Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,
In the last few weeks, we have reflected on what it means to repent and believe in the Gospel. To repent means to turn from sin and toward God. Turning to God means that we are ad orientem, oriented to a relationship with the Lord that involves the whole person, body and soul. Prayer enables us to make the interior turn, lifting up our hearts and minds to God. Fasting is the bodily discipline that reminds us our posture ad orientem is both an inner movement toward the Lord and a physical act. Prayer and fasting together draw us deeper into union with God, and it is through this relationship that we are led back out of ourselves. Almsgiving becomes the fruit of our reorientation of life to God.
Among the many benefits of the discipline of fasting, the sense of solidarity with those who suffer is especially strong. During a fast, we become more aware of our own creature comforts and more sensitive to the needs of others. The reality of hunger, poverty, isolation, illness, and so many other sufferings comes to mind, making fasting a catalyst for prayer not only for our own needs, but for those of the whole world. Solidarity with the poor and vulnerable is a hallmark of the Christian life. And so our prayer and fasting leads us to act on that solidarity. From time immemorial, this action is seen in almsgiving. Properly speaking, almsgiving means giving to the poor. This practice fulfills countless Biblical exhortations to care for the poor, needy, and vulnerable in our midst. The law commanded the Israelites to provide for the needs of the destitute among them, whether a blood relation, neighbor, or alien living among them. To be mindful of the poor is praised in Proverbs and is named as an attribute of God in the Psalms. Giving to the poor is called “blessed” throughout Scripture. The law even commanded that the harvest not be taken in full, to the edges of the field. Rather, some was to be left so that the poor and needy could come and find something – the glean – with which they could provide for themselves and their families. Jesus takes up the same idea repeatedly in the Gospels. His call to give to the poor is not made to the great powers of the world, but rather is directed at His followers. For example, when the disciples ask Him to send the crowd away to buy food for themselves, Jesus tells the Twelve to “give them something to eat yourselves.” The responsibility to care for the poor, as taught in the Old Testament law and affirmed by Jesus, extends to every single person. From the earliest days of the Church, as evidenced in the Acts of the Apostles and by St. Paul, it has been understood that the Christian community corporately, and every Christian individually, has a responsibility to help provide for the needs of the poor. In almsgiving, our hearts and lives, because they have been turned toward God by our repentance, our prayer, and our fasting, are now expanded to see the needs of others. In so doing, we fulfill God’s plan. To live according to God’s law and will is to be oriented toward His love, to live in a relationship with Him, and to remain in His grace all our days.
Before going further into this reflection on almsgiving, it helps to distinguish almsgiving from a related practice: tithing. In the Bible, tithing is the practice of giving to God a tenth of what is earned or produced: the “first fruits.” Cain and Abel bring God offerings from their fields and flocks. When Abraham encounters the priest and king Melchizedek, he gives him a tenth of his goods as an offering to God. Leviticus instructs the people of Israel to make an offering of the first fruits of their harvest and their livestock to the Lord, in thanksgiving for God’s blessings, as a reminder that all things belong to God, and as an act of trust in the providential care of their heavenly Father. The idea of the first fruits being dedicated to God is repeated throughout the Old Testament. In Christian history, tithing has typically taken a monetary form; giving ten percent of one’s income to the parish or to the Church. This follows the Biblical custom and reminds the Christian community that our livelihood is ultimately in God’s loving hands. To give that portion of our earning is a symbolic way of offering it to the Lord in thanksgiving. The fifth precept of the Church – to contribute to the material needs of the Church – is derived from the practice of tithing, though it does not specify an exact percentage to be given. Tithing in Biblical and in Christian practice, brings the entire body of believers together in thanksgiving before God.
While these practices are related, the distinction between them is important. The Israelites always understood that their tithe was distinct from their support of the needy, and not a contradictory obligation. Tithing teaches us to trust God’s providence as we sacrifice some portion of our income and goods, an offering to God. Almsgiving teaches us to be vessels of God’s mercy to others and to help those who are in need to trust in God’s providence also. The practice of almsgiving becomes an object lesson in trust in God. By giving to the poor, I learn to part with something I could use for myself. In some small, unconscious way, I held that money or those resources for myself, trusting that they would bring me comfort or security. By giving it away to one less fortunate, I learn that by letting go, I fall in the abyss of God’s love for me, trusting that He will provide for my needs. Likewise, I see trust in action right in front of me. Whether alms are given directly to a beggar on the street, or to a charitable organization, the hand stretched out for help is a trusting hand; the beggar (or the charity) trusts that their needs will be met, and so in humility and confidence, they ask. They ask knowing that they cannot meet their own needs, trusting that someone who can help will, in fact, help. St. Teresa of Calcutta sought to see Christ in the distressing disguise of the poor. By doing so, she not only served Christ, but met the loving gaze of Christ who looked back at her through the eyes of the poor. When we give alms, then, we learn how to trust God from those to whom we give and simultaneously act on the lesson learned as we give. We learn to look to God and find that He looks back at us in love. To trust God is to orient our lives to Him more and more. The more we are turned toward the Lord, the more we look to His light, the greater our capacity for trust becomes.
The practice of almsgiving is universal – everyone can give. The law given in Leviticus simply tells the Israelites that they are to care for the needy and poor in their midst. Each individual shares that responsibility. It is not a task reserved to the wealthy, to the king, or to specialists. The Church has always understood the practice of almsgiving to be a universal responsibility. Each of us will have to determine how we can best practice this discipline. We can give to beggars when we encounter them on the street, to particular charities that serve impoverished communities, to food and clothing drives. We can volunteer in soup kitchens, literacy programs, and otherwise give of ourselves in service to those in need. Almsgiving knows no age – adults and children alike have the capacity to give! Almsgiving knows no scale: whether one is a great philanthropist able to donate significant sums of money, or a minimum wage worker trying to help someone in need, to give alms is virtuous, loving, and a sign of a generous heart. May our practice of almsgiving allow us to love Jesus in those who are poor, in those who suffer, in those who are most in need, and may it turn us so that our lives may be more perfectly oriented to God.