Last week I wrote about the idea of giving ourselves over to God in fulfillment of our baptismal promises in relation to the Lenten practice of fasting and abstinence. Along with fasting and abstinence, there are two other traditional pillars of Lenten practice for Catholics: prayer and almsgiving. This week I write about almsgiving, an ancient sounding word that may seem far removed from our current social lives.
“Alms” is a word from Old English that refers to something, like food or money, given to the poor. As a practice, almsgiving can include many things, such as making a donation to a charitable organization or tithing to a religious institution (that is, giving one-tenth a part of something). Almsgiving is part of our baptismal calling, as it is one way to take care of our brothers and sisters, both locally and globally, and to provide for the needs of the “least of these.” Small acts of almsgiving help us to grow in charity, leading toward recognition of Jesus Christ in the poor of our world. Almsgiving takes us beyond an attitude of “it’s just me and God,” as we respond to the needs of others, to those who participate in the Body of Christ with us. If Lent is about giving ourselves over to God, almsgiving is one way that we can offer a material sign of our commitment to follow in the steps of Jesus. We put our money where our faith is, giving some of our fortune over to God by giving it to serve the needs of God’s children.
Almsgiving is not just for the rich. In fact, in Mark 12:41-44, Jesus praises a widow who donates two small coins. He even goes so far as to say that she gave more than the rich people, because she gave out of what she needed not out of what she had left over. You do not need to have a lot of money to make a big difference, and you can also get creative and think about how you can give alms and tithe in ways that do not involve money. Might you be able to donate 10% of the clothes you currently have in your closet to a worthy cause? Might you be able to reduce your energy usage by 10% by being more conscious about turning off lights, unplugging unused electronics and appliances, and adjusting your thermostat?
Almsgiving certainly promotes charity, that is, giving to those most in need. Yet reading this Sunday’s gospel from John 4 got me thinking about whether we are called this Lent to match our charity with work for justice. In this gospel, we hear the story of Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well. As the woman herself reminds Jesus, these two people should not even be having an encounter, since both her gender and religious identity separate her from Jesus. When she questions whether she can even draw water for him from the well, Jesus mentions “living water,” which causes the woman to ask where a person can get such a thing. Jesus is clear that one who drinks from the well will be thirsty again, but one who drinks the living water Jesus offers will never thirst.
It may be our first tendency to read Jesus’ reply to this woman in a spiritual light, and we would not be wrong to do so. He is telling her in no uncertain terms that the way for a person to be fulfilled, to be satisfied, to have eternal life is through faith in God. But I think we may find here, too, a lesson about charity and justice. We have all likely heard the saying that if you give a person a fish, it feeds them for one day; if you teach that person to fish, you feed them for a lifetime. With our charity, we quench people’s thirst in the short-term, which is not an unworthy thing to do. People in crisis need their basic human needs met, and charity helps to insure that this is so. But with our justice, we can help quench people’s thirst for their lifetime. People in crisis also need help dealing with the systemic causes of their suffering. It is worth thinking about how, in addition to our almsgiving this Lent, we can also work for justice in the world.