The Spiritual Discipline of Almsgiving
In His Sermon on the Mount, Jesus gave principles of the kingdom of God. In the context of His listeners, Jesus gave the premise that their righteousness (or “justice”) must exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees were they to enter the kingdom of heaven (Matt. 5:20). When He arrived at the section about charitable deeds or giving alms, Christ urged that such be done for the purposes of God seeing the good done rather than the advertisement of one’s own goodness. Those who do such to be observed and praised by others were hypocrites, a term in Jesus’ day used of actors who played a part. Essentially, a hypocrite plays a part and isn’t the sincere character they pretend to be. God isn’t impressed by what others think about us or even what we think about ourselves. He rewards good deeds based upon pure motives.
“Alms” itself comes to us from Old English by way of the Greek language, and means “pity, mercy.” Therefore, to give alms, whether it be money to the poor or a good deed for another, it is an act of mercy to the person giving and receiving the money or good done. Paul, in recalling his conversion to the Galatians, told them that he was instructed to remember the poor (Gal. 2:10). Tabitha was known for helping the poor (Acts 9:36).
There’s a great lesson here: it’s more blessed to give than receive (Acts 20:35). The rich young ruler who came to Jesus was told to sell all that he had and give alms to the poor (Luke 12:32). Jesus challenged the ruler and proved to himself that his devotion lay with riches more so than the Lord. When we give money to the poor we are acknowledging that our devotion to God is more important than anything, and we love our neighbor as ourselves by such acts of kindness. However, almsgiving isn’t always the most important thing we can do for another person. When a crippled man asked Peter and John for money, the apostles were unable to give them any because they didn’t have money. Rather, they healed the man, and that single act was greater than anything they could have given him.
There also comes a caution with almsgiving: a person can do the good deed but have the wrong motive. As mentioned by Christ himself, we can seek the praise of another which demonstrates that the motive was wrong. We can also do the good deed and at the same time neglect the justice and love of God (cf. Luke 11:40–42) which only demonstrates that giving to those in need does not necessarily mean that we are right with God.