Alms, Almsgiving

See also Alms

ALMS, ALMSGIVING (ἐλεημοσύνη, G1797, pity, relief of the poor). Our Eng. word “alms” is derived, by abbreviation, from the Gr. word ἐλεημοσύνη, G1797, and means benevolent giving; money or gifts for relief of the poor.

1. In the OT. Although almsgiving is not explicitly mentioned, the duty of compassionate aid to the poor is strongly emphasized in all parts of the OT. It is difficult to make a sharp distinction between general benevolence and almsgiving.

The motives for such generosity to the poor were religious: obedience to God’s command, remembrance of His mercies in the Exodus, and the hope of reward (Deut 15:2-5; 24:19-22). It was recognized that there would always be the poor in their midst (Deut 15:11), but poverty was the exception rather than the rule when the law was obeyed (Deut 15:3-6). Since Israel was largely an agricultural people, poverty was generally the result of indolence (Prov 20:4; 24:30-34). Beggary was a punishment pronounced upon the house of Eli (1 Sam 2:36) and the curse invoked upon the children of the persecutor (Ps 109:10).

Job was famed for his generosity to the poor (Job 29:12-17; 31:16-23). Proverbs pictures kindness to the poor as an index of character (14:21; 19:17). The prophets condemned heartless oppression of the poor and cited it as a cause for impending judgment (Isa 3:14; 10:2, 3; Amos 8:4-8).

2. In the intertestamental period. Following the Exile, greater emphasis began to be placed on the value of almsgiving. Poverty was widespread, and it was regarded as pious to meet the needs of the poor. Begging became a profession.

This view of almsgiving as righteousness prevailed among the Jews in Jesus’ day, and spread among the Christians, accounting for the change from “righteousness” to “alms” in Matthew 6:1, cf. ASV, KJV. The attempt to equate almsgiving with righteousness is scarcely justified from either the Heb. OT or the true text of the NT.

In support of this view, appeal is made to Proverbs 11:4 where “righteousness” is taken to mean “alms.” The same term occurs also in 11:5, 6, where it cannot mean alms. Support of the view that alms have saving merit is sometimes claimed from Daniel 4:27, when Daniel urged Nebuchadnezzar to “break off your sins by practicing righteousness, and your iniquities by showing mercy to the oppressed.” He is commanded to cease his sinful practices and to practice justice, not that his sins will be thereby forgiven, but that the humiliating judgment which will teach him wisdom will be delayed. (Cf. E. J. Young in loc.) In Psalm 112:9 (quoted by Paul in 2 Cor 9:9) “alms” are equated with “righteousness,” not as justifying a man, but as an outward expression in right conduct, having lasting spiritual values.

There is almost complete silence concerning almsgiving in the DSS. Apparently this was due to the communal manner of life. The silence need not mean that the Qumran community did not believe in or practice almsgiving.

3. In the NT. The teaching of Jesus concerning alms must be viewed in the light of contemporary Pharisaic views and practices. His words in Matthew 6:2-4 assume that His followers will practice almsgiving. Jesus and His disciples did so (John 13:29). He did not condemn aiding the poor openly, but rebuked ostentatious charity for the purpose of gaining praise. “Sound no trumpet before you” (Matt 6:2 RSV) is not to be taken literally, for which practice there is no evidence, but fig. as prohibiting self-advertisement (cf. the expression, “blow your own horn”). The warning has parallels in Jewish writings.

Jesus commended liberal giving (Matt 5:42; Luke 6:38). He prized not the costliness of the gift, but the love and proportional self-denial which prompted it (Mark 12:42-44). His followers were urged to give with spiritual motives (Luke 11:41; 12:33), for giving has value for breaking the strangle hold of materialism (Matt 19:21). He also taught the blessedness of giving (Acts 20:35).

Caring for the poor received due attention in the Early Church. The needs of the poor were voluntarily supplied (Acts 4:32-35). Its first officers were elected for almsgiving (Acts 6:1-6).

The writer of Hebrews describes such deeds of charity as sacrifices well-pleasing to God (Heb 13:16). Both James and John insist that such a willingness to share with the needy has spiritual significance. It proves that such a one has a living faith (James 2:14-17), and it is a test of the reality of Christian profession (1 John 3:16-18).

Bibliography G. Uhlhorn, Christian Charity in the Ancient Church, Eng. tr. (1883); SBK, “Die altjüdische Liebeswerke,” IV (1928), 559-610; SBK, “Die altjüdische Privatwohltätigkeit,” IV (1928), 536-558; C. H. Dodd, The Bible and the Greeks (1936), 59-62; M. Weber, Ancient Judaism, Eng. tr. (1952), 255-267; R. Bultmann, ἐλεημοσύνη, G1797, TDNT, II (1964), 485-487.