Every year when Lent rolls around, we hear our three-fold calling for the next forty days: to pray, fast, and give alms. The Gospel for Ash Wednesday is always from Matthew 6, when Christ reminds us of the proper disposition and intention for when — not if — we do these things. Generally, I’m pretty okay with praying and fasting. But the almsgiving could use some help.
During Lent there are often initiatives like the CRS Rice Bowls, but how often do I just throw my loose change in there, without really making an effort to sacrifice a gift? Am I missing the point of almsgiving?
In the book of Tobit, the angel Raphael tells us, “Prayer and fasting are good, but better than either is almsgiving accompanied by righteousness … 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” (Tob 12:8-9). Hmm… Perhaps it’s worth looking at my almsgiving a little harder. Almsgiving is better than prayer and fasting? Notice what Raphael says: almsgiving accompanied by righteousness. He’s not talking about throwing my loose change as an afterthought. He’s talking about sacrificial giving, accompanied by living out my faith with deeds. (James 2:18) When done properly, almsgiving is prayer and fasting.
I am in a book study with an acquaintance who owns a large chain of food distributors, and the first night he paid for all our books. He explained he wanted to pay for the books himself and asked that we take the money we were going to use on the books and instead use it for someone else. When one of the others protested, he shook his head and said, “It’s not my money! It’s God’s.”
That’s something, perhaps, we have heard from a pulpit or that makes sense on paper, but to see it lived out is a whole other experience.
Am I ready to give away what I have… because it’s not mine, it’s God’s? Am I ready to really give of my “gold” as a sacrifice, and not just as an afterthought? Now, there are many different ways to give alms. It’s not always a gift of money. When we look at the famous story of Matthew 25, when at the Last Judgment the sheep are divided from the goats and Jesus reveals all the good deeds—feeding the hungry, visiting the imprisoned, clothing the naked — were done for him — that is almsgiving.
There are many ways to show charity, and “time” and “talent” are valuable gifts that the Church needs. But could I give more treasure? How often am I afraid to give financially… afraid to let go of that widow’s mite (Luke 21:1-4), because I don’t trust? Because I forget that it’s not my money… it’s God’s?
I think a lot of people don’t like to talk about “tithing” because it sounds like God is taxing us. It sounds greedy, perhaps, for the Church. But I have found if I’m just told to “give,” what does that actually mean? When the basket comes around at church, can I just throw in the money I have left in my wallet at the end of the month?
I personally like having the goal of tithing. If you aren’t used to giving ten percent, it will be hard. But it’s a goal to work up to. Later you might find that you can give even more than 10 percent.
Notice that a “tithe” is a percentage. For some, a tithe might be tens of thousands of dollars. For others it might be five dollars. It will be a sacrifice, but it will be one that does not go unrewarded. Remember, Raphael promises that those who give alms will “enjoy a full life.” In the face of the sacrifices required to give ten percent… does this seem like an oxymoron? Are we willing to trust we will love that full life, whatever it might look like?
One of the biggest challenges I find in tithing is the actual budgeting that is required to make it happen! What is ten percent of my income, and how do I give it away every month? If I just throw in a $20 bill to the parish collection here and there, without taking the time to sit down and look at my finances, I usually find that I could be giving more. If I only give here and there, or only give what’s left over at the end of the month… is that almsgiving?
When I take the time to budget and live within that budget, there’s a freedom in being able to give to that certain charity when they need it most, donate to that special cause at church that comes up from time to time, or give money to that family down the street that just hit a rough patch in life.
This Lent, find a form of almsgiving that requires sacrifice. Maybe you feel more comfortable writing a check than volunteering at the homeless shelter. I challenge you to volunteer at the homeless shelter. But maybe you find that you’re scared to tithe, or you can’t figure out how to spare that extra donation to your parish church or diocese or local crisis pregnancy center. I challenge you to write that check. God has given each of us gifts. They’re not yours, they’re his. How does he want you to use those gifts for his people?