Almsgiving: Medicine for the Soul and Justice for the Poor (Fri. March 11)

The word of the day is “give.”  We naturally think that our possessions are ours to do with as we choose.  Accordingly, if we should give some of them to those in need, well, that is our choice.  If not, that is our right as well.  But in today’s reading of Proverbs 3:19-34, we discover a striking insight.  The writer of Proverbs teaches, “Do not withhold good from those to whom it is due, when it is the power of your hand to do so” (vs. 27).  Today we will draw out the meaning of this wisdom for our stewardship of what we possess.

On first reading, this verse sounds like the commonplace advice that we should pay our debts promptly.  But on re-reading, we find that the object of the sentence is “good.”  It means that we should “do good,” that is, we should give assistance to “those to whom it is due,” that is, to those who need it (vs. 27).  Moreover, the next sentence elaborates on the preceding verse.  It says, “Do not say to your neighbor, ‘Go, and come back and tomorrow I will give it,’ when you have it with you” (vs. 28).

Do Not Refuse the Needy

Thus, this proverb says that we should not deny help to the needy when we can give it.  The Orthodox Study Bible confirms this interpretation when it says, “Do not withhold doing good to the needy, when you may give a helping hand” (OSB vs. 27).  This teaching is a translation from the Greek Septuagint (LXX).  It uses a Greek word that refers to what is lacking (Strong’s #1730, 87).  The meaning is clear: when we have the resources, we should not refuse those in need.

Thus, verse 27 lays out a general principle of charity (almsgiving).  When it is in the “strength”  of our hand (Hebrew Dictionary#3027, 106), we should not hold back our charity.  We should offer aid to the destitute willingly and cheerfully, just as St. Paul also advised (2 Cor. 9:7).  Note that from this standpoint, it is not the amount that is important.  We should give according to our ability (2 Cor 8:12).  The crucial thing is attitude.

The Needs of the Poor Are a Test of the Passions

From this standpoint, the needs of others are tests of our relationship to the passions that threaten to control our inner life.  Whether we close or open our hand to those in need reveals the state of our soul.  Are we subject to the passions of greed and avarice?  Do we view money as an end in itself?  And do we treat our possessions as our cherished treasures?  Do we treat riches and material goods as a means to serve God and our fellow persons?  Are we selfish and hard-hearted?  Or do we have open and caring hearts?

For a good reason, “almsgiving” ranks with prayer and fasting as a major discipline of Great Lent.  In this time of the healing of our soul, charity is an effective medicine for those who are controlled by the passions of acquiring, having, and keeping material things.

The Poor Have a Right to What We Have to Give

Yet, there is more to learn from this short verse.  We gain the most profound insight of this passage from the Hebrew text.  We might ask to whom do the money and resources that we have “on hand” belong?  One English translation reads that if good is due someone, we should help him or her.  Another rendering says that we should give to the “needy” (OSB vs. 27),

But the Hebrew text says that those to whom charity is due and those who are needy are ‘baals.”  We know this word “Baal” as it is used to refer to an idol of the Canaanites.  But basically, the word “baal” refers to one who possesses the land, that is, the lord and master of the place  (Hebrews Dictionary 1167, 42).

This term suggests that the one who rightfully possesses the “donation” that one is capable of giving is not the giver.  It is the poor and needy one.  The thought may upset those of us who like to feel good about our donatives to the poor.  But in this view, those in need have a right to what we have to give.  It belongs to them.

The Bread You Do Not Use

St. Basil the Great promoted this outlook when he wrote, “The bread you do not use is the bread of the hungry.  The garment hanging in your wardrobe is the garment of the person who is naked. The shoes you do not wear are the shoes of the one who is barefoot.  The money you keep locked away is the treasure of the poor.  The acts of charity you do not perform are the injustices you commit.” (St. Basil in Wealth and Poverty in the Teachings of the Fathers).

We have arrived at an understanding that changes our notions about possessions.  The source of all that we have, including life itself, is God the Creator.  We live on the borrowed time that the Creator gives and takes away.  Everything we have is on loan, and we will soon have to leave it to others.  Our life and our possessions, therefore, are not our own.  We are only stewards of them.  And the Lord will hold us accountable for our use of them.

For Reflection

It is difficult to write about matters dealing with riches and the poor without seeming to make accusations of guilt and reproach.  But consider today’s study as an invitation.  Our insights should  help us consider our attitudes toward the material things that are under our management.  And it invites us to a new perspective that frees us from our possessions and from the passions that clutch them so tightly.

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