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Alms

ALMS: A gift to which the recipient has no claim and for which he renders no return, made purely from pity and a desire to relieve need. Such a gift has religious value in Buddhism and in Islam. But it was in Judaism that almsgiving was first highly regarded from a religio-ethical point of view. The Old Testament has a higher conception, based upon the ideas that the land belongs not to individuals but to God, whence all have equal right to its fruits, and that the regulating principle of conduct toward others among God’s chosen people must be “thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself” (Lev. xix. 18, 34). Benevolence follows as an ordinary duty. In postcanonical times almsgiving almost imperceptibly assumed the character of a voluntary act of merit and even of expiation for sin and assurance of salvation (Tobit iv. 7-11, xii. 8-9; Ecclus. iii. 30, xxix. 12-13). Such overvaluation of external acts is rebuked in Matt. vi. The New Testament revelation is a gospel of the voluntary love of God, in which good works can have no efficacy toward justification and salvation. They are, on the contrary, the inevitable result and proof of the renewed life (Matt. vii. 15-23; Luke x. 33-37). It is from this point of view that the idea of a divine reward finds application to the observance of charity in the New Testament (Matt. vi. 4, xix. 21; Luke xiv. 14; Acts x. 4; II Cor. ix. 7; Gal. vi. 9).

The Judaic conception of almsgiving as an act of merit and satisfaction came into the early Church through the Jewish Christians. A classic expression of Jewish-Christian thought is II Clement xvi. 4: “Almsgiving, therefore, is a good thing, even as repentance for sin. Fasting is better than prayer, but almsgiving than both. And love covereth a multitude of sins; but prayer out of a good conscience delivereth from death. Blessed is every man that is found full of these. For almsgiving lifteth off the burden of sin.” The idea is completely dominant in Cyprian (De opere et eleemosynis), and was, indeed, unavoidable, if the Old Testament Apocrypha were accepted as on a par with the canon. Save that propitiatory value was afterward assigned to the sacrament of penance, the position of the Roman Catholic Church has remained essentially that of Cyprian. Augustine conceded influence in the alleviation of purgatorial suffering to almsgiving, and the “Sentences” of Peter Lombard, the dogmatic manual of the Middle Ages, emphasize the idea out of all true proportion.

Poverty was so highly prized by the early Church that the pseudo-Clementine Homilies (XV. vii. 9) declare the possession of property as defilement with the things of this world, a sin. In the fourth century poverty, through monasticism, became a factor in the Christian ideal life. And in the thirteenth century begging, through Francis of Assisi, received a religious idealization, which was in the highest degree pernicious to social good order. The mendicant monk is nothing more nor less than a grossly immoral character. The Reformation rejected all these errors, required some form of labor from the Christian as the basis of his membership in society, and sought to substitute organized care of the poor for the prevalent haphazard methods of giving and receiving alms. Protestant dogmatics grants to alms no share whatever in the doctrine of salvation. Far above any individual instance of almsgiving is the spirit of 135 benevolence, which seeks no merit in the gift and aims at permanent benefit, not the satisfying of a temporary need. Modern humanitarian endeavor and recent legislation, which seek to prevent those incapable of work from becoming recipients of alms, are but an extension of the principles enunciated by the Reformation. Churches should accept the rational principle which avoids indiscriminate and unintelligent almsgiving, tending to pauperization and the encouragement of idleness. But it is true that organization can never fully take the place of personal benevolence or render it unnecessary.

(L. Lemme).

Bibliography: On the historical side, S. Chastel, Charity of the Primitive Churches, Philadelphia, 1857; G. Uhlhorn, Christliche Liebesthätigkeit, 3 vols., Stuttgart, 1895, Eng. transl., Christian Charity in the Ancient Church, New York, 1883. On the practical side, P. Church, The Philosophy of Benevolence, New York, 1836; Systematic Beneficence, comprising “The Great Reform” by A. Stevens, “The Great Question” by L. Wright, “Property consecrated” by B. St. J. Fry, New York, 1856; M. W. Moggridge, Method in Almsgiving, London, 1882. Consult also the books on Christian Ethics and on Socialism.

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