Volume IV - Spirituality

Prayer, Fasting and Alms-Giving

Alms-Giving

In Christ’s teaching, alms-giving goes together with fasting and prayer. We have seen that this is also the teaching of Isaiah (See Fasting) and of the Old Testament generally. When one prays and fasts, one must show love through active generosity to others.

Beware of practicing your piety before men, in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven. Thus, when you give alms, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do…that they may be praised by men. Truly, I say to you, they have their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. (Matthew 6:1-4)

As with fasting and prayer, the gifts of help to the poor must be done strictly in secret, so much so that one should, as it were, even hide from himself what he is giving to others, not letting one hand know what the other is doing. Every effort must be made, if the gift will be pleasing to God, to avoid all ostentation and boastfulness in its giving.

As we have already seen, there is no real love if one does not share what he has with the poor.

...if any one has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him? (I John 3:17)

Such was the command of the law of Moses as well.

If there is among you a poor man, one of your brethren, in any of your towns within your land which the Lord your God gives you, you shall not harden your heart or shut your hand against your poor brother, but you shall open your hand to him, and lend him sufficient for his need, whatever it may be. Take heed lest there be a base thought in your heart, and you say, ‘The seventh year, the year of release is near,’ and your eye be hostile to your poor brother, and you give him nothing, and he cry to the Lord against you, and it be sin in you. You shall give to him freely, and your heart shall not be grudging when you give to him; because for this the Lord your God will bless you in all your work and in all that you undertake. For the poor will never cease out of the land; therefore I command you, you shall open wide your hand to your brother, to the needy and to the poor, in the land. (Deuteronomy 15:7-11)

Such also was the teaching of Wisdom.

The poor is disliked even by his neighbor, but the rich has many friends.

He who despises his neighbor is a sinner, but happy is he who is kind to the poor.

He who mocks the poor, insults his Maker, he who is glad at calamity will not go unpunished. (Proverbs 14:20-21, 17:5)

According to St. John Chrysostom, no one can be saved without giving alms and without caring for the poor. St. Basil the Great says that a man who has two coats or two pair of shoes, when his neighbor has none, is a thief. All earthly things are the possessions of God. “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof, the world and those who dwell in it.” (Psalm 24:1) Men are but stewards of what belongs to the Lord and should share the gifts of His creation with one another as much as they can. To store up earthly possessions, according to Christ, is the epitome of foolishness, and a rich man shall hardly be saved. (cf. Luke 12:15-21)

How hard it is for those who have riches to enter the Kingdom of God! For it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God.

Those who heard it said, “Then who can be saved?”

But he said, “What is impossible with men is possible with God.” (Luke 15:24-27, Matthew 19: 23-26, Mark 10:23-27)

Woe unto you that are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe unto you that are full now, for you shall hunger. (Luke 6:24-25)

For He who is mighty…has filled the hungry with good things, but the rich He sent away empty. (Luke 1:53)

The reason why a rich man can hardly be saved, according to Jesus, is because when one has possessions, he wants to keep them, and gather still more. For the “delight in riches chokes the word of God, and so it proves unfruitful” in man’s heart. (Matthew 13:22, Mark 4:19, Luke 8:14)

According to the apostle Paul, the “love of money” - not money itself - is the “root of all evils.”

There is great gain in godliness with contentment; for we brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world; but if we have food and clothing, with these we shall be content. But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and hurtful desires that plunge men into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is the root of all evils; it is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced their hearts with many pangs. (I Timothy 6:6-10, cf Hebrews 13:5-6)

The apostle himself collected money for the poor and greatly praised those who were generous in giving.

The point is this: he who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, but he who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. Each one must do as he has made up his mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. And God is able to provide…so that you may always have enough of everything and may provide in abundance for every good work. As it is written, “He has distributed freely, he has given to the poor; his righteousness endures forever.” (Psalm 112:9)

You will be enriched in every way for great generosity which…will produce thanksgiving to God… (2 Corinthians 9:6-12)

The spiritual person must share what he has with the poor. He must do so cheerfully and not reluctantly, secretly and not for the praise of men. He also must do so, as the poor widow in the gospel, not out of his abundance, but out of his need.

And Jesus sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the multitude putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. And a poor widow came, and put in two copper coins, which make a penny. And He called His disciples to Him, and said to them, “Truly, I say to you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For they all contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, her whole living.” (Mark 12:41-44, Luke 21:2)

Giving alms, therefore, must be a sacrificial act if it has any spiritual worth. One cannot give merely what is left over when all his own needs are satisfied. One must take from oneself and give to others. In the spiritual tradition of the Church it is the teaching that what one saves through fasting and abstinence, for example during the special lenten seasons, should not be kept for other times but should be given away to the poor.

In recent times the teaching has developed that the spiritual man should work within the processes and possibilities of the free societies in order to make a social structure in which the poor will not merely be the object of the charity of the rich, but will themselves have the chance to work and to share in the common wealth of man. In this way the poor will have dignity and self-respect through assuming their just place as members of society. “We do not want hand-outs,” say the poor, “we want to be able to learn and to work for ourselves.” The spiritual person is the one who works to make this happen; and it is right and praiseworthy to do so. The only temptations here would be to have this attitude and to undertake this action without personal sacrifice, and to think that when such a “just society” will exist - if it ever will - all of men’s problems will be solved. The spiritual decadence of many wealthy persons demonstrates that this is not the case. Thus the words of Christ remain forever valid and true:

“...the poor you always have with you, but you do not always have me…if you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, and follow me.” (Matthew 19:21, Mark 14:5-7, Luke 18:22, John 12:8)

The one who is truly perfect as the Father in heaven is perfect is the one who gives all for the sake of others, in the name of Christ, with Him, and for His sake. Such a person is most truly living the spiritual life.