Why Every Catholic Who Is Not Destitute Must Give Alms

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus speaks of three practices which form the basis of the whole spiritual life: prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. He does not say, “If you pray . . . fast . . . give alms,” but, “When you pray . . . fast . . . give alms” (Matt 6:2, 5 & 16). None of the three are presented as optional. All are essential. We could regard the three as a kind of tripod, and we know what happens to a tripod if one of the legs is weak or missing.

Prayer, fasting, and almsgiving help us to overcome the things that choke our spiritual lives and prevent us from producing good fruit. In Luke’s version of the parable of the Sower, there are three things that choke the Word: the cares of the world, riches, and the pleasures of life (cf. Lk 8:14). Prayer, almsgiving, and fasting are the three specific remedies for this. Prayer focuses us on God rather than the worries of our lives. Almsgiving helps us not to focus on riches. And fasting is the antidote to being enmeshed in the pleasures of life. Together they save us from being fruitless Christians.

Here I am focusing on almsgiving, for four reasons. First, because I think that it is sometimes not seen as part of our spiritual lives, our lives “in the Spirit.” Second, because it is an essential element of our spiritual lives. Third, because I think that, in first world countries, where we are most in need of it, we are greatly neglecting it. Fourth, because almsgiving, like fasting, is a form of prayer. It is also a form of fasting.

Although we normally order these three as prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, the order in which Jesus addresses them in his Sermon are almsgiving, prayer, and fasting: almsgiving first, not last (cf. Matt 6:1–18). Jesus refers to all three as “practicing your dikaiosunen,” in English, righteousness (Matt 6:1). We might think that he is teaching something new, but he is not. In the Book of Tobit, the angel Raphael tells Tobit and Tobias, “Prayer is good when accompanied by fasting, almsgiving, and righteousness” (Tob 12:8).

Jesus tells his listeners that almsgiving should be done in secret, and that God will reward this kind of almsgiving. What kind of reward will we receive? One that is specifically mentioned is the purgation of our sins. Jesus says to the Pharisees:

Now you Pharisees cleanse the outside of the cup and of the dish, but inside you are full of extortion and wickedness. You fools! Did not he who made the outside make the inside also? But give for alms those things which are within; and behold, everything is clean for you. But woe to you Pharisees! For you tithe mint and rue and every herb, and neglect justice and the love of God; these you ought to have done, without neglecting the others (Lk 11:39–42).

Like prayer and fasting, almsgiving is part and parcel of our turning from sin and turning to God. When he repented and converted, Zacchaeus gave half his goods to the poor (cf. Lk 19:8).

Again, this is not a new teaching, for we read the same thing in Tobit: “A little with righteousness is better than much with wrongdoing. It is better to give alms than to treasure up gold. For almsgiving delivers from death, and it will purge away every sin. Those who perform deeds of charity and of righteousness will have fulness of life, but those who commit sin are the enemies of their own lives” (Tob 12:8–10). Sirach says that, “Water extinguishes a blazing fire, so almsgiving atones for sin” (Sir 3:30). And in Proverbs we read, “He who is kind to the poor lends to the Lord, and he will repay him for his deed” (Prov 19:17). God gives a fitting reward for almsgiving. As the almsgiver saves the poor from physical death, so God saves the almsgiver from spiritual death.

Mention has just been made of tithing, so now is a good time to explain it, and how it differs from almsgiving. A tithe is what we give to the Church for its maintenance and mission, what we “put on the plate” at Sunday Mass. Alms are what we give to those in serious need, as in the donations to the people of Beirut after the terrible explosion in 2020. It is important to understand the distinction between tithing and almsgiving, lest we think that we are almsgiving when we are only tithing.

The Pharisees were sticklers for tithing, and Jesus did not condemn them for it. Rather, he tells them that they ought to tithe (cf. Lk 11:42). Tithing is necessary, but it is not sufficient. In the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector, the Pharisee prays in the Temple thus, “God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week, I give tithes of all that I get” (Lk 18:11–12). The Pharisee is praying. He fasts. He gives his tithes. Yet he does not mention any almsgiving. His spiritual tripod appears to be missing one leg, so it falls over. There is never a mention in the Gospels of a Pharisee giving alms, despite the fact that almsgiving was commanded by the Law (cf. Deut 15:11). Rather, we are told that they were avaricious. They loved money (cf. Lk 16:14).

In the first instance, almsgiving is material: money, food, clothing, and other physical things that people need. Yet, St. John Chrysostom tells us that almsgiving includes anything that can help others, “like when the physician heals, and the wise man gives counsel.”1 St. Bede the Venerable says that an almsgiver is one who not only “gives food to the hungry and things of that kind, but he also who gives pardon to the sinner, and prays for him, and reproves him, visiting him with some correcting punishment.”2 We can give to those who are spiritually poor, as well as those who are materially poor. Yet we should not use an excuse like, “I give of my time and talent. Therefore, I am excused from giving of my treasure.”

As has been said, almsgiving is a form of fasting and prayer. Almsgiving is a form of fasting, since it should require us to give up something, to make a “sacrifice.” And because it is a sacrifice, it is also a form of prayer. Tobit says that “for all who practice it, charity is an excellent offering in the presence of the Most High” (Tob 4:11), and the angel who appeared to the centurion Cornelius said to him that, “Your prayers and your alms have ascended as a memorial before God” (Acts 10:4). Almsgiving is a form of worship which can counteract the “idolatry” of covetousness (cf. Eph 5:5, Col 3:5).

So, we are going to give alms. The next questions are: How much should we give, and what level of poverty excuses us from giving? Nowhere in Sacred Scripture are any exact answers given to these questions, only some general indications. Thus, Tobit counsels his son Tobias in the following way, “If you have many possessions, make your gift from them in proportion; if few, do not be afraid to give according to the little that you have” (Tob 4:8). St. Paul tells us to be liberal in our contributions (cf. Rom 12:8), but that, “Each one must do as he has made up his mind” (2 Cor 9:7). The essential counsel is: trust God, and do not be afraid to be generous.

When is one too poor to give alms? In Luke, Jesus speaks approvingly of the poor widow who put two lepta, copper coins, into the Temple treasury (cf. Lk 21:1–4). In the Latin Vulgate, lepta is translated as minuta, from which we get the English “mite.” At that time, the widow’s donation would have been worth one quadrans (farthing), one quarter of an as (penny), one sixty-fourth of a silver denarius, which was the daily wage for a laborer. And the widow was voluntarily tithing, not even almsgiving. What went into the thirteen receptacles in the Court of the Women that received contributions for the Temple treasury was for the maintenance and mission of the Temple, not for the poor. Is it not interesting that the poor widow gave first to the Lord?

Jesus himself gave alms, even though the foxes had holes, and the birds of the air had nests, but the Son of Man had nowhere to lay his head (cf. Matt 8:20). In John’s Gospel, when Jesus told Judas to do quickly what he was going to do, some of the other apostles assumed that Judas was being told to buy something for the Passover feast, or give something to the poor (cf. Jn 13:29), the latter assumption being nonsensical unless it was a common practice of the Lord. Perhaps this is how Judas managed to put his hand in the till without being caught (cf. Jn 12:6). Instead of giving money to the poor, he could put it in his own pocket.

Nor is almsgiving something for only laypeople to undertake. In the parable of the Good Samaritan, the priest and the Levite who passed by could have done what the Samaritan did. Bishops, priests, deacons, and religious can and should give alms. The Bishop of Rome has an almoner. Perhaps other bishops should have one as well.

So, when is one so poor that one is excused from giving alms? For me, I cannot fall below the standard set by the Pakistani streetsweepers. When I was first studying theology, my Greek class was visited by a man from the Bible Society, who gave each of us a free copy of the New Testament in Greek. He also told us a story, and although I cannot remember his reason for telling it, I can never forget the story he told.

Some Pakistani streetsweepers were converted to Christ. Subsequently they learned from the Bible that Christians were meant to give alms to the poor. So, they decided to set aside some of their own meager incomes as a fund to donate money to people poorer than they. Now, I do not know exactly how much a Pakistani streetsweeper would have earned, but I doubt that it was much more than what was needed to keep the bodies and souls of themselves and their families together, if they could even afford to raise families.

At the time, I was a “poor theology student,” poor enough to be living in a small caravan in someone’s driveway. But from then on, any excuse that I could make about being too poor to give alms was completely demolished. For I had food in my belly, clothes on my back, a roof over my head, and enough money for all my other essential needs. I could afford “something.”

Each of us needs to start with “something,” be it ever so small. The two lepta of the poor widow would not even have bought one sparrow (cf. Matt 10:29). But as with prayer and fasting, we should also look to grow in almsgiving. If one wishes to grow in almsgiving, then just as one should pray and fast regularly, one should determine to give regularly. Determine what you will give out of your regular income, and to which beneficiaries you will give it. Pay God and the poor first, then pay your other bills. If you receive a “windfall,” give some of it away. This was the “oversight” of the rich man who had a good harvest. He was not just a man who had a good harvest, but a rich man!

As a university lecturer in a first world country, in global terms I should be numbered among the rich. I do not live in a mansion, but God keeps giving me more money. Giving some of it away is how I can become “rich in the sight of God” (Lk 12:21). When some friends of mine sold their house, they gave to charity ten percent of the profit on what they had originally paid. Be ready to give extra when unexpected, occasional needs arise.

Even more than the amount we give, the “disposition” with which we give is crucial for receiving any spiritual benefit. As St. Paul so famously wrote, “God loves a cheerful giver” (2 Cor 9:7). In this, he is only echoing Tobit, who told his son not to “let your eye begrudge the gift when you make it” (Tob 4:7).

Almsgiving is a ministry that strengthens in us all the theological virtues. We grow in faith in God’s providence, hope in his eternal reward, and love for him and our neighbors. Pray about how much you should give. You may be surprised at how much you grow in faith to give alms, hope in your reward, and love for God and the poor.

Almsgiving is part of our way to sanctity. It can be a crucial step in a deeper conversion to the Lord. This is what it was for St. Martin of Tours when he was still a catechumen, before he went on to become a monk and then a bishop. We should all know the famous story of his cloak. Martin was a Roman cavalryman. One day, as he approached the city gates of Amiens in the middle of winter, he met a “poor man destitute of clothing” and cut his military cloak in half to share with the man. That night, he dreamed of Jesus wearing the same half-cloak. He heard Jesus say to the angels: “Martin, who is still but a catechumen, clothed me with this robe.”3 According to his biographer, Sulpicius Severus, at the time of this incident Martin was only 18 years old!4

Even more, if we fail to give alms, we may end in eternal punishment (cf. Matt 25:31–46). St. John Chrysostom preached often and eloquently about this.

Do you wish to honour the Body of the Saviour? Do not despise him when he is naked. Do not honour him in church with silk vestments while outside he is naked and numb with cold. He who said, “This is my body,” and made it so by his word, is the same that said, “You saw me hungry and you gave me no food. As you did it not to the least of these, you did it not to me.” Honour him then by sharing your property with the poor. For what God needs is not golden chalices but golden souls.5

Elsewhere, commenting on the rich man and Lazarus, he says, “Not to share our own riches with the poor is a robbery of the poor, and a depriving them of their livelihood; and that which we possess is not only our own, but also theirs.”6

So, let us become God’s almoners, and give alms in imitation of his generosity to us. Let us do so with faith, and without anxiety, since “God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance, so that you may always have enough of everything and may provide in abundance for every good work. . . . You will be enriched in every way for great generosity” (2 Cor 9:8 & 11).

  1. St. John Chrysostom, Hom. 25. in Act., commenting on Lk 12:33.
  2. As quoted in the Catena Aurea by St. Thomas Aquinas, commenting on Lk 11:41.
  3. Sulpicius Severus, The Life of St. Martin, ch. 3.
  4. Severus, Life of St. Martin, ch. 2.
  5. St. John Chrysostom, On Matthew, Homily 50, 3.
  6. St. John Chrysostom, Four Discourses, 2.
Peter McGregor About Peter McGregor

Peter John McGregor is a lecturer in Dogmatic Theology and Spirituality at the Catholic Institute of Sydney, Australia. He is a member of the Emmanuel Community (Communauté de l’Emmanuel), a community of lay people, priests, and consecrated people within the Catholic Church.

Comments

  1. Avatar Agnes Charnock says:

    A letter recently in The Tablet magazine asked why our prayers for an end to war in Ukraine are not answered. I expected a flood of replies the following week- but there was nothing! However a week later there was a reply saying that the prayer has to be the will of God – which wasn’t much help. If we were encouraged at parish level – to read Scripture every day we would see that God is an interventionist God and our prayers are answered when we keep our part of the wonderful process – starting with the very simple task of forgiving anyone who has offended us. Reading Scripture everyday is a spiritual blood transfusion – totally life-giving.

  2. There are fewer “Catholic” organizations these days, including parishes, that are deserving of alms.

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