By Rev. Kyle Norman, Crosswalk.com
Jesus is clear about the life his followers are called to live. These instructions are as plain and uncomplicated as they were over 2,000 years ago, when he voiced them to the original disciples. Jesus is direct and forthright in pointing out how our life is to look, what our actions are to be, and how we are to witness to his presence.
'Giving Alms' Is Biblical and Universal in Christianity
'Alms' may not be a word every Christian is familiar with today, but the concept certainly is well-known. This article explains that the 'giving of alms' is an act of charity toward those less fortunate, or an expression of the love first expressed by God in Jesus. Giving alms may be also referred to in many of today's churches as tithes, offerings, or love offerings for the poor.
As Jesus introduces this call to giving, he highlights the universal applicability of this instruction. In the gospel of Matthew, Jesus says:
When you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing. – Matthew 6:3
Set within the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus’ words are part of a larger passage wherein he decries hypocritical piety. Notice the use of his words “When you give…”
Jesus assumes that his followers will give of their resources, their time, and their talents, to help and bless those less fortunate than they.
He speaks this way in other places as well. Directly following this passage, Jesus will speak of the importance of prayer, introducing his teaching with the words “When you pray . . .” (Matthew 6:5). No one reading such words would ever assume that prayer is somehow optional for the life of dedicated discipleship. Nor should we when it comes to giving alms.
Jesus is clear; his followers are called to give.
Still, the call to sacrificial giving does not happen simply because giving alms is a good rule to follow. After all, following a rule simply because it is the rule is exactly the hypocritical piety that Jesus so often spoke against. As always, Jesus plunges us deeper. His word calls us to inward transformation. Giving transforms our lives. Here are three ways this transformation occurs:
1. Giving Alms Frees Us from Idolatry
Idolatry speaks to the misplacement of our worship. An idol refers to any person or thing that subverts God’s primary place in our lives. In idolatry, life becomes centered around something else – something not God. This is essentially what occurred in the garden of Eden. In eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge, Adam and Eve replaced the centrality of God’s divine presence and voice. In effect, their own desire became their singular focus.
We may not think of money as a rival deity, at least, not in the same way as Israel viewed Baal or Asherah. We may not attribute a certain personality to it, or actively believe that we owe any subservience to the wealth we possess.
Yet is hard to deny that, for many, money is what life centers around. We may give lip service to the adage that “money can’t buy happiness,” yet many people live their lives as this is the case. Jesus used worship-laden language to describe the temptation of wealth. In Matthew 6:24 he states that we cannot serve both God, and mammon (wealth). Here, Jesus refers to worldly wealth as that which makes claim on our attention, our allegiance, and our worship.
Money will spiritually master us if we allow it to.
The destructiveness of money-worship lies precisely in the fact that it can so easily affect all people. It is not only the wealthy who bear this temptation. It is equally possible that those of lower economic standing live their lives in the grip of wealth’s siren call. In fact, in some cases, it may just be that those with little-to-no resources are more spiritually focused on money than those of greater means.
The “love of money” that Paul speaks of (1 Timothy 6:10), is not dependent upon the amount of money; rather the trap of an inward desire for it. Whether one’s bank account holds 10 or 10 million dollars, the centrality that money can play in one’s life is the issue.
Giving alms is an act of rebellion against the inherent temptation found in money.
We cannot deny the fiscal and commercial reality of our lives. We live in a time and place where money holds an important role. We can, however, actively deny the way of life that suggests that money is an end to itself. Biblically, financial resources are but a tool, given by the Spirit of God, to be used for the blessing of others.
When we give, we remove ourselves from the idolatrous notion that economic and commercial success are the ultimate aims of our lives. Instead, we embody the call of the Kingdom, in Christ-centered worship and ministry.
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2. Giving Alms Frees Us from Selfishness
Jesus tells a parable of a man who built bigger upon bigger barns, saying finally that he would spend his time “eating and drinking and being merry” (Luke 12:19). Jesus is obviously critical of this individual, referring to him as a “fool” (Luke 12:20). Yet his criticism is not reserved for the amount the rich man holds, but in his selfishness in hoarding it. This man saw his material wealth as serving him alone (which, paradoxically, meant that he idolatrously served it). In the telling of the parable, Jesus makes this critique abundantly clear, as the rich man refers to himself and his possessions eleven times in just five verses!
The love of money (and the temptation to make the gaining of it the central point of our lives) flourishes in our individualist culture. It's tempting to think only of our own life, the amount we have, the amount we gain, and how we retain our surplus. Yet our lives are never to be self-focused.
Giving to those less fortunate roots us in communal life. It helps us recognize that our Christian lives are not lived in isolation. As Paul reminds us, when one part of the body suffers, the whole body suffers (1 Cor. 12:26). This means that the plight of the less fortunate, the poor, those living in ‘food deserts,’ and the elderly lacking adequate care and nutrition, is never outside of our concern.
God calls us to bless others. Such blessing, however, must go beyond mere lip service, and include the actual giving of ourselves, our time, and talents. Transformation takes place because in giving we see our lives as interconnected with others.
3. Giving Alms Is an Act of Worship
Giving alms has always been a part of one’s faithful allegiance to the God who created us and sustains us. From the divine call to keep the corners of one’s field ungleaned (Leviticus 19:9), to the church’s practice of tithing, the community of faith has always responded to the Lord’s sustaining grace by identifying a portion of its resources as gifts to be bestowed. This was done, both in recognition of the need to care for the poor, the orphan, the widow, and the alien, but also as an acknowledgment that life is dependent upon God alone.
Our giving is an act of worshipful trust. When we give, we are saying that we trust that the Lord will provide and care for us. We do not need to store our resources into bigger and bigger barns, because, by faith, we believe that the Lord will provide. Thus, in giving, we do not just give of our bounty, we give of ourselves. Giving is, ultimately, an act of self-offering.
Just as we love because he first loved us, we give because Christ gave of himself to us, fully and completely. Jesus held nothing back. He did not just talk a good game or speak of the importance of giving. He embodied everything he spoke, and with his very flesh and blood, he gave.
Now, we are not called to give in the same manner that Jesus gave, but we are called to give in the same spirit. Christ’s spirit of self-offering and self-sacrifice is to be the basis of all our giving. We should not despair when we rend our offering of resources because we are acting in a Christlike fashion. We are giving as Christ gave. In this way, giving is never to be seen as wasted effort, or undue hardship, for this is an expression of worship.
There is a tendency to try to justify acts of giving by describing the value that we receive from it. Some have tried to tie the amount of our giving to the amount of our blessings. This is called "prosperity theology." Proponents of this theology believe the reason we give is to receive divine blessings from God. If you give 10 dollars, you will receive 100 back, they say.
This denies the fundamental spirituality of giving, as highlighted in scripture. “The Lord loves a cheerful giver”, says Paul in 2 Corinthians 9:7. Giving only in hopes of receiving one-hundredfold return doesn't free us from idolatry and selfishness. To give in this spirit leaves our gaze solely upon our gains. The blessings of God are not divine loop-holes that we take advantage of.
Christ’s call to alms-giving is rooted in who he is, as the very incarnation of the loving and selfless God.
Thus whenever we give, with any amount of our attention to ourselves, or our possible gain, we step outside the call of Christ.
Giving is transformative precisely because it radically calls us to step outside of ourselves. Our vision is on Christ, and those whom he calls us to bless. We must leave aside all semblance of prideful arrogance, self-interest, and divine pay-back. To give as Jesus gave is to give of ourselves, selflessly and sacrificially. In doing so, our lives become transformed into a greater likeness of our Lord.
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Reverend Kyle Norman is the Rector of the Anglican Parish of Holy Cross in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. He has a doctorate in Spiritual Formation and is often asked to write or speak on the nature of the Christian community, and the role of Spiritual disciplines in Christian life. His personal blog can be found here.