In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus teaches his friends and followers what it means to live a life toward God, to live as Christians. Since Lent is like spring training–it’s that season we as Christians return to fundamentals–over the centuries Christians have attended closely to Jesus’s teaching especially during the season of Lent. In the last couple of weeks I have written about the fundamental practice of prayer, and the ways we make room for God in fasting. The third practice that Christians have especially taken to heart in Lent, a fundamental part of who we ought to be but so often fail to do well, is the giving of alms. If the foundation of practicing our faith is prayer, and fasting is what clears the ground of our hearts to make room for God, the opening of our hands toward others is the natural outcome.
What does it mean to give alms? As God says to God’s people in Deuteronomy:
“If there is among you anyone in need, a member of your community in any of your towns within the land that the LORD your God is giving you, do not be hard-hearted or tight-fisted toward your needy neighbor. You should rather open your hand, willingly lending enough to meet the need, whatever it may be. …Give liberally and be ungrudging when you do so, for on this account the LORD your God will bless you in all your work and in all that you undertake. Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth, I therefore command you, ‘Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land'” (Deut. 15:7-11).
The King James translates the instruction to “open thy hand wide.” I like this translation because there’s a gratuity to it. Don’t just open your hands, open them widely, freely, without calculation of how you might benefit. That’s what I hear in this instruction. The wideness of our generosity is not a forced liberality. It is more than a nauseating noblesse oblige. It’s not our attempt to “do good” and to prove to ourselves, if to no one else, that we are decent enough to pass muster, or that we have done our duty. That kind of giving, that kind of generosity, is constantly asking the question, “When have I given enough?” and ends when the threshold has been reached. Well, I don’t need to give a tithe of ten percent to the church, because I gave that person on the street corner five dollars. I gave five percent of my salary to the church, so it’s really fine if I don’t heed the special appeal for victims of that earthquake.
There is a logic to that sort of giving. Our means are not infinite, and we do need to direct our resources wisely. But underneath our deliberations ought to be hands that are wide open to share whatever we call “ours.” God does not ask us to throw a few bucks at the poor to make us feel better, but to “meet the need, whatever it may be.” That’s the wideness of the generosity God asks of us. “Open thy hand wide” breaks us free from all calculation, because we recognize that real answer to the question, “When we have given enough?” is “Never.” If our longing is to meet the need, whatever it may be, we will never be able to give enough. Our hearts will always long to give more, and we will not want to store up treasures, but to give all that we can.
Not only that, but we will want to give without any repayment, or even the praise. We will delight in the act of meeting needs. Giving becomes the gift. As Jesus says, “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. …But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing…” (Matthew 6:2-3).
Why? In a world as driven by possessions and money as ours, why in the world would we want to do something so insane? How could we possibly desire to give all that we have, like Jesus told the rich young ruler, who went away disappointed, or like widow who gave away all her wealth, her two mites, for the poor? Of course we want to chip in, to do our part, but to open wide our hand, without even being recognized for it? How could we dare to do such a thing?
The simple answer is that we won’t dare unless we’ve grasped what it is God has done for and with us. The desire to give liberally, to share our wealth with such abandon, doesn’t come from our own goodness, but from the wideness of God’s open hands. In coming to live among us and in the Cross, Jesus is God giving everything to be with us. Until we’ve grasped that we’ll always suspect there is a point at which we’ve given enough, and we’ll always be thinking about how much we don’t have to give. But once we’ve grasped what God has shared with us–everything–then our hearts will long to give, to share all that we are and have.
As the old, beautiful hymn says (#469 in the Hymnal):
There’s a wideness in God’s mercy like the wideness of the sea; there’s a kindness in his justice, which is more than liberty. There is welcome for the sinner, and more graces for the good; there is mercy with the Savior; there is healing in his blood.
Compared with the profligate, prodigal, reckless generosity of God, our attempts at giving for the poor will always seem anemic. And what we find in the mercy of God as wide as the sea is that giving alms isn’t really about giving what is ours. The point isn’t how much we can give, but how willingly we want others to share what was first shared with us–which is everything. We share all we can because at our root we are not the slaves of ledgers and bank balances; rather, we are the children of God’s own heart. The love that drove God to give everything to be with us is what drives us to give everything for one another, for every child of God. Once again, the hymn says it so well:
For the love of God is broader than the measure of the mind; and the heart of the Eternal is most wonderfully kind. If our love were but more faithful, we should take him at his word; and our life would be thanksgiving for the goodness of the Lord.