the Week of Proper 3 / Ordinary 8
Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature
(ἐλεημοσύνη , mercifulness, i e. an act of charity, Matthew 6:1-4; Luke 11:41; Luke 12:23; Acts 3:2-3; Acts 3:10; Acts 10:2; Acts 10:4; Acts 10:31; Acts 24:17; "almsdeeds," Acts 9:36), beneficence toward the poor, from Anglo-Sax. oelmesse, probably, as well as Germ. almosen, from the corresponding Greek word ἐλεημοσύνη; Vulg. eleemosyna (but see Bosworth, Anglo-Saxon Dict.). The word "alms" is not found in our version of the canonical books of the O.T., but it occurs repeatedly in the N.T., and in the Apocryphal books of Tobit and Ecclesiasticus. The Hebrew צְדָקָה, tsedakah', righteousness, the usual equivalent for alms in the O.T., is rendered by the Sept. in Deuteronomy 24:13, and elsewhere, ἐλεημοσύνη, while the best MSS., with the Vulg. and Rhem. Test., read in Matthew 6, δικαιοσύνη, righteousness. (See POOR).
I. Jewish Alms-giving. — The regulations of the Mosaic law respecting property, and the enjoining of a general spirit of tender-heartedness, sought to prevent destitution and its evil consequences. The law in this matter is found in Leviticus 25:35 : "And if thy brother be waxen poor, and fallen into decay with thee, then shalt thou relieve him;" and it is liberally added, "yea, though he be a stranger or a sojourner, that he may live with thee." The consideration by which this merciful enactment is recommended has peculiar force: "I am the Lord your God, which brought you forth out of the land of Egypt to give you the land of Canaan, and to be your God." The spirit of the Hebrew legislator on this point is forcibly exhibited in Deuteronomy 15:7 sq.: "If there be among you a poor man … thou shalt open thine hand wide unto him … . Beware that thine eye be not evil against thy poor brother, and thou givest him naught; and he cry unto the Lord against thee, and it be sin unto thee. Thou shalt surely give him, and thine heart shall not be grieved when thou givest unto him: because that for this the Lord thy God shall bless thee in all thy works." The great antiquity of the practice of benevolence toward the poor is shown in Job 29:13 sq. How high the esteem was in which this virtue continued to be held in the time of the Hebrew monarchy may be learnt from Psalms 41:1 : "Blessed is he that considereth the poor; the Lord will remember him in time of trouble" (comp. 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 58:3); 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 (comp. 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 (comp. generally Carpzov, Eleemosynoe Judreor. ex antiquitate Jud. delineatoe, Lips. 1728). 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 (Gesenius, Carm. Samar. p. 63). In Daniel 4:24, we find the Chald. word צִדְקָה (tsidkah'; lit. righteousness), rendered ἐλεημοσύναι in the Sept., and the ensuing: member of the sentence puts the meaning beyond a question: "O king, break off thy sins by righteousness, and thine iniquities by showing mercy to the poor, if it may be a lengthening of thy tranquillity." A new idea is here presented, namely, that of merit and purchase. Alms-giving 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 almsdeeds were regarded as a mark of distinguished virtue (Tobit 2:14; Tobit 4:11). That begging was customary in the time of the Savior is clear from Mark 10:46," Blind Bartimaeus sat by the wayside begging;" and Acts 3:2, "A lame man was laid daily at the gate of the temple called Beautiful to ask alms" (comp. Acts 3:10). 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. (See BEGGAR).
Charity toward the poor and indigent — that is alms-giving — was probably among the later Jews a highly-honored act of piety (see Buxtorf, Florileg. Heb. p. 88 sq.; Otho, Lex. Rabb. p. 196 sq.), and hence is named even in connection with prayer and fasting (Tobit 12:9). It was regarded as especially agreeable to God (comp. Acts 10:4; Acts 10:31; Hebrew 13:16; Thilo, Apocr. p. 324), as meritorious in the divine sight (Proverbs 10:2; Proverbs 11:4; Tobit 2:14), even availing to blot out sins (Tobit 4:10; Sirach 29:10-13; comp. Daniel 4:24), in short, as a fulfillment of the whole law (Talm. Jerus. Peah, 1). Children were early trained up to it (Tobit 14:11), and among the encomiums of pious persons their charitableness was almost always enumerated (Sirach 31:11; Acts 9:36; Acts 10:2). Exhortations to this virtue are especially frequent in the Proverbs of Solomon (3, 27 sq.; 22:9; 28:27), and in the book of Sirach (3, 23 sq.; 7:36), and the latter gives practical hints for the performance of this duty (12, 1 sq.; 18:14; 20:13 sq.). Accordingly, there were arrangements in the synagogues for the collection of alms on the Sabbath (Matthew 6:2; comp. Vitringa, Synag. p. 811), and in the temple was a chamber (לִשְׁכִּת חֲשָׁץִים ) where alms not specially designated for the poor Jews (עֲנַיִּים בְּטֵי טוֹבִים ) were deposited (Mishna, Shek. v. 6); on the other hand, the trumpet-shaped vessels (שׁוֹפָרוֹת, to which some have erroneously referred the term σαλπίζω in Matthew 6:2) served for the reception of those that individuals contributed for the support of divine worship. (See TEMPLE). In the community, according to Maimonides, eleemosynary contributions were so arranged that almoners (גִּבָּאִין, collectors, fully גִּבָּאֵי צְדָקָה , Talm. Jerus. Demay, fol. 23:2) sometimes took up collections of money in a box (קוּפָה ) on the Sabbath, and sometimes received daily from house-to-house voluntary offerings, consisting of victuals, in a vessel (תִּמְחוּי ) carried for that purpose (see, [Eck or] Werner, De fisco et paropside pauperum duab. specieb. eleemosynar. vet. Ebroeor. Jen. 1725). By far the foremost in alms-giving were the Pharisees, but they did it mostly in an ostentatious manner. The charge laid against them in Matthew 6:2, has not yet been fully explained, on account of the obscurity of the expression "do not sound a trumpet before thee" (μὴ σαλπίσῃς ἔμπροσθέν σου ), which can hardly refer to the modern Oriental practice (Niebuhr, Reisen, 1, 181) of beggars (as in some parts of Switzerland) demanding charity by making music, since in that case the "trumpeting" would not proceed from the donor, nor would he be at all in fault. The language conveys the idea that the Pharisees assembled the poor in the synagogues and streets by the sound of a trumpet, which naturally attracted also spectators thither; but this custom would be too ceremonious to be probable, because it would require these individuals to have an attendant with a trumpet, as they could not well have blown it themselves. By the term "synagogues" here could not be meant the audience-room, at least during divine service, but only the porch or immediate vicinity of the edifice. On the whole, the expression "sound a trumpet" may more easily be interpreted metaphorically (with the Church fathers, also Grotius, Fritzsche, Tholuck, and others), q. d., don't make a flourish of music in front of you, i e. do not proclaim your liberality in a noisy manner. See generally Aster, De Eleemosynis Judicorum (Lips. 1728); Maimonides, De Jure Pauperis, 7, 10; 9:1, 6; Jahn, Arch. Bibl. 4, 371; Lightfoot, Horoe Hebr. on Matthew 6:2, and Descr. Templi. 19; and comp. Smith's Dict. of Class. Antiq. s.v. Tuba. (See OFFERINGS); (See TITHES); (See TEMPLE).
II. Apostolical. — 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 alms-giving, 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 [see the treatise on this text by Somnel, Lond. and Goth. 1787]; Luke 12:33; Matthew 6:1; Acts 9:37; 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 — a duty which all history shows men have been lamentably prone to neglect; while the absence of ostentation and even secrecy, which the Savior enjoined in connection with alms-giving, was intended to correct actual abuses, and bring the practice into harmony with the spirit of the Gospel. In the inimitable 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 alms-giving as such, and increases in proportion to the number and costliness of our almsdeeds.
Accordingly, we find that the duty of relieving the poor was not neglected by the early Christians (Luke 14:13; Acts 20:35; Galatians 2:10). Every individual was exhorted to lay by on the Sunday in each week some portion of his profits, to be applied to the wants of the needy (Acts 11:30; Romans 15:25-27; 1 Corinthians 16:1-4). It was also considered a duty specially incumbent on widows to devote themselves to such ministrations (1 Timothy 5:10). 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. See generally Gude, Eleemosynoe Eccles. Apostolicoe ex Antiquitate Sacra (Lauban. 1728).
III. Ecclesiastical Alms-giving. — In the early ages of Christianity alms were divided in some provinces into four portions; one of which was allotted to the bishops, another to the priests, a third to the deacons and sub-deacons, which made their whole subsistence, and a fourth part was employed in relieving the poor and in repairing churches. These alms were given to the poor at their entrance into the church. The reasons assigned for this practice by Chrysostom indicate on his part a very defective view of Gospel truth. He says, "For this reason our forefathers appointed the poor to stand before the door of our churches, that the sight of them might provoke the most backward and inhuman soul to compassion. And as, by law and custom, we have fountains before our oratories, that they who go in to worship God may first wash their hands, and so lift them up in prayer, so our ancestors, instead of fountains and cisterns, placed the poor before the door of the church, that, as we wash our hands in water, we should cleanse our souls by beneficence and charity first, and then go and offer up our prayers. For water is not more adapted to wash away the spots of the body than the power of almsdeeds is to cleanse the soul. As, therefore, you dare not go in to pray with unwashen hands, though this be but a small offense, so neither should you without alms ever enter the church for prayer" (Hom. 25, de verb. Apost.). The period of Lent was particularly fruitful in alms. During the last week Chrysostom enjoins a more liberal distribution than usual of alms to the poor, and the exercise of all kinds of charity. The reason he assigns is, the nearer men approach to the passion and resurrection of Christ, by which all the blessings of the world were poured forth on men, the more they should feel themselves obliged to show all manner of acts of mercy and kindness toward their brethren (Bingham, bk. 21, ch. 1, § 25). At the time of marriage, as a substitute for the old Roman practice of throwing about nuts, the early Christians were accustomed to distribute alms to the poor and to children. The distribution of alms at funerals was associated with the unscriptural practice of praying for the dead. In one of Chrysostom's "Homilies," he says, "If many barbarous nations burn their goods together with their dead, how much more reasonable is it for you to give your child his goods when he is dead! Not to reduce them to ashes, but to make him the more glorious; if he be a sinner, to procure him pardon; if righteous, to add to his reward and retribution." In several of the fathers alms-giving is recommended as meritorious; and the germ of Romish teaching on the subject of salvation by the merit of good works may be clearly found in them. — Bingham, Orig. Eccl. 13, 8, § 14; Coleman, Anc. Christianity, ch. 4, § 3; Hofling, Lehre d. alt. Kirche v. Opfer. (See ALMONER).
The order in the Church of England is, that alms should be collected at that part of the communion service which is called the offertory, while the sentences are reading which follow the place appointed for the sermon.
In the Methodist Episcopal Church alms are collected at the sacrament of the Lord's Supper and at the love-feasts.
On the Christian duty of alms-giving see Taylor, Holy Living and Dying, ch. 4, § 8; Saurin, Sermons (Serm. 9); Barrow's Sermon on Bounty to the Poor (Works, 2, 69); Wayland's Moral Science, p. 376 sq. (See CHARITY), and (See POOR).
IV. Civil. — The poor-laws of modern times have brought up anew the whole question of alms-giving in its relation to Christian ethics, and it requires a thorough investigation. — Chalmers on the Scottish Poor-laws (Ed. Rev. 41, 228). (See HOSPITALS); (See PAUPER).
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McClintock, John. Strong, James. Entry for 'Alms'. Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature. https://www.studylight.org/​encyclopedias/​eng/​tce/​a/alms.html. Harper & Brothers. New York. 1870.