Mt. 6:2-4, “Almsgiving”, Second Wednesday in Lent, 8 Mar 2017
What does it mean to give alms? In the most direct sense, it means to practice charity. The haves give to those who have not. This meaning has guided Christians from the earliest days of the church. But if we trace the word back to its origins, the heart of the matter has to do with mercy. In the most complete sense, almsgiving is mercy made practical.
In Luke, Jesus says, “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.” But a similar verse in Matthew reads, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” So, the parallel reveals a compelling and indivisible theological connection between mercy and perfection. Mercy and perfection are intertwined. To be merciful is to become like God who is merciful. To become like God who is merciful is to become like God who is perfect. So, in giving alms, we participate not only in mercy, but also in perfection. “Not that [we] have received perfection,” as Paul tells the Philippians, “but [we] press on to make it [our] own, because Christ Jesus has made [us] his own” (Phil 3:12).
From our earliest days, Christians have given themselves to extraordinary practices of almsgiving, inspired in the truest sense by what God has done for us in Jesus. Jesus Christ is God’s almsgiving to humanity. We see the alms Jesus gives us through his practical works of mercy: “the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them” (Mt. 11:5). Those who had not, now have. These practical expressions of God’s almsgiving in Jesus determine almsgiving for the rest of the age. Christians who have, give to those who have not, because that is precisely how God in Christ has closed the gap between divinity and humanity. This example never changes, as James tells us, “Every good and every perfect gift is from above, and comes down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow of turning” (Jas 1:17).
We see this divine/human model of almsgiving not only in the life of Jesus, but also in his death. God gives Godself to us completely in Jesus on the cross. There, Jesus is poured out for us, emptied for us. He was “crucified, dead, and buried.” Seeing what God has done for us on the cross deepens the significance for the practice of almsgiving by showing us we must finally give it all up, even our hope for a legacy. For Jesus becomes the forgotten man on the cross. “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” This is partly why Christians historically have also given alms at funerals. As scholar Peter Brown has taught us,
Both [the poor and the dead] depended on the generosity of others. Both cried out to be remembered in a world that could all too easily have forgotten them. But to forget either the dead or the poor was doubly abhorrent to … Jews and Christians…whose worst fear was that their God might forget them (“Bridge to God: Remembering the Poor, Remembering the Dead,” Christian Century, 2 Apr 2015).
Why, then, does Jesus ask our left hand to forget what our right hand is doing, so that our alms may be done in secret? In this expression, we see the divine/human model of almsgiving likened to the resurrection of Jesus. God gives the resurrection to us in secret. We don’t know precisely what happened in the tomb other than God raised Jesus from the dead. Neither God, nor the Gospels, give us any details of that mysterious moment. Nevertheless, though God’s will is fulfilled for us in secret, clouded in mystery, it’s no less effective and true. In the same way, we’re told to give alms in secret. Such almsgiving might appear at times to “go to waste.” Then again, it might also have dramatic effects. But though the resurrection happened in secret, it’s never lost on us. The practice of almsgiving is finally the practice of storing up treasures in heaven, because nothing God gives, and nothing given to God, is ever ultimately lost.
Why the subject of almsgiving on this first Celtic Evening Liturgy? Because apart from the practice of almsgiving, our Lenten journey is in vain. Our possessions will continue to possess us, weigh us down, afflict, and eventually exhaust us. This is why it’s important to remember the wisdom of one of our most endearing almsgivers, Wendell Berry, who said, “Don’t own so much clutter that you will be relieved to see your house catch fire” (in Farming: A Hand Book).
But Berry also said, “Take all that you have and be poor” (“Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front”). To take all we have and be poor is to receive the mercy of the great Almsgiver’s life, death, and resurrection, and finally, to rest in the blessed poverty of total dependence on God alone.