Almsgiving has roots in Old, New Testaments

Growing up in a fundamentalist setting and then, later, attending an evangelical Bible college, I heard plenty of sermons about the need to tithe. In fact, it was largely accepted as a given that every Christian should give at least 10 percent of their income to their church, or split it between their church and another ministry.

The basis for 10 percent was found in various passages of the Old Testament (the word "tithe," however, comes from Old English word for "tenth"). In becoming Catholic I was surprised to rarely hear a homily about tithing. Many Catholics seemed unfamiliar with the term "tithing." On the other hand, I wasn't very familiar with Lent and the emphasis on increased fasting, praying and almsgiving. I did know the term "almsgiving," but, frankly, had often paid little attention to what Jesus had to say about alms and giving to the poor. As it turns out, both tithing and almsgiving are not only scriptural, they really cannot be separated from one another.

Heart of the money

"For where your treasure is, there also will your heart be" (Mt 6:21).

With those words, uttered in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus provided an incisive point of perspective on what the Bible -- both Old and New Testaments -- teaches about tithing and almsgiving. The scriptural roots for both are found deep in the Old Testament. Abram, after having won an important battle, is met by Melchizedek, the king of Salem, who blesses the future patriarch. In return, "Abram gave him a tenth of everything" (Gn 14:20). In Leviticus, as part of the Mosaic Law, the Israelites were directed to give a tenth of their produce and flocks to the Lord:

"All tithes of the land, whether in grain from the fields or in fruit from the trees, belong to the Lord, as sacred to him. If someone wishes to buy back any of his tithes, he shall pay one-fifth more than their value. The tithes of the herd and the flock shall be determined by ceding to the Lord as sacred every tenth animal as they are counted by the herdsman's rod" (Lv 27:30-32).

The people were directed to "eat . . .  your tithe" of the grain, wine, oil and animals so they would "learn always to fear the Lord your God" (Dt 14:23). Tithing was a common practice in the ancient Middle East, a way to show loyalty to one's king or ruler. It was also part of religious life, as tithes were given to priests and places of worship. For the Israelites, tithing was a humble recognition of God's kingship.

In Deuteronomy 26, the connection between God's goodness, religious observation and looking after the well-being of the less fortunate is shown to be tightly interwoven. Those who have been liberated from the bondage of Egypt and idolatry are to demonstrate how grateful they are by giving to "the Levite, the alien, the orphan and the widow, that they may eat their fill in your own community" (Dt 26:12). The tithe is a concrete way to acknowledge that God is the true owner of all things and that man is but a steward of what has been graciously given to him.

Do not hesitate

An example of this can be found in the book of the prophet Malachi, who proclaimed that the Lord's judgment would soon fall on those who were living in sin and oppressing the "the hired man in his wages . . . widows and the orphans . . .  [and] the stranger" (Mal 3:5). The people were robbing God. "And you say, 'How do we rob you?' In tithes and in offerings!" (3:8). God, of course, does not need material gifts; his anger is aimed at the sinful attitudes and actions that have led to a rejection of tithing and caring for the needy. In the Book of Tobit the relationship is further explored and explained:

"Give alms from your possessions. Do not turn your face away from any of the poor, and God's face will not be turned away from you. Son, give alms in proportion to what you own. If you have great wealth, give alms out of your abundance; if you have but little, distribute even some of that. But do not hesitate to give alms; You will be storing up a goodly treasure for yourself against the day of adversity. Almsgiving frees one from death, and keeps one from going into the dark abode" (Tb 4:7-10).

And, later, in a passage that anticipates the teachings of Christ:

"Prayer and fasting are good, but better than either is almsgiving accompanied by righteousness. A little with righteousness is better than abundance with wickedness. It is better to give alms than to store up gold; for almsgiving saves one from death and expiates every sin. Those who regularly give alms shall enjoy a full life" (Tb 12:8-9).

Once again, the relationship between tithing, recognizing God's goodness, and seeking the best for those who are in need is made evident. Material possessions are good, but must always be understood and used in light of the greatest good, which is God and his work of redemption. "If someone who has worldly means sees a brother in need and refuses him compassion, how can the love of God remain in him?" the Apostle John wrote. "Children, let us love not in word or speech but in deed and truth." (1 Jn 3:17-18).

In this light we can better appreciate the seeming harshness of Christ's parable of the sheep and the goats, and the words of the King in that parable: "Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me" (Mt 25:40).

Quiet acts of giving

Christ, in condemning the hypocrisy of the Pharisees, pointed out they rightly tithed, but they then "neglected the weightier matters of the law: judgment and mercy and fidelity. But these you should have done, without neglecting the others" (Mt 23:23). He exhorted his listeners to give alms in secret and to pray in private (see Mt 6:1-7).

Christ did not, however, provide a percentage or formula for those trying to figure out how much they should give. That amount, wrote St. Paul, is up to each person, who shouldn't give merely out of a sense of obligation, but from a cheerful heart. "God is able to make every grace abundant for you, so that in all things, always having all you need, you may have an abundance for every good work" (2 Cor 9:8).

As an evangelical, I sometimes viewed tithing as a burden to be endured. This was not because of how it was taught; on the contrary, it was because of how I sometimes refused to listen and learn. Now, as a Catholic, I see that in tithing and almsgiving all Christians offer a powerful witness to the love of God, the Giver of all good things, for all men, especially poor and the suffering.

May Lent be a time for finding the eternal treasure hidden in the quiet act of giving.

The joy of giving

In his message for Lent, Pope Benedict XVI reminds the faithful that almsgiving is not mere philanthropy, but a concrete expression of charity that brings joy when we share our goods with our neighbors:

"In inviting us to consider almsgiving with a more profound gaze that transcends the purely material dimension, Scripture teaches us that there is more joy in giving than in receiving (see Acts 20:35). When we do things out of love, we express the truth of our being; indeed, we have been created not for ourselves but for God and our brothers and sisters (see 2 Cor 5:15). Every time when, for love of God, we share our goods with our neighbor in need, we discover that the fullness of life comes from love and all is returned to us as a blessing in the form of peace, inner satisfaction and joy. Our Father in heaven rewards our almsgiving with his joy. What is more: St. Peter includes among the spiritual fruits of almsgiving the forgiveness of sins: 'Charity,' he writes, 'covers a multitude of sins' (1 Pt 4:8).

"As the Lenten liturgy frequently repeats, God offers to us sinners the possibility of being forgiven. The fact of sharing with the poor what we possess disposes us to receive such a gift. In this moment, my thought turns to those who realize the weight of the evil they have committed and, precisely for this reason, feel far from God, fearful and almost incapable of turning to him. By drawing close to others through almsgiving, we draw close to God; it can become an instrument for authentic conversion and reconciliation with him and our brothers."

Carl E. Olson is the editor of IgnatiusInsight.com.