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How to Give Alms

almsLet’s start with some exegesis. Matthew 6:2-4. Go.

So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

It’s is a good selection for this time of Lent, when who so believe are supposed to give, give, give. There’s a clear causal chain here. Give in public, and the admiration of the watchers is all you get. Nothing else. But do it where nobody can see, and you-know-who will ensure your just desserts when you get to you-know-where.

In Catholic churches these passages from Matthew are often read from and preached on during these days. Give!—But not too publicly. Are you giving enough? Are you being secretive enough to earn Fatherly rewards?

Then again, I recall this scene I once witnessed while spying on the circus at New Life Church in Colorado Springs, during their Saturday evening young adult service. After the totally awesome rock band and the sermon from the dude everybody wants for a big brother, there was a long presentation by a very eloquent Christian woman from India. She ran an orphanage and house for prostitutes and told a very beautiful story of all that God has done for them. But now, they were in need. Cows to milk, or something. She cried. So the big-brother-pastor got up on stage and shouted, “We’re gonna get her those cows!” He ran all up and down the stage and through the audience for ten minutes gathering checks and shouting out the amounts on them. Somebody with a calculator watch was adding them up as they came in. The place was in a frenzy as people charged the stage to contribute generous sums. It wasn’t long before this good-looking crowd of Americans had gotten the little Indian lady her cows.

That’s tough to beat. I’ve never seen more trumpet blowing (or closer to air guitar soloing, really) in my life. But they got the cows. God delivered, allegedly, though them. But which reward was theirs? Have they received it, or is it still to come, even more wonderfully? Or are they the hypocrites Jesus was warning about?

The other day, I was standing around with some buds and we were talking about giving. How we’d never really discussed the money we give. Maybe, we wondered, we’d give more if we knew that our friends were giving too. We’d know it’s a normal thing to do, a thing that shouldn’t be neglected. Letting others know when one gives sets an example. How else, after all, could the New Life young adults have come up with those cows so rapidly but peer pressure? The girls there were pretty, and they wouldn’t be happy if their boys didn’t pony up.

What’s so bad about settling for the earthly rewards anyway? Let’s not, after all, get too carried away about what giving really entails. Our stuff shouldn’t be that important that enormous supernatural rewards must be offered for us to part with it. Plus, the earthly rewards for giving are pretty good. Maybe better than they should be. You get admired as a benefactor, a philanthropist, a selfless soul. And you feel better about yourself. It’s quite a good deal.

It’s true, though, there are downsides to public giving. My mother worked at the Smithsonian museums, and, when I was a kid, she’d always complain about how all the donors were trying to tell the museums how to use their money. Huge egos there. Also, giving can become like a poker game, where everybody’s anteing up to stay in the game, even to the point of driving some into irresponsible ruin. High-priced generosity is, for sure, a luxury item like any other—meant to show others who’s boss. So, as far as that’s concerned, Jesus has a point.

But there’s got to be a balance. Maybe we can revise the word of God a bit. (Hey, if my New Revised Standard Version can do it, why can’t I?) Just a couple of words. Enough so that it’s okay sometimes to get rapt up in a frenzy of public giving or to set an example to your friends. And even to get a little earthly reward in the process. But keep it reasonable. Above and beyond that, there’s lots to be said for not being so conspicuous, for investing in the mysterious other prizes. Hopefully they’re good or, if not, can be returned.

Is it okay, Jesus, if we sometimes toot our trumpets a little for a good cause?

6 comments on “How to Give Alms

  1. I remember being taught that tzedakah, basically alms for jews, is a mitzvah, but there are three ways to do it. 1 Giving to get something or because you’re told to 2 Giving to feel good oneself, and 3 giving just because, and with no one ever keeping tabs (i think of this one as muscle memory giving). And that the virtue to each of those ascends in that order. But I think it’s healthy to have a spread of all three.

  2. This is the second time within the last week that you have made degrading remarks about the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible. What is your problem with it?

  3. Yeah, I guess two in one week is overkill. Me going after the NRSV is like teasing that old friend. It’s just that, when you look at the footnotes (the ones for the translation, not the Oxford annotations in my copy), it is quite clear how often, in the choice between two possible readings of the original, the translators always pick the most politically correct and palatable. Sometimes it seems like they go a little too far. Not to mention the fact that, throughout, “inclusive language” is used (instead of “brothers,” “brothers and sisters,” etc.), which I think it is fair to say often amounts to putting words in the mouth of the text.

    Both of these essays on exegesis have been about the experience of perhaps wanting the Bible to say something different than it does. When that is the urge, the NRSV, in a way, makes it seem so easy. Now I realize that what they do must have behind it all the weight of the most august scholarship. But you can’t help feeling that something fishy is going on too.

  4. Humm…had he not recently passed away, I tend to think Bruce Metzger would have disagreed with you (and a whole lot of other biblical scholars who worked on that translation, not to mention many others who have praised the translation since its release in 1989).
    I find it interesting that you have a problem with inclusive language, even where appropriate in the scriptures.
    Might I suggest reading “Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism” by the Rt. Rev. John S. Spong, now retired Bishop of Newark, NJ (Episcopal), as well as the more recent “Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why” by Bart Ehrman.

  5. Don’t get me wrong—I’m not advocating a fundamentalist reading. The whole reason I treat the Bible this way is my Catholic belief that the text’s authority comes from the tradition of interpretation, not the other way around. Therefore I’m not sure I have a “problem” with inclusive language—this is, after all, the translation that I choose to use. But I do think it is worth reminding ourselves that we are adapting an ancient text to very modern purposes.

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