I recently heard someone summarize our Lenten observances as prayer, fasting, and fraternal charity. On the one hand, that’s good: the heart of almsgiving is our love of neighbor, and discovering that our neighbor is our brother. Fasting denies ourselves so that in prayer we can turn to God and in almsgiving we can love our neighbor.
But the tradition – based above all on the first half of Matthew 6, in the Sermon on the Mount – does not say fraternal charity. It says almsgiving.
Almsgiving takes us a step further, because it specifies that the neighbor in question is poor where we are rich.
It means recognizing our own gifts. On this level, almsgiving brings together two things that seem like opposites. On the one hand, we should be grateful for all God has given us. On the other hand, we should deny ourselves. Those two seem to be in contradiction: we often find ourselves thinking that if we are grateful to God, we ought to feast, not fast. In almsgiving, we make our fast out of our neighbor’s feast. We give thanks to God for what he has given to us by denying ourselves and sharing with our neighbor. Quite nice.
Almsgiving also means recognizing our neighbor’s need. This recognition goes against our tendency to make excuses for ourselves and demands of our neighbors. I am needy, he ought to help me. But almsgiving calls us to recognize that I have more than enough, and my neighbor is hurting. We need to see how our neighbors hurt.
And almsgiving calls us to get over our assumption that when I lack, I don’t deserve it, but when I possess, I do deserve it – and when my neighbor lacks, he does deserve it, but when he possesses, he doesn’t deserve it. In its most basic, traditional form – what Jesus is talking about and the tradition practices – almsgiving means finding someone you don’t know, someone whose merits you can’t judge, and helping them out, purely out of mercy. It means renouncing our tendency to judge—and, even more, always in our own favor.
It teaches us to see ourselves as rich and our neighbor as poor. And it teaches that the right way to deal with that is to share our riches.
Where can we practice almsgiving?
I have said before and I will say again: the traditional call to almsgiving should remind us that there is something very strange about our society. If you read the life of any saint, they regularly came across beggars. Beggars have always been a part of life – including anonymous beggars, not just people you know all about and can judge worthy or unworthy. Jesus and the whole of the Bible treat it as a normal part of life that you will encounter beggars.
Why, in our normal American lives, don’t we encounter beggars? This website is about theology and spirituality, not economics, so I can only assert as a moral judgment, not prove: we have constructed our entire American way of life on making sure we never see beggars – making sure we never have to give alms. That should disturb you. There are lots of beggars in America – we have just organized our lives to make sure we don’t have to encounter them.
And yet there are beggars in our life. Elizabeth Foss, a homeschooling writer I very much respect, once pointed out that Jesus’s words in Matthew 25 about caring for him in the hungry, thirsty, foreign, naked, sick, and imprisoned almost exactly describe the vocation of motherhood.
Mothers see more literal naked beggars than even the most traditional society. We might need some metaphor for the foreigner, but our children’s lack of social graces, their inability to act according to our expectations, makes them pretty “strange”: can we welcome them nonetheless? And though they are not typically in prison, like the prisoner they are often accused, sometimes falsely, sometimes legitimately – and Jesus calls us to ignore that distinction and love them, be present to them, either way.
We can give alms to our children.
Sometimes I like to meditate on the Old Testament injunction to care for widows and orphans. I simply add to it that to the extent that I fail in my vocation, my wife is a widow and my children are orphans. So along with caring for the poverty of my children, I can care for the poverty of my wife, who relies on me.
And so too I can realize that everyone who depends on me, at work, in my extended family, in my neighborhood, or elsewhere, even in my economic relationships, is an orphan and impoverished to the extent that I fail them. I give alms when I recognize that they deserve my generosity.
Finally, I give alms every time I recognize the suffering and poverty of the people around me. Real almsgiving teaches us, and our call to almsgiving calls us, to see the brokenness of the people around us and to come to their aid.
And it teaches us that, though prayer is the highest thing, our love of Jesus means not only “spiritual works of mercy” (which are not explicitly taught us by Jesus) but far more, “corporal works”: simply giving up our material stuff to care for the concrete needs of our neighbor. That’s why we have material stuff in the first place.
Where can you give alms?