“I invite you, in the name of the Lord, to observe a holy Lent by self-examination, penitence, prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, and by reading and meditating on the word of God…”
--The Book of Alternative Services, page 282
As the Lenten days go by, it can be easy for us to lose sight of these words from our Ash Wednesday liturgy that call us to a holy observance of these forty days. All of Lent moves us toward the passion and resurrection of Jesus, preparing us for this grace by taking us into the mystery of the cross, our bridge from death to life.
The traditional disciplines of Lent—prayer, fasting, and almsgiving—are observances inherited from the piety of our Jewish spiritual heritage. For most of us, the practices of fasting and almsgiving require some interpretation. In this post, we will focus on almsgiving.
The word “almsgiving” may sound quaint to us, but in traditional religious cultures, it is a pillar of practical piety. At first glance, it might seem to smack of noblesse oblige, an inferred responsibility of privileged people to be generous toward those less privileged. But sharing what we have enacts how we belong to one another in the community. While acknowledging the unequal distribution of wealth and material goods among people, the Scriptures seek to lessen the burden on the poor in various ways. Or, as the prophet Micah summarizes the core of the teaching of the Hebrew Scriptures, “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8). Jesus develops this tradition through his frequent teaching about wealth and possessions, warning about its danger to ensnare us: “For where our treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:21). In other words, if you want an accurate gauge of your values, “follow the money.”
As Christians, we are called to practice economic justice, but it can be vexing to determine what that looks like in our daily lives. Still, our duty to seek a measure of fairness in this crucial aspect of our community’s social fabric demands our attention.
In his second letter to the Corinthians, Paul writes about a collection he is organizing for the poor in Jerusalem, and he sets some sensible limits to giving. Members of the church, he assures them, are under no obligation to impoverish themselves to assist others. But, Paul says, “it is a question of a fair balance between your present abundance and their need” (2 Corinthians 8:13-14).
“Fair balance” means something different for every individual and every family’s circumstances, and it requires some reflection. But cultivating a habit of generosity this Lent — “almsgiving”— is certainly a way to begin.
May God abundantly bless you and those you love during these holy Lenten days.
--The Rev. Adam Dawkins