Giving Alms Correctly

Ash Wednesday

Matthew 6:1

“Beware lest you give your alms before the people in order to be seen by them. For then you will have no reward with your Father in heaven.”

Giving alms is the best among all the outward works. For giving alms is nothing other than helping the poor and the needy. Giving alms includes not only giving a piece of bread to a beggar at the door, but doing all kinds of benefits and all
kinds of good works to the neighbor. For the word “alms” is derived from the Greek word “eleemosyna” which means “mercy.” Just as we also call alms “works of mercy.” This is also why Scripture praises such works above all others, including those done for God, e.g., sacrificing, praying, etc. Christ himself says in Matthew 9:13; 12:7, quoting the prophet Hosea 6:6: “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” Moreover, in Isaiah 58, he rebukes those who hurt themselves by fasting and torturing their bodies, but he demands that they should do good to the poor, feed the hungry, clothe the naked, etc. But why is it that he here rebukes the Pharisees on account of such a good work? Answer: He does not
rebuke the work, only their opinion and what they seek in such work. For the work would be good in and by itself, but what spoils it is that they smear their refuse on it, because they only seek in it their glory and honor before the people; they do not give alms for the sake of God and the neighbor. This is why Christ passes a brief, powerful judgment: All such alms, no matter how great, numerous, and costly they might be, are in vain and lost. But who believes that such vice is common in the world and is found chiefly among the very best people? Who believes how few there are who do good works without seeking such worldly honor and favors? Add up all the alms that were given under the entire papacy and count how few there were that were not given with such opinion. Indeed, the world can never grasp what it means to give alms correctly. For we all are the kind of people who, if the people refused to praise us or show us honor, gratitude, and favors, would soon withdraw our hand…Additionally, you have this sign that such saints soon grow angry and withdraw when they experience ingratitude or scorn. For if they did not do their good works in order to be honored by the people, they would not let ingratitude faze them, but carry on and say: “I did not undertake this, or cease to do this, to be honored by the people; rather, I will do it to honor and please God, even if no one should say a good word to me.” But in
the case of those who are quick to complain about ingratitude…their inner rogue comes to the fore and shows in their own words their true motivation, namely, they want to be worshiped and celebrated and honored as a god…This is why the world is a shameful thing: It does not matter if it is good or evil, it is utterly useless. For either it wants to be a devil openly with evil deeds or it wants to be god with good deeds. This is why no one can do a good work unless he is a Christian. For if he does a good work as a man, he does not do it for God’s sake, but for the sake of his own honor and benefit–or, even if he claims to do it to honor God, it is nonetheless bogus and made up.

St. Louis ed., 7:492-495.

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