied by almsgiving and prayer. Together these three practices cut to the quick of our daily lives affecting our most natural instincts, but perhaps none of them cut as deep as almsgiving, which is what I want to consider today with you. Fundamentally almsgiving means giving to charity and it is an essential duty of every Christian. A link joining fasting to this practice could be easily made by resolving to support others with the money we save from avoiding meals or certain types of food. However, almsgiving has a wider scope than just donating surpluses and because of this it can be very tough to exercise; as, St Basil, one of the Church Fathers, says to his congregation,
‘I know many who fast, pray, sigh, and demonstrate every manner of piety, so long as it costs them nothing, but would not part with a penny to help those in distress.’ (Homily to the rich, St Basil)
Yet, almsgiving should touch all that we possess and in a sense all that we are; it is a free gift to God out of what we have received from him, it purifies us from unorderly attachment to money and possessions, and it prepares us for something important by focusing our attention on God, rather than on wealth.
The references to almsgiving within the Scriptures are too many for one homily, but let us nonetheless consider a few just to get a flavour. As a principle, almsgiving is implied in the golden rule ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself’ (Leviticus 19:17), because in caring for others as we do for ourselves we necessarily ought to provide materially for them. But the Old Testament also set detailed ways in which people ought to give called “tithes” requiring each faithful to donate ten percent of their income – though this was just the bare minimum (Cf. Leviticus 27:30), as freewill offerings were encouraged on top of this! At other points in the Scriptures we also see almsgiving in terms of a blessing for both the giver and receiver. So for example, in Genesis Abel is blessed because his sacrifice is a freewill offering to God out all that he has received – his sacrifice is in some sense a generous sharing with God. Later on, in First book of Kings a widow whose only possessions are enough flour and oil for one meal decides to share them with the prophet Elijah and as a result she is blessed by God so that her source of food does not run out (Cf. 1Kings 17:7-16). Or again, Psalm 41 opens with the affirmation ‘Blessed are those who consider the poor’ (41:1).
In the gospels Jesus does not preach almsgiving in a legalistic way such as tithing, but he casts an essential part of the Christian life in terms of generously giving to others to the glory of God. In both Mark and Luke we see Our Lord praising a woman who donates her meagre possessions into the Temple treasury. Of her Jesus says,
‘This poor widow has put in more than all [the rich]; for all of them have contributed out of their [surplus], but she out of her poverty has put in all she had to live on’ (Luke 21:2-4).
But perhaps more importantly, Jesus tells us that at the Last Judgement almsgiving will play a fundamental role as he will separate the blessed from the condemned in terms of the charity these have shown to him in the persons of the needy. So, the Lord will say to those generous in giving,
‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, …for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, …I was naked and you gave me clothing…’ (Matthew 25:34-36).
From these few examples we can see that almsgiving is practiced in two interconnected ways; firstly by giving to the poor and secondly by giving to the new Temple of God, his Church. Through both of these actions we assist Jesus himself and we manifest the glory of God. On one side, by supporting those in need we feed, clothe, and rescue Christ himself, because he says ‘I was hungry and you gave me food’ (Matthew 25:35); and in this we manifest the glory of God who, through us his servants, touches the lives of those in need. On the other, by giving to the Church we nurture the mystical body of Christ, the community of the faithful, as the poor widow praised by Jesus did by donating her money to the Temple (Cf. Luke 21:2); and in this we manifest the glory of God by beautifying churches, sacred buildings dedicated to his name, and providing for well-appointed liturgy.
There are different ways of practicing almsgiving. We could revive the tradition of tithing, reassess both the frequency and the amount of our church donations; we could commit to give according to our income (Cf. 1Corinthins 16:2); we could support Christian charities; we could start our weekly shop with two lists, one for our families and one for the foodbank. The possibilities to do good and to be blessed by God are many, because the needs of the poor and of the church are also many; but whichever ones we decide to adopt let us remember Jesus’ words in Luke’s gospel,
‘Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back.’ (6:38)