Contributions come in various forms in the Bible. They were designed in the Old Testament to support the poor and, in the New Testament, the needy saints of the church. Some were organized collections, while others were the offering of alms as expressions of Acts of mercy or "acts of righteousness." The poor often collected such benefits directly from those who gave.
The Old Testament. Deuteronomy 15:7-11 states the basic principle behind contributions. God's people are not to be tight-fisted but must offer aid to others with open hands. One should lend to a needy brother for a pledge and should not refuse such a loan simply because the year of remission, a sabbatical year, is near. The illustration of such giving is found in es 9:22, where it is associated with the feast of Purim.
The Torah also exhorted the people of God to leave some of their harvest to be collected by the poor and the foreigner ( Lev 19:9-10 ; 23:22 ). In fact, the Mishnah, the written collection of Jewish oral tradition codified in the late second century a.d., devotes an entire tractate to how this contribution is handled. The "performing of righteousness" has no fixed measure (1:1). In fact, after the poor have their turn, anyone can take grain from what remains of the harvest (8:1). The amount of harvest contributed to this cause should be no less than one-sixtieth of the whole. In determining what was to be left, consideration was to be given to the size of the field, the number of the poor, and the extent of the yield (1:2). When Jesus' disciples plucked grain on the Sabbath, it was probably from such harvest leftovers ( Luke 6:1-5 ). A clear Old Testament example of such a collection for widows and the poor is the story of Naomi and Ruth ( Ruth 2:2-8 ).
Psalm 37:21, 26 calls upon the righteous person to give with generosity. This idea is stated negatively in Isaiah 10:1-2. Yet another prophet issues a call for true justice and compassion ( Zech 7:9-10 ). The issuing of alms for the needy is a part of this call.
In Judaism. The Old Testament clearly made a great impact on Judaism, since many texts address this theme. It is clear that such contributions to the poor were a reflection of piety and occupied a major place in Jewish thinking. Such care is said to extend to older parents (Sir 3:14). It is seen to preserve one's reward before God, as one is urged to give without a grudging eye (Tobit 4:9-10; 14:11; 28:12; 40:17). Such giving atones for sin ( 3:30 "like; water on a blazing fire" 12:8-9). Like prayer, one should not be weary of it ( Sir 7:10). Yet such giving, at least according to some Jews, should not go to sinners (12:3), but to the penniless (29:8). Such giving is seen as a commendable means of aid, better than having family (40:24). A picture of such an honorable figure is the Jewish portrait of Tobit ( 1:16-17). When one realizes that such giving came on top of money set aside for tithes to maintain the temple and priesthood, it is clear that such contributions represented a reaching out to those in need with unconditional mercy.
The New Testament. As one turns to the New Testament, the discussion of alms continues. Jesus exhorted that such giving should occur in secret ( Matt 6:2-4 ) and is a reflection of discipleship ( Matt 12:33 ). The examples of a candidate for alms is the lame man of Acts 3, while exemplary almsgivers include Cornelius ( Acts 10:2 Acts 10:4 Acts 10:31 ) and Paul ( 24:17 ). The motive here seems similar to Judaism, although one was to take care not to draw attention to oneself in the midst of such giving.
Paul states the principle for giving in Romans 12:8: those who give are called to do so liberally. Three other Pauline texts fill in the details. First Corinthians 16:1-3 speaks of a collection Paul was taking to aid the needy in the Jewish Christian church in Palestine. He advises that the amount to be given should be set aside and stored, that giving should be according to how one has prospered, and that the collection should come with a letter of commendation. The letter shows that one guards the integrity of the contribution with care and accountability.
Second Corinthians 8-9 discusses another collection Paul made for the same purpose. He exhorts that it should be according to means ( 8:3 ). Such giving allows one to share in a work of grace (vv. 1-2). However, it should be done voluntarily, even cheerfully ( 9:7 ). Still, such a contribution is a test of service (v. 13).
First Timothy 6:6-10, 17-19 places the rich under a special responsibility to be generous. God's kindness to them should be expressed in being kind to others, storing up treasure in heaven, not earth.
Summary. The contribution of funds or other means of sustenance for those in need reflects caring, mercy, and piety. Since God is generous to us, we should be kind to others. That is why alms and other such contributions are called Acts of mercy.
Darrell L. Bock
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