Almsgiving and Mercy

Today the Astonishing Community remembers Tabitha the Almsgiver. People are always quick to talk about how they give of their time and talents, but sometimes giving of our financial resources is necessary too.

Fausto Gomez OP describes the need to give alms as a pathway to mercy. How does this description make you feel?

Mercy Pathways

Fausto Gomez OP

The paths of mercy are many, in particular the works of mercy (cf. CCC 2447). In his Bull of Proclamation of the Jubilee of Mercy Misericordiae Vultus, the Face of Mercy (no. 15) Pope Francis writes: “It is my burning desire that, during this Jubilee, the Christian people may reflect on the corporal and spiritual works of mercy. It will be a way to reawaken our conscience, too often grown dull in the face of poverty. And let us enter more deeply into the heart of the Gospel where the poor have a special experience of God’s mercy.”

The three classical exercises of penance are paths of mercy: prayer, fasting and almsgiving. “Prayer with fasting and alms with uprightness are better than riches with iniquity… Almsgiving saves from death and purges every kind of sin” (Tob 12:8-9; Dan 4:27; cf. Mt 6:2-4, 5-6, 16-18; cf. EG 193). Often, prayer is presented as directed to fasting and almsgiving – to virtuous living.

Fasting to be a good act must be accompanied by almsgiving. Fasting without almsgiving is not a saving act on the way to heaven. It is insufficient as John Chrysostom, Ambrose and Augustine tell us. St. Peter Chrysologus (406-450) writes: “He who does not fast for the poor fools God.” On the other hand, fasting with almsgiving is pleasing to God.

In the teaching of Sacred Scriptures, patristic and classical theology true almsgiving is a necessary expression of mercy. In his Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium Pope Francis writes: “The wisdom literature sees almsgiving as a concrete exercise of mercy towards those in need” (EG 193). For those who believe in God, almsgiving is an obligation (Tob 1:7-11; Sir 7:10). Why? Because, all need to practice charity as love of neighbor, as merciful love, which is the highest expression of love of neighbor. All the Fathers of the Church recommend strongly and persistently sharing of goods, almsgiving. St Cyprian, the first Father to give us a theological treatise on almsgiving, entitled On Almsgiving, speaks of almsgiving as an obligation of all Christians. He says that almsgiving is an act of mercy, an act of justice, and a means of penance for our sins and for obtaining forgiveness for them. 

Almsgiving is an outward or external act of mercy. It is also an expression of justice in the sense that the poor are entitled to it. Almsgiving, however, is more than justice: it is merciful love, the love that gives value to almsgiving and everything in life (1 Cor 13:3). Without charity as merciful love of neighbor, almsgiving may be unjust, for in this case it does not make people involved equal; charity does (José María Cabodevilla).

Authentic almsgiving is what is called formal almsgiving. There is material almsgiving and formal almsgiving. Giving to others in need without love is merely material but not formal or authentic almsgiving: “Almsgiving can be materially without charity, but to give alms formally, that is for God’s sake, with delight and readiness, and altogether as one ought, is not possible without charity” as love of God and neighbor (St Thomas Aquinas).

Not giving alms when one can give (cf. Mt 25:41-43) is a source of condemnation. We read in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “Our Lord warns us that we shall be separated from him if we fail to meet the serious needs of the poor and the little ones who are his brethren” (CCC 1033; cf. Mt 25:31-46).

In case of real need, corporal need is more important than spiritual need, which is generally more important: “a man in hunger is to be fed rather than instructed, and for a needy man money is better than philosophy, although the latter is better.” Love of neighbor, St. Thomas adds, implies beneficence and almsgiving, “for love of neighbor requires not only that we should be our neighbors’ well-wishers, but also his well-doers.”

The classical theory of charity and mercy may appears as more concerned with the individual person than with the social order or disorder.  Hence, almsgiving may be used as a cover up for injustice. Of course, true almsgiving as a pathway of mercy cannot be unjust for it necessarily presupposes justice. Today more than yesterday, we speak of almsgiving not only to a person but also to a needy poor people, an ethnic group, the poor, the refugees, and the excluded from the banquet of life. Corporate almsgiving – donations -, or the Church’ s Caritas are much needed, irreplaceable in our world; the rich nations  are obliged to share with the poor ones as taught by the social doctrine of the Church (cf. Vatican II, Gaudium et Spes, GS, 69; Paul VI, Populorum Progressio, PP, 23, 26, 43). In the midst of poverty and misery, excessive spending and squandering are sins (CCC, 2409). As Christians, we are called to practice a simple life style: “Let us live simply so that others may simply live” (Canadian Bishops).

Moreover, each one of us always needs to give something to the poor: to concrete individual poor person: “Sometime of real contact with the poor is necessary” (Pope Francis).

Merciful and compassionate love urges Christians and all humans to “loving the unlovely, the unlovable, the least, the lost, and the last.” Mercy is not only sharing with the materially poor, although this aspect is much underlined, but also with all others in need, especially those in urgent need.

The merciful Jesus hopes to be able to tell you and me after crossing the bridge that links this life and the afterlife: “Come…, take as your heritage the kingdom prepared for you… For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you made me welcome, lacking clothes and you clothed me … “Why, Lord?” Because “In so far as you did this to one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did it to me” (Mt 25:34-40).

St Elizabeth of Hungary

About Rev'd Lynsayhttps://revdlynsay.wordpress.comA priest and poet in the Scottish Episcopal Church, exploring the workings of the Holy Spirit in Banchory .

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