“Alms” is a word seldom used in our everyday vocabulary. Perhaps some reading these pages do not know what alms are. This only goes to show that alms do not have much of a place in our life. This ought not to be. Alms are to be the concern of every one of us.
“Alms” is a Scriptural term to denote gifts to the poor. The basic meaning of the word is mercy. Mercy is the pity or compassion that we feel for those in need so that we seek to help them. From this basic idea of mercy the word “alms” came to mean mercy and compassion specifically for the poor. Finally this word came to mean gifts of mercy to help the poor in their need.
Understanding alms as gifts of mercy, we see that all true alms have their source in Jesus Christ. As the Mediator of God’s people, Christ is very merciful. We read repeatedly of the compassion that Jesus had for the multitudes that followed Him during His earthly ministry. They were as sheep without a shepherd; and Christ had compassion on them. Moved by this compassion Christ offered Himself a sacrifice on the cross to obtain for His people all the blessings of God’s salvation. This alone is sufficient to supply the true needs of God’s people. And even now Christ sits at the right hand of God, bestowing upon us the blessings of His cross we are assured in the Scriptures that Christ knows all our needs, is deeply touched by our needs, and in His mercy richly supplies all our needs.
This mercy of Christ also extends to His people in poverty. To be poor is to be in distress. When we no longer know what we shall eat, and what we shall drink, and wherewithal we shall be clothed we are in distress. It is a terrible thing to be poor, not knowing how we will pay the rent and tuition and countless other bills. Agur in Proverbs 30:8 prays to God that he may never become poor. But God’s people do become poor. Christ assured His disciples shortly before His death that the church would always have poor. Christ’s mercy extends also to them in their need. Christ is filled with compassion, is deeply touched by the poverty of His own. And in His abounding mercy He will provide for them.
Christ will help the poor in such a way that they taste and experience His mercy and care. Hence, He has commanded the church to provide for the poor. Certainly the poor do not taste the mercies of Christ through the benevolence of the world. The world stands opposed to Christ. The world is the enemy of Christ. The world is essentially antichristian. Receive the help of the world and all you experience is the mercy of Christ’s enemies. To taste the mercies of Christ the poor must receive help. from those who stand with Christ, who represent Christ, who can bring the comforting Word of Christ. Hence, Christ has charged the church to provide for her own poor. She is to do this through her deacons who collect alms from the congregation and distribute them to the poor. In this way the poor taste the mercies of their fellow-saints and the mercies of Christ.
Obviously we all have a duty with respect to alms. That duty is first to give alms for the relief of the poor. Has God prospered you? Do you have more than is necessary to provide for your daily needs? Then the calling of Christ is, “Sell what ye have, and give alms” (Luke 12:33).
This command of Christ has often been ignored. Repeatedly the poor in the church have found that there were no alms to be had from the church, or that the alms of the church were beggarly. Nor has the reason for this sad situation always been that the church herself was too poor to provide. Frequently the reason has been the carnal-mindedness of the church and her members. Often the situation prevails in the church that there are those who can provide for the poor but who will, not. For the church to provide sufficiently for the poor, sacrifice and self-denial are often required on the part of those whom God has prospered. Some must lower their standard of living that others may have a living. And the saints of God are not always willing to do this. This is carnal-mindedness!
It is exactly this carnal-mindedness against which Christ warns in Luke 12 where we are charged to give alms. We are not to seek what we shall eat or what we shall drink. Nor are we to be like the rich fool who asked his soul what he would do with all his goods and finally decided to hoard them in new and bigger barns. Rather we are to seek first the kingdom of God. And in that spirit we are to sell what we have and give alms to the poor.
We are to be guided and motivated especially by two principles in our almsgiving. The first principle is that we are no more than stewards over God’s goods. The material abundance we possess is not our own. It is God’s. He has merely entrusted these things to us as stewards. Consequently we are not at liberty to use our riches according to our own whim or for our own personal gain. As with all things our earthly riches must be used strictly in the service of God and the kingdom. And that means that we must use our abundance to support the poor whom Christ will assist in His mercy. To refuse to support the poor when we have been prospered by the hand of the Lord is to be unfaithful servants!
The second principle that must motivate us in almsgiving is that we ourselves have received the mercies of Christ. In His great mercy Christ has sacrificed Himself on the cross to earn for us the salvation of God. In that same mercy He showers us with blessings too numerous to count. He provides us with all things in great abundance. This then places us before an obligation—to show mercy unto others even as Christ has shown mercy to us. One very important way we are to do this is to take pity on the poor and give alms liberally for their support. This is an obligation. It is more than an obligation. It is the inevitable fruit of the mercies of Christ. One who is not moved with compassion at the sight of the poor in the church, one who refuses to sacrifice for the sake of the poor, one who can not bring himself to give alms is one who has never tasted the riches of Christ’s mercy!
How do we take care of the poor? Do we provide for them? Or do we through our neglect force them to turn to the world for help? Here we meet a true test of our spirituality.
Those whom God has prospered are not the only ones who have a responsibility with respect to alms. The poor also have a duty toward alms. Their duty is to receive the alms of the church in humility. If there is a hesitancy in the church today to give alms liberally, there is equally a hesitancy to receive alms. It seems as though the poor in the church are more inclined to go to the world for help in the form of government welfare than to the deacons of the church.
There are several reasons for this. One reason is that the world will provide more liberally than the church as far as financial assistance is concerned. It is simply a known fact that the government’s “poverty line” is much higher than the church’s. Financially the poor do much better with the world than with the church. But let’s understand what the poor do when they go to the world for help for this reason. First, they shun the mercies of Christ. For it is through the alms of the church that Christ shows His mercy to the poor. And what is the motivation for turning away from the mercies of Christ? What motivates the poor in this situation is a few more dollars and cents, a little more of this earth’s riches. This is nothing but carnal-mindedness. The poor have no excuse when they do this.
Another reason why the poor sometimes turn to the world rather than to the church is that the world is not too concerned about stewardship. Sometimes the poor are poor because of their own poor stewardship. Mismanagement, living beyond one’s means, being a spendthrift frequently explain the poverty of the poor. And the state does not concern itself overly much about these kinds of things. The deacons of the church, however, do. What a temptation to go to the world and maintain one’s high standard of living rather than go to the deacons and be admonished concerning stewardship. Here we see that the mercies of the world are cruel. When the world helps us it is usually to our own spiritual harm. This is a case in point. By paying little attention to the stewardship of those who receive its benevolence the world not only condones poor stewardship but actually encourages it. We can be poor stewards and still receive the help of the world. The more we mismanage, the more we receive. But let us not forget: we will one day be judged according to how we conducted ourselves as stewards over God’s goods. Let not the poor avoid the deacons in the time of need, for fear of being admonished for poor stewardship. Perhaps that form of Christ’s mercy is their greatest need.
Let us all make alms an important part of our life. If God has prospered us, let us show mercy to the poor even as we have received mercy. Let us show that mercy by giving alms liberally. And if we are poor, let us seek the alms Christ has provided for us in His mercy. Doing this we will all be rich, rich in the salvation of God.