The English word "alms" is an abridged form of the Greek word, eleemosune (compare "eleemosynary"), appearing in gradually reduced forms in German Almosen, Wyclif’s Almesse, Scotch Aw’mons, and our alms.
The later Jews often used "righteousness" tsedhaqah as meaning alms, that being in their view the foremost righteousness. (Compare our modern use of "charity" to denote almsgiving.) This use is seen in the Talmud and in the frequent translations of the Hebrew word for "righteousness" (tsedhaqah) by "alms" (eleemosune) in the Septuagint, though nothing warranting this is found in the Hebrew
Dikaiosune and eleemosune are both used in the Septuagint to translate chesedh, "kindness," and are also both used to translate tsedhaqah, "justice." Almsgiving was regarded not merely as a plain evidence of righteousness in general but also as an act of justice, a just debt owing to the needy. "No one refuses directly," Mackie says, hence, possibly, Christ’s teaching in
In the course of time the impulse and command to give alms in a true human way, out of pity, such as is found expressed in
The Roman Catholics, holding the books of Tobit and Sirach to be canonical, find in them proof-texts for their doctrine of almsgiving, and likewise attach great value to the gifts to the poor as atoning for sins. Protestants, by a natural reaction, have failed to hold always at its true value what was and is an important Christian duty (see
The teaching of Jesus on the subject is important, first, as bearing upon Jewish ideas and practices, and second, as bearing upon present-day Christian ideas and practices.
This teaching appears most conspicuously in the
Clearly what Jesus here forbids in general is not publicity in performing good deeds, which is often necessary and proper, but ostentatious publicity, for the purpose of attracting attention. (The Greek conveys distinctly this idea of purpose, and the verb for "to be seen" is the one from which comes our word "theater.")
Jewish writers, as also Greek and Roman philosophers, have many notable maxims upon the beauty and importance of being unostentatious in virtue, especially in deeds of benevolence. The Essenes had their treasury in a chamber of their own in the temple that both the giving and the taking should be unobserved (Mishnah, Sheq., v.6). Rabbi Eleazer said, "Alms-giving should be done in secret and not before men, for he who gives before men is a sinner, and God shall bring also the good deed before his judgment" (B.B. 9a; compare
In applying this principle to almsgiving Jesus teaches His disciple: "When ... thou doest alms, sound not a trumpet before thee, as the hypocrites do" (
There is no proof that these were found "in the synagogues," or "in the streets." "Sound a trumpet," according to the Greek commentators, and the best modern authorities, is merely a figurative expression common to many languages, for self-parade--efforts to attract notice and win applause (compare our vulgar English saying about "blowing your own horn"). The contrast with the common practice instituted by Jesus is the significant thing: "But when thou doest alms"--"thou" is emphatic by position in the Greek--"let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doeth," etc., i.e. "So far from trumpeting your almsgiving before the public, do not even let it be known to yourself." Jesus here, Calvin well says, "silently glances at a kind of folly which prevails everywhere among men, that they think they have lost their pares if there have not been many spectators of their virtues." (The traditional saying of Mohammed, "In almsgiving, the left hand should not know what the right has given," is evidently borrowed from this saying of Jesus.) It is worthy of note that, despite popular practice, to give alms with right motives, and only to those who were worthy to receive, was a matter of special solicitude and instruction with the best among Jews as well as among Christians. The words of the Psalmist, "Blessed is he that considereth the poor," are construed to be an admonition to "take personal interest in him and not simply give him alms" (Lev. R. xxxiv). "When thou wilt do good, know to whom thou doest it. Give unto the good and help not the sinner" (Ecclesiasticus 12:1-6; compare Didache 1:5,6). "He that gives a free offering should give with a well-meaning eye" (Yer. B.D. 4 11). Jesus’ words concerning the "single" and the "evil" eye (compare
LITERATURE. Commentaries at the place Rabbinical literature in point. D. Cassel, Die Armenverwaltung des alten Israel, 1887.
George B. Eager