“When you give alms”: Food for Thought on Ash Wednesday

By Fr Randy Flores SVD

Every Ash Wednesday, with the Gospel Reading on Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount in Matthew (6:1-6.16-18), the Church exhorts us to observe the three traditional Jewish acts of piety namely, alms giving (vv. 2-4), prayer (vv. 5-15), and fasting (vv.16-18).

In Greek, the word, “piety” is dikaiosýnē, its Hebrew translation, tsedaqah both mean “righteousness.” In the Hebrew Bible, tsedaqah is frequently used together with mishpat (“justice”). Both words form a hendiadys: (mishpat utsdaqah or “justice and righteousness”)—appearing very often in eighth-century B.C. prophetic texts (Amos, Isaiah, Hosea, and Micah). The expression implies the God-given responsibility of leaders (like kings) to establish justice for the poor (like widows and orphans). From this, alms-giving are both an act of charity as well as of justice.

As faithful Jews, Jesus and his disciples could have observed these acts piety especially on Yom Kippur (“the Day of Atonement”), an annual Jewish festival celebrated on the tenth day of the seventh month (Lev 16:29; 23:27). It would be interesting to know what the Bible says of alms giving, prayer, and fasting, so as to guide today’s Christians who, with sincerity to follow the gospel’s exhortations, want to observe these three acts of piety especially on Ash Wednesday, the Christian version of Yom Kippur.

Alms-giving as charity to the poor is a common practice in the bible. Every three years, tithes are reserved to the poor (Deut 14:28-29) and at every harvest, some portions are allotted to them (Deut 24:19-22).

It is, however, in later books of the Bible (Greek period) that alms-giving becomes one of the principal works of charity (Prov 3:27ff.; Sir 7:10; Dan 4:24).

A book in this period, the Book of Tobit which has a number of passages on alms-giving so that it can be called “the book of charity” (e.g. Tob 1:3.16; 4:7-8), states that even burying the dead is considered an act of charity (Tob 1:16).

The early Christian community gives special importance to alms giving. The gentile commander of the army, Cornelius (Acts 10:2ff.), and a woman, named Tabitha (Acts 9:36), are known in the community for their acts of charity. Paul speaks of fulfilling the duty of alms-giving in Jerusalem (1 Cor 16:1-3 and Acts 24:17).

The social background of the practice of alms giving is the increasing number of poor people and the widening gap between the rich and the poor during the Greek period. The obligation incumbent upon the rich to give alms to the poor arises in the context of a culture that considers all goods as limited in supply and already distributed. Anyone with a personal surplus will normally feel shame and/or considered greedy (Luke 12:15) or rapacious if that surplus is not shared with less fortunate “neighbors” (Luke 11:41).

Another reason to give alms is to remind the Jews of their humble and poor beginning—as “slaves in Egypt,” and care for the poor is a concrete gesture of gratitude to God who liberated Israel out of Egyptian bondage (Deut 5:12-15). This two-fold basis of alms-giving can be perceived in the Filipino values of paglingon sa pinanggalingan and pagtanaw ng utang na loob (debt of gratitude).

The technical word for alms-giving in Greek is poieîn éleēmosýnēn (hence the word, limos) and it means literally “to do an act of mercy.”

By doing an act of mercy or alms giving, the human being performs a divine act inasmuch as one of the attributes of God in the bible is mercy (Exod 34:6; Eph 2:4).

It is no surprise then that Jesus exhorts his disciples to practice alms-giving. However, he warns them that alms-giving must not be an act done to draw others’ attention and admiration which is tantamount to a fake and insincere care for the poor. This seems to be the sense of the metaphor of not to “sound a trumpet” in giving alms (Matt 6:2) There is NO evidence of the popular interpretation that Jews had trumpets to announce donations nor had in their temple a trumpet-shaped chests or “shofar-chests”out of which a tingling sound is produced when coins are thrown” (see JANT, p. 13).

Those who give alms for show-off are called by Jesus as “hypocrites” (Matt 6:2). The word, hypokritaí originally denotes the Greek stage actors who performed behind their masks. In other words, these people have hidden motives. In the end, they are not giving, but buying. They buy people’s respect and admiration. The Filipino term for this is “pakitang-tao”—one who renders help to others but whose motive is not really to help the person in need but something else (gain more votes in the next elections, for example).

In contrast, the disciples must give alms in complete secrecy, which is expressed by the hyperbole of the ignorant left hand (Matt 6:3). The left hand is probably a metaphor for one’s best friend, as in a contemporary Arabic proverb, implying that even one’s closest friend must not know when one gives alms. The reason is that genuine deeds of justice are done “in secret” where only God, “who sees in secret,” which is to say that only God knows the heart (Fil. loob).

The good deeds of Christians will of course be seen by others. According to Matt 5:16, the followers of Jesus should let their light shine “before others so that they may see your good works.” Although this may seem to be a contradiction, the passage goes on to say: “that they might glorify your Father who is in heaven,” which is in bold contrast to the desire of the hypocrites that “they might be glorified by others” (6:2). The basis then for eschatological reward is good deeds done ad maiorem Dei gloriam (“for the greater glory of God”).

Excursus: A Brief Discussion of Almsgiving and the Gift Theory

Gift Theory established in 1925 by the French sociologist Marcel Mauss (nephew of Émile Durkheim) who published an influential essay “The Gift” (French: Essai sur le don; online version in English: http://goodmachine.org/PDF/mauss_gift.pdf). According to Mauss, gifts are essentially obligatory and reciprocal and NOT necessarily voluntary and altruistic.

Gifts can even be used to manipulate and control others. Some governments and organizations today appear to operate on the basis of obligatory gifts.

In short, the study of Mauss puts into question the existence of a genuine gift, free gift, or true gift—one that does not go with it a selfish interest or motive on the part of the donor.

The French philosopher Jacques Derrida (Given Time I, 1992), has reinforced this theory when he set at least four criteria of a “free gift”:

1. There is no reciprocity. The receiver of the gift does not return a gift to the giver.

2. The recipient does not realize that he has received a gift. This way there can be no sense of debt caused by the gift.

3. The giver must forget that he gave the gift. Otherwise, he would be able to benefit from the gift by thinking well of himself.

4. The thing itself cannot appear as a “gift.” As soon as the thing given is seen as a boon, it imposes a sense of obligation.

The point of the theory is—there is no such thing as “real gift.” A question on alms-giving would then be: Does a real or genuine alms-giving, one that does not have a selfish motive, exist?

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