I ask the question because when I go grocery shopping, the islands separating street lanes around the grocery store are occupied by people holding placards asking for a handout. "Anything will help," many of them read. The spectacle raises the question how should one respond?
"Alms" (eleēmosunē), or charitable giving, is defined as something (food or money) given to relieve the needs of the poor. Altruistic giving, as an organized religious activity (i.e. giving "alms"), was unknown among the Greco-Roman religions in the ancient world,1 but it does appear as a practice in the modern religions of Christianity and Islam. For example, in Roman Catholic Catechism, section 2462, almsgiving is considered "a witness to fraternal charity" and a "work of justice pleasing to God."2 Alms (zakat) is one of the five pillars of Islam.
The situation with respect to the early followers of Jesus is somewhat mixed. Matthew attributes to Jesus instruction (Matt 6:1-4; Luke 11:41) about how to give alms (eleēmosunē; ηλεημοσυνη), as if giving alms were a formally recognized community custom, and he endorses giving alms as a religious practice by directing something few of us do:
Sell your possessions and give alms; provide yourself with purses that do not grow old, with a treasure in the heavens where no thief approaches and no moth destroys (Luke 12:33, RSV).
Oddly, however, alms as a formally recognized religious custom is not part of the undisputed Pauline religious gatherings nor is it found in most of the New Testament; the word "alms," eleēmosunē, only appears in Acts, Luke, and Matthew. The custom is also mentioned in the Apostolic Fathers (2 Clem xvi.4 and Did. 1.6; xv.4), a little later than the New Testament period.
Among the earliest Hellenistic followers of Jesus altruistic behavior in giving rather than ritual behavior (alms) seems to have been the practice (1 Cor 16:1-3; 8:1-15; 9:6-7;Gal 2:9-10; 1 Thess 5:15; Phil 2:3-4; Eph 4:28; 1 Tim 6:17-18; 1 John 3:17; Jas 2:14-17). Most of these passages reflect a community ethic; in other words, it is altruistic behavior directed toward those within the religious community. Nevertheless, here and there, the altruistic behavior shades over toward those outside the community (Gal 2:10; Phil 2:3-4; 1 Thess 5:15; Eph 4:28). In the Pauline gatherings it was left up to individuals to decide what they should do by giving to relieve the needs of others (1 Cor 16:1-3; 2 Cor 8:1-15; 2 Cor 9:6-7). That was not necessarily the practice in the extended Christian family. In the Gospel of Thomas (around 200 CE), for example, a very difficult saying is attributed to Jesus:
Those who go hungry to fill the starving belly of another are favored (Gos. Thom. 69b).
In other words, one is mandated to share with others, nameless or otherwise, in spite of one's own immediate needs and the hunger pangs gnawing at one's own insides.3
Hence, we find in the "Christian" tradition from its earliest beginnings to the modern-day contradictory advice for those seeking a compassionate way of giving to others. The options vary: ritualistic giving of alms, altruistic behavior to members of your own religious community, a universal altruistic giving, and finally a giving to others indiscriminately until your own resources are exhausted. They all agree, however, that those more fortunate among us have an obligation to help the less fortunate in the human family. The most practical advice for negotiating these alternatives comes from Paul: Give to others in need as you yourself prosper and regularly set something aside for that purpose (1 Cor 16:1-3). Give as you are able and a little more besides (2 Cor 8:3), but don't overburden yourself (2 Cor 8:13-14). Make up your own mind about your giving and develop a cheerful attitude about giving to others (1 Cor 9:6-7). The ultimate goal is to help raise the standard of living of the poor to match your own (2 Cor 8:13-14).
The sum of the matter among early followers of Jesus is this: give systematically to those less fortunate.
Missouri State University
3 See Hedrick, The Wisdom of Jesus (Cascade, 2014), 89 for a discussion of this radical saying.