The meaning of Alms; Almsgiving in the Bible
(From International Standard Bible Encyclopedia)
ams, ams-giv'-ing: The English word "alms" is an abridged form of the Greek word, eleemosune (compare "eleemosynary"), appearing in gradually reduced forms in German Almosen, Wyclif's Almesse, Scotch Aw'mons, and our alms.
The later Jews often used "righteousness" tsedhaqah as meaning alms, that being in their view the foremost righteousness. (Compare our modern use of "charity" to denote almsgiving.) This use is seen in the Talmud and in the frequent translations of the Hebrew word for "righteousness" (tsedhaqah) by "alms" (eleemosune) in the Septuagint, though nothing warranting this is found in the Hebrew Old Testament, or in the true text of the New Testament. This notion of righteousness as alms being well-nigh universal among Jews in Jesus' day, and spreading even among Christians, accounts for "alms" in Matthew 6:1, where the true text has "righteousness": "Take heed that ye do not your righteousness before men, to be seen of them" (the Revised Version (British and American) with Codex Vaticanus, Codex Sinaiticus, Codex Bezae, the Latin versions, etc.). The oriental versions which generally read "alms" may be accounted for on the supposition that "alms" was first written on the margin as explaining the supposed meaning of "righteousness," and then, as according with this accepted oriental idea, was substituted for it in the text by the copyists.
Dikaiosune and eleemosune are both used in the Septuagint to translate chesedh, "kindness," and are also both used to translate tsedhaqah, "justice." Almsgiving was regarded not merely as a plain evidence of righteousness in general but also as an act of justice, a just debt owing to the needy. "No one refuses directly," Mackie says, hence, possibly, Christ's teaching in Luke 11:41, "Let your righteousness (charity) be from within," "Give your hearts to almsgiving."
In the course of time the impulse and command to give alms in a true human way, out of pity, such as is found expressed in Deuteronomy 15:11 the King James Version, "Thou shalt open thine hand wide unto thy brother, to thy poor, and to thy needy, in thy land," gave place to a formal, meritorious" practice, possessing, like sacrifice, as men came to think, the power of atoning for man's sins, and redeeming him from calamity and death. For instance, Proverbs 11:4 (compare Proverbs 16:6 : Proverbs 21:3) was expounded: "Water will quench blazing fire; so doth almsgiving make atonement for sins" (Ecclesiasticus 3:30). "Lay up alms in thy storehouse; it shall deliver thee from affliction" (Ecclesiasticus 29:12). The story of Tobit is especially in point: it is simply a lesson on almsgiving and its redeeming powers: "Alms delivers from death and will purge away all sin" (Tobit 1:3,16; 2:14; 4:7-11; 12:8,9. Compare Sirach 29:11 ff.). Kindred teaching abounds in the Talmud: "Alms-giving is more excellent than all offerings," is "equal to the whole law," will "deliver from the condemnation of hell," will "make one perfectly righteous," etc. According to Rabbi Assi, "Almsgiving is a powerful paraclete between the Israelites and their Father in heaven, it brings the time of redemption nigh (Babha' Bathra' Talmud 10a).
The Roman Catholics, holding the books of Tobit and Sirach to be canonical, find in them proof-texts for their doctrine of almsgiving, and likewise attach great value to the gifts to the poor as atoning for sins. Protestants, by a natural reaction, have failed to hold always at its true value what was and is an important Christian duty (see Luke 12:33 the King James Version, and, compare Matthew 6:19-24 : "Sell that ye have and give alms," etc.). It seems to have been so regarded and kept up in the Christian communities until the beginning of the 4th century (Apos Const II 36; Cyprian, De Opera and Eleemos. xiv).
The teaching of Jesus on the subject is important, first, as bearing upon Jewish ideas and practices, and second, as bearing upon present-day Christian ideas and practices.
This teaching appears most conspicuously in the Sermon on the Mount. While showing what is required of the subjects of the Messianic reign, He avowedly sets forth a higher and more spiritual morality than that which was taught and practiced by the scribes and Pharisees: "Except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no wise enter into the kingdom of heaven" (Matthew 5:20). There, too, He lays down the general principle embodied in the words of Matthew 6:1 : "Take heed that ye do not your righteousness before men, to be seen of them," and illustrates it by applying it to the three exercises most valued among the Jews (commended together in Tobit 12:8), namely, almsgiving (Matthew 6:2, Matthew 6:4), prayer (Matthew 6:5-15), and fasting (Matthew 6:16-18). Jewish writers claim that these are "the three cardinal disciplines which the synagogue transmitted to the Christian church and the Mohammedan mosque" (compare Koran, Sura 2 40, 104; 9 54).
Clearly what Jesus here forbids in general is not publicity in performing good deeds, which is often necessary and proper, but ostentatious publicity, for the purpose of attracting attention. (The Greek conveys distinctly this idea of purpose, and the verb for "to be seen" is the one from which comes our word "theater.")
Jewish writers, as also Greek and Roman philosophers, have many notable maxims upon the beauty and importance of being unostentatious in virtue, especially in deeds of benevolence. The Essenes had their treasury in a chamber of their own in the temple that both the giving and the taking should be unobserved (Mishnah, Sheq., v.6). Rabbi Eleazer said, "Alms-giving should be done in secret and not before men, for he who gives before men is a sinner, and God shall bring also the good deed before his judgment" (B.B. 9a; compare Ecclesiastes 12:14).
In applying this principle to almsgiving Jesus teaches His disciple: "When ... thou doest alms, sound not a trumpet before thee, as the hypocrites do" (Matthew 6:2). The conjecture of Calvin, followed by Stier and others, and mentioned as early as Euthymius, that it was a practice among Jews for an ostentatious almsgiver literally to sound a trumpet, or cause a trumpet to be sounded before him, in public places to summon the needy is without foundation (Lightfoot); as is also the notion, made current by the rabbis and accepted by Edersheim (The Temple, etc., 26), that by "sounding a trumpet" Jesus was alluding to the trumpet-like receptacles of brass in the temple treasury. There is no proof that these were found "in the synagogues," or "in the streets." "Sound a trumpet," according to the Greek commentators, and the best modern authorities, is merely a figurative expression common to many languages, for self-parade—efforts to attract notice and win applause (compare our vulgar English saying about "blowing your own horn"). The contrast with the common practice instituted by Jesus is the significant thing: "But when thou doest alms"—"thou" is emphatic by position in the Greek—"let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doeth," etc., i.e. "So far from trumpeting your almsgiving before the public, do not even let it be known to yourself." Jesus here, Calvin well says, "silently glances at a kind of folly which prevails everywhere among men, that they think they have lost their pares if there have not been many spectators of their virtues." (The traditional saying of Mohammed, "In almsgiving, the left hand should not know what the right has given," is evidently borrowed from this saying of Jesus.) It is worthy of note that, despite popular practice, to give alms with right motives, and only to those who were worthy to receive, was a matter of special solicitude and instruction with the best among Jews as well as among Christians. The words of the Psalmist, "Blessed is he that considereth the poor," are construed to be an admonition to "take personal interest in him and not simply give him alms" (Lev. R. xxxiv). "When thou wilt do good, know to whom thou doest it. Give unto the good and help not the sinner" (Ecclesiasticus 12:1-6; compare Didache 1:5,6). "He that gives a free offering should give with a well-meaning eye" (Yer. B.D. 4 11). Jesus' words concerning the "single" and the "evil" eye (compare Luke 11:34-36), and Paul's teaching, "God loveth a cheerful giver" (II Corinthians 9:7-9) have their counterparts in Jewish teaching. Rabbi Eleazer, referring to Hosea 10:12, taught this high doctrine. "The kindness displayed in the giving of alms decides the final reward" (Suk. 49b). Other kindred teaching in a way anticipated Jesus' supreme lesson, "that thine alms may be in secret: and thy Father who seeth in secret shall recompense thee" (Matthew 6:4).
Commentaries at the place Rabbinical literature in point. D. Cassel, Die Armenverwaltung des alten Israel, 1887.
George B. Eager
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