SCRIPTURE: Almsgiving as a Social Corrective
Posted by gvillecw
The sixth chapter of Matthew’s gospel opens with Jesus addressing what have become the three hallmarks of Lenten observance in the Roman Catholic and other Christian traditions: prayer, fasting and almsgiving. Interestingly, the first of these that Jesus addresses is almsgiving.
The first thing that strikes me about the passage is the assumption Jesus makes that performing “righteous deeds” is part of one’s life of faith. There is no “If you are going to perform righteous deeds, then. . .” Jesus asserts simply that any disciple of his WILL perform righteous deeds; it was part and parcel of sincere Judaism during Jesus’ day and it can be assumed that for those who follow Jesus today, righteous deeds are a regular practice of sincere discipleship.
But it begs a further question: In the Judaism of Jesus’ time, who was almsgiving aimed at? The Hebrew Scriptures suggest that almsgiving was a practice focused on a particular class of people usually referred to as “the widow, the orphan and the stranger,” three archetypes of people within ancient Hebrew society which would find themselves in an incredibly vulnerable position. Widows, orphans and strangers (i.e. foreigners within Israel) were particularly vulnerable to financial and physical threat because they had no one to speak for them, or to defend them. They were outside the stabilizing and protective circle of “family” or “tribe” or later, “nation/state.” So it is important for us to recall the context for almsgiving during Jesus’ time, and to ask ourselves whether our “righteous deeds” today are performed for the uplift of those who are most vulnerable among us and least protected by our circle of family, community, society or nation.
Those words—“alms” and “almsgiving”—are not words we use much anymore. Many would substitute today the word “charity.” But the first verse employs a Greek word—Dikaiosynē—which translates to “righteousness/righteous deeds” or “justice/just works” which connotes that what happens in this practice is not simply “charity” in the way we have come to understand the word today. Rather, there is also a note of “justice,” of redressing the wrongs that play themselves out in our political, economic and religious systems. Acts of charity today are often done with an implicit quid pro quo—sure we do something nice, but we also get something back for it. Sometimes it is a tax break; others it is the admiration or acknowledgement of friends and community. But in Jesus’ sermon, the “rightness” of the act is sufficient in and of itself as far as things go here on earth; any reward here too easily leads to a corruption of the goodness of the act apparently.
The thrust of the passage – that doing good in order to be praised or rewarded for it— is a warning to those who are listening to Jesus. It is a “false pride” that ensnares us when we receive adulation for our good work. Such adulation and the false pride it engenders takes away from the importance of “doing justice” in and of itself. The issue is that we have directly or indirectly benefited at the expense of others in our society who go without enough food, or care, or love, or security; and our “almsgiving” is not to be praised, but rather the simple practice of healing our societal brokenness, correcting inequities among us, redressing wrongs. This isn’t something to be praised; it is simply something that good people—including those who would follow Jesus—should do.
The final point in this opening passage of this section is that Jesus also puts on the listener the responsibility for performing such acts. The act of doing justice, giving alms is not left to one’s church or one’s government or some other institution. It is a personal responsibility of each and every person who walks this way with Jesus. It cannot be passed on to another level but must be practiced oneself. Such practice, if it becomes second nature to us, fulfills the meaning of verse three: “do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing.” Our practice is rooted in our integrity, it becomes natural to us, without thought eventually, simply part of who we are and what we do.