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Sunday, 23 September 2018

Almsgiving in Tobit, Sirach, and the Sermon on the Mount

One of the main themes of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) is personal righteousness. Jesus warns the crowds that "Unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter into the kingdom of heaven" (Matt. 5:20). While some Protestant readers may be inclined to read "righteousness" here through a Pauline-Lutheran lens as something imputed on the basis of faith (i.e. belief) alone, the context suggests otherwise.1 After offering the great Antitheses (Matt. 5:21-48), themselves full of moral profundity, Jesus returns explicitly to the theme of "your righteousness" (tēn dikaiosunēn humōn) in 6:1. In the following section of the discourse (6:2-18), Jesus' main point is that personal righteousness is only rewarded by the Father when practiced discreetly, not when practiced openly to gain the respect of other people. The structure of the section shows that Jesus understands "your righteousness" to subdivide into three categories: alms (eleēmosunē, 6:2-4), prayer (proseuchē, 6:5-15), and fasting (nēsteia, 6:16-18). Notably, the way Jesus introduces each category assumes that his audience shares his belief that this threefold division captures the essence of personal righteousness: "When you do alms...when you pray...when you fast". At issue is not whether righteousness consists of these deeds—this is simply assumed. At issue is only how these deeds ought to be practiced (i.e., whether openly or secretly).

The word eleēmosunē (usually translated "alms" and from which the English word "alms" derives) occurs ten times in the New Testament outside of Matt. 6:2-4, all of them in Luke-Acts. In Luke 11:41, having scolded the Pharisees for their superficial notion of purity, Jesus advises them, "But as to what is within, give alms, and behold, everything will be clean for you." In Luke 12:33, Jesus commands his "little flock" to "Sell your belongings and give alms" and thereby "Provide money bags for yourselves that do not wear out, an inexhaustible treasure in heaven that no thief can reach nor moth destroy." The importance of alms is further underscored in several accounts in Acts, most notably in Acts 10, where an angel tells Cornelius in a vision, "Your prayers and almsgiving have ascended as a memorial before God" (10:4; cf. Acts 3:2-10; 9:36-42; 24:17). Among early Christian texts outside the New Testament, eleēmosunē is mentioned prominently in the Didache (1.6; 15.4) and 2 Clement (16.4). Evidently, almsgiving played an important role in early Christian piety, following on the teachings of the Master. However, this observation leaves unanswered the question of how Jesus, in the Sermon on the Mount, was able to assume his audience's familiarity with the concept of "alms" as a central aspect of personal righteousness.

Conceptually, of course, the notion of concern and care for the poor and needy pervades the entire Old Testament. The specific term "alms," however, seldom appears. The Hebrew equivalent of the Greek eleēmosunē is tzedakah (צדקה). This word occurs over 150 times in the Hebrew Bible, but usually in the general sense of "righteousness" rather than specifically "alms" (i.e., charitable acts directed toward the needy). For instance, in the psalms tzedakah is an attribute of God (e.g., Ps. 11:7; 31:1). In a couple of passages in Proverbs, however, a more specifically "economic" sense of tzedakah seems to be in view. These include Prov. 10:2 (where tzedakah contrasts with "ill-gotten gains"), and 11:4 (where tzedakah contrasts with "riches"). The Septuagint translator(s) of Proverbs translated tzedakah with eleēmosunē in 21:21. In Daniel's oracle to King Nebuchadnezzar foretelling that he would become like a beast, Daniel counsels the king to "break off your sins by practicing righteousness (tzedakah), and your iniquities by showing mercy to the oppressed" (Dan. 4:27). Here too, the Greek translation of Daniel (Theodotion) translated tzedakah with eleēmosunē; and the sense of tzedakah seems to anticipate the technical sense of "almsgiving" that the word would take on in rabbinic Judaism.

Despite the above evidence, the usage of tzedakah in the Hebrew Bible (and eleēmosunē in its ancient Greek translations) is not pervasive or developed enough to explain how Jesus could assume that his first-century Jewish audience shared with him a concept of "almsgiving" that was as fundamental to piety as prayer was. Whence then this development? Two of the deuterocanonical books—those considered Scripture by the patristic church (and still by Catholic and Orthodox Christians) but not by Protestants—are helpful here. These books are Tobit and Sirach, both written in the second century B.C. Together, they account for 28 instances of the word eleēmosunē—more than the rest of the Septuagint combined. Surviving Hebrew fragments of Sirach and Tobit demonstrate that eleēmosunē in the Greek versions typically translate tzedakah (e.g., Sir. 3:14, 3:30, 7:10, Tob. 4:8-9 [4Q200 2[bc]:9], etc.).

Sirach and Tobit share in common the bold teaching that almsgiving atones for sins and saves one from evil or death (Sir. 3:30; Tob. 12:8-9).2 This idea is echoed in early Christian literature. The mid-second century Christian text 2 Clement teaches that "charitable giving (eleēmosunē) relieves the burden of sin" (2 Clem. 16.4), while the Didache, a first-century Christian text, declares, "If you earned something by working with your hands, you shall give a ransom for your sins" (Did. 4.6; cf. Barnabas 19.10).

Both Sirach and Tobit also conceive of almsgiving as storing up treasure (Sir. 29:8-12; Tob. 4:7-11), a metaphor also used by Jesus at the conclusion of the section of the Sermon on the Mount that discussed almsgiving, prayer, and fasting (Matt. 6:19-21), and a metaphor directly linked with almsgiving by Jesus in Luke 12:33. As we have already seen, the redemptive power of alms is highlighted also in the story of Cornelius' conversion in Acts 10. A recent study by Anthony Giambrone notes how there developed in early Christianity the tendency to refer to almsgiving as the commandment par excellence, thus giving "forceful expression to its archetypal status."3 According to Giambrone, the roots of this expression are found in Sirach ("Because of the commandment, help the poor," 29:9) and further development is seen in the Didache (1.5; 13.4-7).

The early church, following Jesus, understood almsgiving to have a very prominent—indeed, redemptive—role in the divine economy. This coheres well with the notion of the "treasury of merit" in Catholic theology. However, it is difficult to reconcile with a Protestant sola fide doctrine in which almsgiving has no redemptive role whatsoever (indeed, to teach otherwise is considered by many Protestants to subvert the doctrine of salvation by grace). Regrettably, the portions of the Old Testament that are most helpful for filling in the Jewish context of the early Christian teaching on almsgiving—Sirach and Tobit—were removed from the biblical canon by the Reformers.

To make these points is not merely to revive a tired, sixteenth-century doctrinal debate. Consider the current controversy among American Evangelicals over "the social gospel." A statement authored by John MacArthur and other prominent Evangelicals asserts that "the obligation to live justly in the world" is an implication and application of the gospel but not a "definitional component...of the gospel." Almsgiving is an archetypal way of living justly in the world, and for Jesus and the early church it absolutely was definitive. In the Great Commission (Matt. 28:19-20), Jesus ordered the apostles to "Go and make disciples of all nations". The subordinate clauses specify how disciples are to be made: "baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the holy Spirit," and "teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you." Almsgiving is one of the primary observances commanded by Jesus; it is as central to the mission of the Church as prayer is.


  • 1 Of course, a comprehensive doctrine of righteousness and of salvation requires us to systematise these teachings of Jesus with those of Paul concerning salvation by grace through faith. This cannot detain us here, but such a systematisation can be found in the Catholic response to the Reformers' doctrines in the canons of the Council of Trent.
  • 2 Indeed, the whole of the Book of Tobit could be described as a theodicy of prayer and almsgiving. After Tobit suffers blindness despite having lived a life of almsgiving, his wife (in like fashion to Job's wife) taunts him, "Where are your charitable deeds (eleēmosunai) now?" (Tob. 2:14) Tobit nonetheless instructs his son on the virtue of almsgiving (Tob. 4:7-11), and is eventually vindicated when God heals his blindness.
  • 3 Anthony Giambrone, "‘According to the Commandment’ (Did. 1.5): Lexical Reflections on Almsgiving as ‘The Commandment’", New Testament Studies 60 (2014): 448-465.