Almsgiving. It’s not a word that we use a lot. Although we use it here in Croydon when we talk about Almshouses.
Of course, we’re talking about ‘alms’ with an ‘l’ not with an ‘r’.
Almsgiving, the giving of alms, is about gifts to those less fortunate than ourselves. We are giving alms, with an ‘l’ when we give to those in need.
Almsgiving is all about receiving with gratitude and giving with grace. It’s a two-way process, as Ecclesiasticus notes:
‘Do not let your hand be stretched out when it is time to receive and closed when it is time to give’ (Sirach 4.31)
And almsgiving has long been associated with the season of Lent. St Leo the Great (400-461) was making this connection in the fifth century, when he wrote, ‘to this sensible and holy fast we should link almsgiving which under the one name of covers a multitude of praiseworthy deeds of charity’.
And the book of Tobit gives us another thought for Lent, ‘Prayer with fasting is good, but better than both is almsgiving with righteousness. A little with righteousness is better than wealth with wrongdoing. It is better to give alms than to lay up gold’. (Tobit 12.8)
That places almsgiving firmly in the practices of Lent, although we can do it anytime too, but let’s now think what it is, why we do it and how we do it.
What is almsgiving?
It is, at it’s most basic, a gift we make out of love.
This is charitable giving, motivated out of love and prayer.
It’s not about duty; but about joy and generosity and love.
Almsgiving is traditionally combined with fasting because, when we do, we both give something up and we take something on.
So someone fasting should also be generous in giving to those who do not choose to go hungry.
Almsgiving is also part of our wider giving. So Christians would normally give in a twofold way: for the mission and worship of the church and for those in need.
And both are offered ultimately to God.
Why do we give alms?
The most basic reason is that it is something that will make a difference to another person, it will improve their life, it is, in a beautiful, older expression, a corporal act of mercy.
That goes deeper too. It is the lesson of the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats (Matthew 25.31-end), summed up in the pithy phrase of St Rose of Lima (1586-1617) who said:
When we serve the poor and the sick, we serve Jesus. We must not fail to help our neighbours, because in them we serve Jesus.
This connects the act of giving alms with the motivation for giving alms.
That’s why we do it: out of care for those in need and love for Jesus.
How do we give alms?
There are many and various ways to give alms today.
Churches used to have an ‘alms dish’ but now we can have a Direct Debit, a Standing Order, Chip and Pin, Contactless, Just Giving or putting a coin in a collection box.
It is wonderful that the how of giving alms has never been easier.
The question of how we give alms also comes into the discussion about tithing, which is the Biblical imperative of giving away a tenth of your income.
The Church of England, which is tremendously bashful about money (unless saying it hasn’t got enough), commends giving away 10% of income which 5% might be directly to the church, and 5% to charity, in other words almsgiving. Either way, St Paul gives some helpful advice:
Each of you should give what you have decided in your heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. (2 Corinthians 9.7)
How we give is down to us: but, however we do it, we should give with a cheerful heart.
To all those who practise righteousness give alms from your possessions, and do not let your eye begrudge the gift when you make it. Do not turn your face away from anyone who is poor, and the face of God will not be turned away from you. If you have many possessions, make your gift from them in proportion; if few, do not be afraid to give according to the little you have. (Tobit 4.6b-8)
Where do we give alms?
I’ve mentioned the what, why and how of alms, but another bit of the how is, where? Who do I give alms to?
I would suggest that we give alms, charitable gifts offered in love, to those bodies who seek to care for our common home in this world and the people who live in it.
I would say we should look to give alms to charities like Christian Aid, that seeks to care for the environment and the material welfare of the poorest in our world.
There will be other charities you know, for example Christians Against Poverty, our Floating Shelter, or others working at home and abroad for those in need.
So that’s a bit on the what, why, how and when and it moves us on to some important principles about almsgiving.
We can do that by considering ‘almsgiving and secrecy’, almsgiving is not about the amount’ and ‘almsgiving and abundance’.
Almsgiving and secrecy
We’ve seen that the scriptures and church tradition believe almsgiving is a jolly good thing! Ecclesiasticus writes of it:
One’s almsgiving is like a signet ring with the Lord,
and he will keep a person’s kindness like the apple of his eye. (Sirach 17.22)
In other words, it is one’s marker or identifier, just like a signet ring. And, what better than to be identifiable as an almsgiver?
There’s a ‘but’ hovering here – but the marker is with God, not with other people, and, in a way, not even yourself, as Jesus says in St Matthew’s Gospel:
So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received 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 done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.’ (Matthew 6.2-4)
Visible, showy and slef-satisfied giving is contrary to the spirit of Jesus.
Almsgiving is not about the amount
It's not about the amount you give; it is the action of giving that counts.
Jesus looked up and saw rich people putting their gifts into the treasury; he also saw a poor widow put in two small copper coins. He said, ‘Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all of them; for all of them have contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in all she had to live on.’ Luke 21.1-4.
Almsgiving reflects a movement of our heart first and then the hand to the pocket, irrespective of the amount that comes out!
Almsgiving and receiving
The very act of giving is good in itself.
And as we find with love, the more we give the more we receive. As the prayer attributed to St Francis says, ‘it is in giving that we receive’.
We don’t need to be loaded to give. Remember that definition of almsgiving, a gift we make out of love. If that’s true then when we give out of love, we receive in love.
I hope you feel you moved to ponder your own almsgiving, and parents why not encourage your children this Lent to consider what they could give too and together you might think about where you might give.
And finally here are some quite dramatic, but heartening, words from the book of Tobit again:
For almsgiving delivers from death and keeps you from going into the Darkness. Indeed, almsgiving, for all who practise it, is an excellent offering in the presence of the Most High. (Tobit 4.10, 11)
On that note, I’ll stop.