I. The term itself

A. This term developed within Judaism.

B.  It refers to giving to the poor and/or needy.

C. The English word, almsgiving, comes from a contraction of the Greek term eleēmosunē.


II. Old Testament concept

A. The concept of helping the poor was expressed early in the Torah

1. typical context, Deut. 15:7-11

2. "gleaning," leaving part of the harvest for the poor, Lev. 19:9; 23:22; Deut. 24:20

3. "sabbath year," allowing the poor to eat the produce of the seventh, fallow year, Exod. 23:10-11; Lev. 25:2-7. 

B. The concept was developed in Wisdom Literature (selected examples)

1. Job 5:8-16; 29:12-17 (the wicked described in 24:1-12)

2. the Psalms, 11:7

3. Proverbs 11:4; 14:21,31; 16:6; 21:3,13


III. Development in Judaism

A. The first division of the Mishnah deals with how to treat the poor, needy, and local Levites.

B. Selected quotes

1. Ecclesiasticus (also known as the Wisdom of Ben Sirach) 3:30, "as water extinguishes a blazing fire, so almsgiving atones for sin" (NRSV)

2. Ecclesiasticus 29:15, "store up almsgiving in your treasury and it will rescue you from every disaster" (NRSV)

3. Tobit 4:6-11, 6"for those who act in accordance with truth will prosper in all their activities. To all those who practice righteousness7give alms from your possessions, and do not let your eye begrudge the gift when you make it. Do not turn your face away from anyone who is poor, and the face of God will not be turned away from you. 8If you have many possessions, make your gift from them in proportion; if few, do not be afraid to give according to the little you have. 9So you will be laying up a good treasure for yourself against the day of necessity. 10For almsgiving delivers from death and keeps you from going into the Darkness. 11Indeed, almsgiving, for all who practice it, is an excellent offering in the presence of the Most High." (NRSV)

4. Tobit 12:8-9, "8Prayer and fasting is good, but better than both is almsgiving with righteousness. A little with righteousness is better than wealth with wrongdoing. It is better to give alms than to lay up gold. 9For almsgiving saves from death and purges away every sin. Those who give alms will enjoy a full life." (NRSV)

C. The last quote from Tobit 12:8-9 shows the problem developing. Human actions/human merits were seen as the mechanism for both forgiveness and abundance.

This concept developed further in the Septuagint where the Greek term for "almsgiving" (eleēmosunē) became a synonym for "righteousness" (dikaiosunē). They could be substituted for each other in translating the Hebrew "righteousness" (BDB 842, God's covenant love and loyalty, cf. Deut. 6:25; 24:13; Isa. 1:27; 28:17; 59:16; Dan. 4:27).

D. Human acts of compassion became a goal in themselves to achieve one's personal abundance here and salvation at death. The act itself, instead of the motive behind the act, became theologically preeminent. God looks at the heart, then judges the work of the hand. This was the teaching of the rabbis, but it somehow got lost in individual self-righteousness (cf. Micah 6:8).


IV. New Testament reaction

A. The term is found in

1. Matt. 6:1-4

2. Luke 11:41; 12:33

3. Acts 3:2-3,10; 10:2,4,31; 24:17

B. Jesus addresses the traditional understanding of righteousness as (cf. II Clement 16:4)

1. almsgiving

2. fasting

3. prayer

C. In Jesus' Sermon on the Mount (cf. Matthew 5-7) He radically reorients the traditional view of righteousness, (i.e., trusting in one's actions).  the "new covenant" of Jer. 31:31-34 becomes the new standard of being right with God.  God gives a new heart, a new mind, a new spirit.  The focus is not on human performance but divine performance.