The word of the day is “devise.” Often those who promote acts of mercy make an emotional appeal. They show a malnourished child or an abused animal and in pleading tones ask us to care. But in today’s reading of Proverbs 14:15-20, the wise sage of Proverbs offers a different viewpoint. He says, “Deceivers devise evil things, but good men devise mercy and truth” (OSB 14: 23). The word “devise” suggests that “good men” plan their acts of compassion just as evil men strategize their wicked deeds.. Today we will consider the sage’s suggestion that charitable giving involves the mind as well as our feelings.
To Devise a Plan
Both the Hebrew Bible and the Septuagint (LXX) agree that the word “devise” has to do with fashioning one’s intentions to show mercy. The word in Greek is derived from the thought of crafting something. The word in Hebrew comes from working metal or plowing a field. We might say that good people “craft” a course of action for their works of mercy. They carefully prepare for their acts of aid to those in need, just as one works metal for shaping it or plows a field for planting.
Note that the term “devise” applies to both the righteous and the unrighteous. “Deceivers devise evil schemes in advance (OSB vs. 22). There is nothing spontaneous about their wickedness. Theirs are not “crimes of opportunity.” But like the scam in the movie “The Sting,” every detail of their fraud is carefully set up.
Giving as We Purpose in our Heart
If that is true for the concocting of evil, what about the construction of good? Spontaneity in giving is the product of manipulation. Its charitable mood is temporary. St. Paul instructs the Corinthians to lay aside something each week “on the first day of the week” (1 Cor. 16:2). Their offering for the poor in Jerusalem was not to be a one-time thing. And he says, “Let each one give as he purposes in his heart” (OSB 2 Corinthians 8:7). The Greek word “purpose” has the sense of choosing one thing over others: to prefer something (Strong’s #4255, 210). The Corinthians are to decide how they were to contribute to the needy in Jerusalem and then store up their donations with their goal in mind.
Thus, the acts of mercy of the godly involve the mind as well as the emotions. Alms-giving requires more than knowing the need. But the sage teaches that those who give according to wisdom must understand “mercy and faithfulness” (OSB vs. 23). The Elpinor translation of the Septuagint puts it, “the good devise mercy and truth. The framers of evil do not understand mercy and truth: but compassion and faithfulness are with the framers of good” (L.C.L. Brenton, vs, 23)
Mercy is Compassion in Action
The Greek word for “mercy” refers to the feeling of sympathy for the misery of others (Strong’s #1653, 84). To be merciful is to be compassionate in the active sense. Likewise, in Hebrew, the term “mercy” means to stoop in kindness to someone of lesser status (Strong’s Hebrew 2603, 92). By choosing these words, the sage teaches that those who show mercy should not stand aloof from those who suffer. But they share in their misfortune to the point of doing something to alleviate it.
Giving with Faithfulness
Yet those who give alms should also understand faithfulness. The Greek word means trustworthy, faithful, and believing (Strong’s #4103, 202). The Hebrew word refers to a cluster of thoughts including stability, certainty, truth, and fidelity (Strong’s Hebrew #57, 22-23).
Those who plan deceitful deeds do not understand faithfulness. But those who give generously are true and trustworthy in all they do. They do not contribute dishonestly out of the pretext of caring. They do make their contributions so that they will be admired. Rather, they give faithfully to the God who would not have the poor be dishonored (OSB 14: 21), neglected, or unjustly treated (NKJV 29:7).
In summary, charitable giving is not merely an emotion. If that were the case, then the feelings stirred up by images of the needy would always conflict with our thoughts. Our unreformed and natural inclination to greediness, possessiveness, and own financial security would usually prevail over the appeals of the destitute. Our mind would find sufficient reason to close the doors of mercy to those who plea for it.
But charity should involve our whole self. Yes, emotions may motivate it. But our minds must guide it. And our rational understandings of mercy and faithfulness should inform it. Together, feelings and thoughts should devise deliberate, effective and long-term plans to be merciful to those in need. By doing so, we will be faithful to the God who has mercy on us.
Here is a quotation from St. Basil the Great’s “Sermon on Almsgiving”:
“How you should beam with joy at the honor of having other people come to your door, instead of being obliged to go to theirs! But you are now ill-humored and unapproachable; you avoid meeting people, in case you might be forced to loosen your purse-strings even a little. You can say only one thing: ‘I have nothing to give you. I am only a poor man.’ A poor man you certainly are, and destitute of all real riches; you are poor in love, generosity, faith in God and hope for eternal happiness'” (Hom. De caritate, 3, 6: PG 31, 266-267, 275).
On the other hand, those who give to those in need with open hearts, minds, and wallets or purses might not have much to offer. But they are rich in the very things that the stingy lack: love, generosity, faith, and hope
L.C.L. Brenton, trans. “Elpenor Bilinguial (Greek/English) Old Testament.” In. https://www.ellopos.net/elpenor/greek-texts/septuagint/default.asp.