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Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament [1]

Almsgiving ( ἐλεημοσύνη).—[For the history of the word, and Jewish teaching, see Hasting's Dictionary of the Bible i. 67]. Only on three occasions does our Lord in the NT employ the word ( Matthew 6:1-4,  Luke 11:41;  Luke 12:33). But these texts by no means exhaust His teaching on the subject. All the Gospels witness to His interest in it. Mk. contains the incidents of the Rich Young Man whom He told, ‘Yet one thing thou lackest: go, sell all that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven’ ( Mark 10:21); the Widow’s Mite ( Mark 12:43); and the emphatic praise of Mary of Bethany ( Mark 14:7). Jn. again exhibits all Christ’s miracles as so many charities ( e.g.  Mark 2:1-11), ‘good works’ which Christ ‘showed you from the Father’ ( Mark 10:32); tells the Lord’s defence of Mary’s act ( Mark 12:8); and drops a hint twice over ( Mark 12:6 and  Mark 13:29) of Christ’s own practice of giving something to the poor out of His scanty wallet. But it is St. Matthew the converted tax-gatherer who left all and followed Him, and St. Luke the beloved physician, with his abounding sympathy for wretchedness of every sort, who have preserved to us the most numerous and striking of His sayings on the subject.

The general character of our Lord’s teaching concerning Almsgiving has been described as in close accordance with the Jewish thought of the time, even in points where we should have least expected it. Certainly He endorses and very much enhances the praise of Almsgiving which we find in the OT ( e.g.  Psalms 41:1,  Proverbs 19:17, Du 4:27). But in dealing with the teachings of the Apocrypha, which probably reflect more closely the views He found prevailing, He discriminates. If, on the one hand, He combines ( Matthew 6:2;  Matthew 6:5;  Matthew 6:16) Almsgiving, Prayer, and Fasting, as in  Tobit 12:8, and describes Almsgiving as providing a treasure in the heavens which faileth not ( Luke 12:33), as in  Sirach 40:17; yet, on the other hand, He explicitly condemns ( Matthew 6:2) the notion countenanced in  Sirach 31:11 [LXX Septuagint,  Sirach 34:11] that alms may be done to gain a reputation for piety; while in  Matthew 5:45 He directly contradicts both the precept and the doctrine of  Sirach 12:5-7 ‘Give not to the ungodly … for the Most High hateth sinners, and will repay vengeance.’

Almsgiving is, according to Christ, a duty even towards our enemies, and those with whom we have little to do ( Matthew 5:42-45,  Luke 6:33-36;  Luke 10:37); it is a means whereby we may conform ourselves to the example of our Father which is in heaven ( Matthew 5:45,  Luke 6:35); it is the first exercise of righteousness ( Matthew 6:1-4). As eliminating from our enjoyment of material things the elements of unthankfulness and selfishness, it is the true way to purify them for our use ( Luke 11:41). To obtain the means of almsgiving, we may profitably part with earthly goods, because we shall thereby provide ourselves with ‘purses which wax not old,’ and raise our hearts, with our treasures, to heaven ( Luke 12:33-34). In certain cases, like that of the Rich Young Ruler, it may be needful for a man to sell all and distribute to the poor ( Matthew 19:21,  Mark 10:21,  Luke 18:22); while the poor whom we may make our friends by using ‘the mammon of unrighteousness,’ for their benefit, are able, by their grateful prayers for us, to ‘receive us, when it (our wealth) has failed us, into the eternal tabernacles’ ( Luke 16:1-13 parable of the Unjust Steward). Even trifling alms, given in the name of a disciple, are sure to be rewarded ( Matthew 10:42). And surely in those words of the Good Samaritan to the innkeeper, ‘Whatsoever thou spendest more, when (not, if) I come again I will repay thee’ ( Luke 10:35), we must discern the voice of our Lord Himself: since no one but He can be certain either of returning ( James 4:13), or of ability to reward the ministrations of love. His rewards, when He does come, will surprise some, who did not realize that in ministering to ‘his brethren’ they ministered to Him ( Matthew 25:37 ff.). On the other hand, for the rich to indulge themselves, and neglect their poor neighbour, is the way for them to Gehenna ( Luke 16:19-31 parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus); and the omission of the duty will be a ground of condemnation at the Last Day ( Matthew 25:45).

Other notices, though less direct, are worth considering, e.g. our Lord’s injunction to the Twelve, ‘Freely ye have received, freely give’ ( Matthew 10:8); His own compassionate feeding of the hungry multitudes ( Matthew 14:18;  Matthew 15:32,  Mark 6:37;  Mark 8:3,  Luke 9:13); His rebuke of the Rabbis’ rule, that when sons had rashly or selfishly taken the vow of Corban, they must no longer be suffered to do aught for their father or their mother ( Matthew 15:5,  Mark 7:11); His acceptance of the Jews’ intercession for the Gentile who had built them a synagogue ( Luke 7:5); the praise of the women who ministered unto Him of their substance ( Luke 8:3); His advice, when we make a feast, to invite the poor ( Luke 14:13); and the vow of the penitent Zacchaeus, ‘The half of my goods I give to the poor’ ( Luke 19:8). Nor may we omit ‘the words of the Lord Jesus,’ quoted by St. Paul, but preserved by St. Luke ( Acts 20:35), ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’

We do not find in the teaching of our Lord Himself any of those cautions, which are so dear to the present day, against excessive almsgiving; though doubtless St. Paul ‘had the mind of Christ’ ( 1 Corinthians 2:16) when he laid down his rule, ‘If any man will not work, neither let him eat’ ( 2 Thessalonians 3:10). Not far, at any rate, from this is His parable of the Labourers in the Vineyard ( Matthew 20:1-16), where Jesus describes God under the figure of a rich and generous householder who gives work and wages (not mere alms) to those who are able to work, asks with surprise of such, ‘Why stand ye here all the day idle?’ and, on learning it was their misfortune and not their fault, makes them work for the last hour, yet pays them a whole day’s wages.

We have seen how Christ condemns the doing of alms to have glory of men. He exposes also the ugliness of boasting of our giving before God ( Luke 18:11 parable of the Pharisee and the Publican); insists that justice, mercy, and truth are of infinitely greater importance than minute scrupulousness in tithing, and lays down the comprehensive principle that, however there may be opportunities for us to do more than we have been explicitly commanded , yet we never can do more than we owe to God: ‘When ye have done all, say, We are unprofitable servants: we have done that which it was our duty to do’ ( Luke 17:10). Again, by His own example, in the case of the woman of Canaan ( Matthew 15:21-28), He cuts off another unworthy motive, too often active in our so-called almsgiving, the wish to get rid of a beggar’s importunity; while, both in the case of this woman and of her with the issue of blood ( Matthew 9:20,  Mark 5:25,  Luke 8:43), He shows by His own example that true kindness is not indiscriminate, but takes the most careful account, not so much of the immediate and material, as of the ultimate and spiritual benefit which may be done, by its assistance, to the afflicted or the needy. The soul’s wellbeing is higher than the body’s. And, of course, our almsgiving, like all our works, is to be done in subjection to the two commandments which are the standing law of His kingdom, that we love the Lord our God with all our heart and all our mind, and that we love our neighbour as ourself ( Matthew 22:37 ff. ||).

Literature.—Besides the Commentaries on passages referred to, consult O. Cone, Rich and Poor in the New Testament , 112ff.; B. F. Westcott, Incarnation and Common Life , 195–208; A. T. Lyttelton, College and University Sermons , 256; W. C. E. Newbolt, Counsels of Faith and Practice , 227; F. Temple, Rugby Sermons , 2nd ser. 7; Pusey, Sermons .

James Cooper.

Baker's Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology [2]

See Contribution

Webster's Dictionary [3]

(n.) The giving of alms.