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Bible Encyclopedias

Kitto's Popular Cyclopedia of Biblial Literature


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The regulations of the Mosaic law respecting property, and its benign spirit towards the poor, went far to prevent the existence of penury as a permanent condition in society, and, consequently, by precluding beggary, to render the need of almsgiving unnecessary. Poverty, however, considered as a state of comparative want, Moses seems to have contemplated as a probable event in the social frame which he had established; and accordingly, by the appointment of specific regulations, and the enjoining of a general spirit of tender-heartedness, he sought to prevent destitution and its evil consequences (Leviticus 25:35; Deuteronomy 15:7, etc.). The great antiquity of the practice of benevolence towards the poor is shown in the very beautiful passage which is found in Job 29:13 et seq. How high the esteem was in which this virtue continued to be held in the time of the Hebrew monarchy may be learned from Psalms 41:1; see also Psalms 112:9; Proverbs 14:31. The progress of social corruption, however, led to the oppression of the poor, which the prophets, after their manner, faithfully reprobated (Isaiah 58:7); where, among other neglected duties, the Israelites are required to deal their bread to the hungry, and to bring the outcast poor to their house. See also Isaiah 10:2; Amos 2:7; Jeremiah 5:28; Ezekiel 22:29.

However favorable to the poor the Mosaic institutions were, they do not appear to have wholly prevented beggary; for the imprecation found in Psalms 109:10, 'Let his children be vagabonds and beg,' implies the existence of beggary as a known social condition. Begging naturally led to almsgiving, though the language of the Bible does not present us with a term for 'alms' till the period of the Babylonish captivity, during the calamities attendant on which the need probably introduced the practice. From Daniel 4:27 it would appear that almsgiving had come to be regarded as a means of conciliating God's favor and of warding off evil. At a still later period this idea took a firm seat in the national mind, and alms-deeds were regarded as a mark of distinguished virtue. That begging was customary in the time of the Savior is clear from Mark 10:46. And that it was usual for the worshippers, as they entered the temple, to give relief, appears from the context, and particularly from the fine answer to the lame man's entreaty, made by the apostle Peter. The general spirit of Christianity, in regard to succoring the needy, is nowhere better seen than in 1 John 3:17 : 'Whoso hath this world's good, and seeth his brother have need, and shutteth up his bowels from him, how dwelleth the love of God in him?' With the faithful and conscientious observance of the 'royal law' of love, particular manifestations of mercy to the poor seem to be left by Christianity to be determined by time, place, and circumstances; and it cannot be supposed that a religion, one of whose principles is 'that, if any would not work, neither should he eat' (2 Thessalonians 3:10), can give any sanction to indiscriminate almsgiving, or intend to encourage the crowd of wandering, idle beggars with which some parts of the world are still infested. The emphatic language employed by the Lord Jesus Christ and others (Luke 3:11; Luke 6:30; Luke 11:41; Luke 12:33; Matthew 6:1; Acts 9:36; Acts 10:2; Acts 10:4) is designed to enforce the general duty of a merciful and practical regard to the distresses of the indigent; while the absence of ostentation, and even secrecy, which the Savior enjoined in connection with almsgiving, was intended to correct actual abuses, and bring the practice into harmony with the spirit of the Gospel. In the remarkable reflections of Jesus on the widow's mite (Mark 12:42) is found a principle of great value, to the effect that the magnitude of men's offerings to God is to be measured by the disposition of mind whence they proceed; a principle which cuts up by the very roots the idea that merit attaches itself to almsgiving as such, and increases in proportion to the number and costliness of our alms-deeds.

One of the earliest effects of the working of Christianity in the hearts of its professors was the care which it led them to take of the poor and indigent in the 'household of faith.' Neglected and despised by the world, cut off from its sympathies, and denied any succor it might have given, the members of the early churches were careful not only to make provision in each case for its own poor, but to contribute to the necessities of other though distant communities (Acts 11:29; Acts 24:17; 2 Corinthians 9:12). This commendable practice seems to have had its Christian origin in the deeply interesting fact (which appears from John 13:29) that the Savior and his attendants were wont, notwithstanding their own comparative poverty, to contribute out of their small resources something for the relief of the needy.





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Bibliography Information
Kitto, John, ed. Entry for 'Alms'. "Kitto's Popular Cyclopedia of Biblial Literature".

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