Alms and Almsgiving (in the Bible)
ALMS AND ALMSGIVING (IN THE BIBLE)
A religious act, inspired by compassion and a desire for justice, whereby an individual who possesses the economic means helps in a material way his less fortunate neighbor. In the earlier history of Israel when society was predominantly seminomadic and all members were more or less economically equal, there was no need of almsgiving. But with the possession of landed property, the growth of aristocracy, and the centralization of government, a large mass of debt-ridden farmers arose in contrast to a small urban nobility. Such a society offended the ideal of social justice that the covenant of Yahweh demanded. Hence, the Prophets, beginning with Amos, denounced oppression of the poor (Am 5.11–12, 24; 8.4; Is 10.2; Mi 2.2) and vigorously demanded social justice (Am 5.24).
Throughout the Old Testament the notion of alms (concrete aid given the poor) is understood primarily in the context of justice; just as Yahweh acts with justice, so, too, must his worshipers. The Hebrew word for alms, ṣedāqâ, means justice or righteousness; giving to the poor helps reestablish the right order; it produces justice. To return to the poor man his pledged cloak at nightfall that he may sleep in comfort is justice (ṣādāqâ ) before Yahweh (Dt 24.13). Mindful of the poor, the Law prescribed that the land should lie fallow every 7th year (Ex 23.11) and that the gleanings from the harvest should be left for the poor in the field and vineyard (Lv 19.9–10; 23.22; see also Ru 2.2–8). After the Exile there was a growing emphasis on the religious nature of personal almsgiving. Job, in his plea of a clean conscience, asserts that his reverence for God prompted him to give food, clothing, and shelter to the needy (Jb 31.16–23). Alms purge away sin, deliver from death (Tb 12.9; see also Dn 4.24), and bring God's favor on the giver (Tb 4.7); on the other hand, refusing alms to the poor brings a just retribution (Prv 21.13) because God, who created the poor man, too, will hear the latter's cry (Sir 4.1–6).
In the New Testament almsgiving is considered primarily as an act of religion springing from love and compassion; its note of social justice also is alluded to, especially in the writings of St. Luke and in the Epistle of James. Jesus enjoins unostentatious almsgiving, together with prayer and fasting, as one of the pillars of the religious life (Mt 6.1–2, 5, 16, 19). It merits a heavenly reward (Mt 6.4, 20; 19.27–29; 25.40; Lk 12.33; 16.1–9) and makes the donor a true son of the Most High (Lk 6.35). Luke's writings, in particular, commend almsgiving; he alone relates the stories of Zachaeus, a chief tax collector, who gave half his possessions to the poor (Lk 19.1–10), of the Baptist's advice to share food and clothing with the needy (Lk 3.11), and of Christ's advice to lend money without thought of return (Lk 6.35). Luke also takes the opportunity of relating that Paul worked with his hands to provide for the needs of others as well as his own (Acts 18.3; 20.34–35). St. Paul organized collections for the poor (Rom 15.25–28; 1 Cor 16.1; 2 Cor 8–9), in order not only to alleviate want, but to break down prejudices between Jew and Gentile and to knit the members of Christ into a community of good will. According to St. James, true religion demands that those in the Christian community who possess the means should help their needy brethren (Jas 1.27; 2.14–17; see also 1 Jn 3.17; 1 Pt 4.8–10).
Bibliography: Encyclopedic Dictionary of the Bible, tr. and adap. by l. hartman (New York, 1963), from a. van den born, Bijbels Woordenboek 55–56. g. a. buttrick, ed., The Interpreters' Bible, 4 v. (Nashville 1962) 1:87–88. o. cone, Rich and Poor in the New Testament (New York 1902). r. bultmann, "[symbol omitted]λεημοσύνη," g. kittel, Theologisches Wörterbuch zum Neuen Testament (Stuttgart 1935–) 2:482–83. h. j. cadbury, The Making of Luke—Acts (2d ed. London 1958) 260–63.