Nehemiah 10:34-39; Psalm 89:1-2; Matthew 6:1-4
Reverend Dr. Louise Barger
In this third Sunday of Lent we are looking at almsgiving. In the scripture that was read from Nehemiah this morning, we find that God’s plan for caring for the needs of people was to require that each person give a tithe (10%) of their possessions to the Temple to be used by the priests.
They brought not only money, but a tithe of their crops and their fruit, their grain and their wine. They are to dedicate their first son to the service of God. They were not to neglect the house of the Lord. There was no welfare program to which people could turn. It was their responsibility to care for one another.
Now let us go to the time when Jesus was on earth. Jesus had some things to say about how we are to be stewards of the possessions that God has given to us. Join me this morning as we go to Israel. We are going to where Jesus is sitting on a hillside overlooking the Sea of Galilee. It is a beautiful setting. The sun is shining. The lake looks like glass. Fishing boats are docked around the shore waiting to go out at night. Around the lake are rising mountains, not high, but impressive. They are covered with green grass for it is Spring.
As we approach, we find that there is already a great crowd of people sitting there on the grass around Jesus. We need to get closer so that we can hear every word that He says. As we listen we hear Him talking about many things.
He talks about
- sin and forgiveness, and
- about almsgiving.
This almsgiving teaching is a new concept for us so
let’s slip away from the crowd at the seaside for a little while and go up to the city of Jerusalem. We need to be near the Temple to know how alms are being managed by the religious leaders.
To understand what Jesus is teaching about how one should give, we need to understand what are the customs and the religious practices of giving among the people of Jesus’ day.
It is the Pharisees who see themselves as very righteous because they pride themselves about keeping the Law, not only the Law of Moses but the 365 laws that Rabbis had written to help them keep the Law of Moses.
We discover that almsgiving is a Jewish term that literally means “righteousness or justice,” righteousness for the one who gives and justice for the person who needs help. Each person was expected to give 10% of their income to persons in need. Almsgiving is the giving of money to help the poor. Sometimes it is referred to as the poor-tithe.
Helping the poor may be done by giving them money or by doing good deeds for them. Almsgiving is seen as one of the greatest deeds that mankind can do. Often a little money is placed every day in a small bag, a tzedakah (see dak a) bag to be ready for giving the contribution for the poor. It was the benevolence offering of that day. The tradition continues.
It reminds us of how we have a place to put all of those coins from our pockets and purses at the end of the day. Sometimes we call it our “mad money.” We’ll use it for something special. But I digress.
We discover that collections at the Temple for the poor are frequent, and there are plenty of opportunities to make one’s giving known to everyone. At times the collectors of gifts for the poor stand on the street corner and the trumpet is blown to call people to bring their gifts for the poor. It is an opportunity for givers to be seen as pious. It is an opportunity to stand out and stand above those who can give less.
As happens with so many things that have good intentions in life, the way in which we attempt to do good things can become corrupted by
- pride, and
- arrogance, and
- rules, and
- judgment about people, and
- the power of control others.
In the Temple there is a treasury of silence where gifts are made for poor children. Somehow, I think that is where Jesus puts his offering.
Let’s return to the seaside where Jesus is teaching. Jesus is saying,”Beware of practicing your righteousness (any righteousness) before others to be noticed by them; otherwise you have no reward with your Father who is in heaven. When therefore you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you as the hypocrites do in the synagogue and in the street, that they may be honored by people. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, that your alms may be in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will repay you.”
Perhaps Jesus was thinking of that tzedakah (zee dak ah)bag. Perhaps Jesus was saying, “When you reach into the bag with your right hand, be careful how you count out the coins with your left hand as though you are carefully counting our how much compassion you have for the poor.” There’s no ambiguity in his teaching. He just says what is right without any “sugar coating.”
It’s not the first time we have heard Jesus talk about the giving of our money to help the poor. There was the day when Jesus was teaching in the Temple at Jerusalem and He was near enough that He could see the people coming into the Temple and dropping their money into the offering container as they entered.
As Jesus watched, He observed the wealthy tossing their gifts into the treasury. Their gifts must have made a loud sound as the many coins, one after another, dropped into the collection bowl. And then Jesus saw a poor widow putting two copper coins very quietly into the collection bowl. They were worth only a few cents. It was all that she had.
Jesus uses her contribution as a teaching moment.
He turned to those who were gathered around Him and said, in today’s English,
“Let me tell you something. Those wealthy people gave a little of what they didn’t need. She gave everything that she had.”
This story makes us remember that time when that rich young religious lawyer came to Jesus to question Him about eternal life. That young man assured Jesus that he had kept all of the Law of Moses. He assured Jesus that he was very religious. But Jesus told him that if he wanted to be his follower that he must go and sell his possessions and give to the poor. Then he would have riches in heaven.
Let’s understand, Jesus was not teaching that everyone must live in poverty so that they could help the poor. Jesus knew that, for that young man, his many possessions had become his god. Jesus was trying to show us how important the poor are to God.
Sometimes we forget that we should look at the poor, even the abject poor, as having dignity even if
- they don’t wear designer clothes,
- they are sometimes unkempt because they don’t have a washer and dryer to use,
- they have to walk because they can’t afford a car,
- they need to shop at the Food Pantry,
- they need a hand-out and a hand-up.
Sometimes we forget that the poor as well as the wealthy are created by God and that they have worth and significance and value. Since the days of old, God taught that it is in God’s plan that we provide for the poor, the widow, and the orphan. For example, the farmers in Israel were forbidden by the Law of Moses from harvesting the corners of their wheat fields so that the poor could glean wheat from the corners of the fields to make bread for their families. The poor could also follow the harvesters, picking up the grain that they dropped behind them.
What about us? We sat there listening to the teaching of Jesus. We saw Him in the Temple watching, not how much they gave, but how they gave.
- Was it for show?
- Was it grudgingly?
- Was it because the Law required it?
- Was it from a heart of compassion, knowing that even though the poor have little, every gift matters?
This congregation is a caring people. So many wonderful ministries receive money and volunteer hours from this people. I believe that the people in this congregation practice righteous giving. One of the evidences is at the back of the sanctuary. As you leave, be sure to look at all the supplies that have been brought for the refugees. And we aren’t finished. Sometimes we are like the widow with the two coins, but no matter how little we have there is always someone else who has less.
When the Lord returns He will not say to us, “Blessed are you for you have much wealth”. Jesus told the disciples, and us, what will happen when He comes again.
He said to some of those who came out to meet Him, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.
- For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat,
- I was thirsty and you gave me drink,
- I was a stranger (in the land) and you took me in,
- I was sick and you visited Me,
- I was in prison and you came to Me.
Then the righteous will answer Him and say, “Lord
- when did we see you hungry and feed you,
- or thirsty and give you drink.
- When did we see you as a stranger and welcome you in,
- or naked and clothe You?
- When did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?
The King will answer you and say, “To the extent that you did it to one of these brothers or sisters of mine, even the least of them, you did it to Me.
We will be blessed by our Lord because we have been good stewards of what God has given to us, and when we have seen a need, we have done all that we can do to meet the need.
During this Season of Lent, may we become more aware of how we can be found faithful in our almsgiving.