Having described fasting, Biblical piety moves from “secret” to “private.” The terms are fluid, of course. The easiest way to keep them apart is how many people are involved: is it done alone or is it done with or for a small number of other people? But whereas practices like prayer and fasting belong the most to what is done in secret, alms belong almost exclusively to private Biblical piety.
Alms may be defined as doing what is in accordance with the will of God for the benefit of others. It is not refraining from an evil action, but doing good in obedience to the Lord. Alms are not only the external act. It is possible to “do good” while disobeying the Law. In such a case, whatever is done without faith is sin (Romans 14:23). Such an act may follow the letter of the Law, but not the Spirit.
The primary motivation for doing alms is holiness, or conformity to the will of God. “He has told you, O man, what is good; and 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)? “The good person out of the good treasure of his heart produces good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure produces evil, for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks” (Luke 6:45). Loving your neighbor as yourself flows out of a love for God and not the other way around. Alms do not make us righteous in the sight of God, but alms are also not concerned only with the neighbor. The righteous man walks the way of the righteous because of his conformity to the will of God. In giving alms, God is glorified (Matthew 5:16). They are not an afterthought or an unconscious process.
Alms are a part of Biblical piety for a number of reasons. First, faith brings forth fruit without exception. As James says: “But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves” (James 1:22). Again, “If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, be warmed and filled,’ without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that” (James 2:15-16)? Such alms are not the foundation of righteousness, which is the mistake of legalism, but the expression of it, and one in whom there are no fruits of faith does not have faith. The prophets condemn Israel over and over again for this very lack of fruit, even though they laid claim to the promises of God (Amos 5:21-24, for example).
Second, the righteous desire to do what is pleasing to God. “Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers; but his delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night” (Psalm 1:1-2). “More to be desired are [the Lord’s commandments] than gold, even much fine gold; sweeter also than honey and drippings of the honeycomb. Moreover, by them is your servant warned; in keeping them there is great reward” (Psalm 19:10-11). It must be noted that God converts the whole man, including his will, so that he actually wants to keep the Law and love his neighbor as himself. This is done in great weakness while still in the flesh, of course, but to revel in sin or to refuse to give alms out of a fear of “works-righteousness” is a sign of being in the flesh.
Alms take many forms. Outwardly, they are primarily concerned with the physical needs of the body. “If your enemy is hungry, give him bread to eat, and if he is thirsty, give him water to drink, for you will heap burning coals on his head, and the Lord will reward you” (Proverbs 25:21-22). However, they are not exclusively so, but may also be related to money and similar things. The condemnation of usury, for example, shows the intent behind alms clearly. A poor brother is not an opportunity for gain. “Take no interest from him or profit, but fear your God, that your brother may live beside you” (Leviticus 25:36). A moneylender gives with the intent of making something out of the deal; giving alms (in this case, lending money) may in fact “hurt,” but it aims at building up the neighbor instead of the self. As Paul says, “For I do not mean that others should be eased and you burdened, but that as a matter of fairness your abundance at the present time should supply their need, so that their abundance may supply your need, that there may be fairness. As it is written, ‘Whoever gathered much had nothing left over, and whoever gathered little had no lack’” (2 Corinthians 8:13-15).
However, outward alms are meaningless without inward fruits. Jesus upbraids the Pharisees for lacking the fruits of the Spirit: “But give as alms those things that are within, and behold, everything is clean for you” (Luke 11:41). The external portion of alms ultimately comes to an end, but the eternal treasures which accompany the earthly things never perish. “Sell your possessions, and give to the needy. Provide yourselves with moneybags that do not grow old, with a treasure in the heavens that does not fail, where no thief approaches and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also” (Luke 12:33-34). “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others” (Matthew 23:23). “Through him then let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that acknowledge his name. Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God” (Hebrews 13:15-16).
“Thus, when you give to the needy, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (Matthew 6:2-4).
One final note about alms-giving. There is a real temptation to give alms to those who are distant and imagine that the whole of the law has been fulfilled. The priest and the Levite who passed by the wounded man doubtlessly gave alms in accordance with the Law (Luke 10:29-37). Giving alms to another country is easy and can easily puff up. Giving alms to the poor man on the street corner is much harder. But the Lord calls us to take care of those closest to us first. “Woe to those who lie on beds of ivory and stretch themselves out on their couches, and eat lambs from the flock and calves from the midst of the stall, who sing idle songs to the sound of the harp and like David invent for themselves instruments of music, who drink wine in bowls and anoint themselves with the finest oils, but are not grieved over the ruin of Joseph” (Amos 6:4-6)! “But if anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for members of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever” (1 Timothy 5:8).