An old saying goes, “If you give someone a fish they eat for a day. If you teach someone to fish they eat for a lifetime.” There is a lot of wisdom in this saying. It is wisdom that points to the importance of self-development, of addressing the root causes of poverty, and of mending the systems that trap people into poverty.
But there is also a lot of wisdom in giving a hungry person a fish, and it is this wisdom that Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount point to.
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. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in se-cret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
Someone is curiously missing from Jesus’ instruction on almsgiving, and that person is the recipient. This is curious because otherwise, Jesus has much to say about the poor:
Matthew 5:3 NRS Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Matthew 11:5 NRS Go and tell John what you hear and see: 5 the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.
Matthew 19:21 NRS “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor
Matthew 26:9 NRS For you always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me.
Mark 12:42 NRS A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. Then he called his disciples and said to them, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury.
Luke 4:18 NRS “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free,
Luke 14:13 NRS But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind.
Luke 16:22 NRS The poor man [Lazarus] died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham.
What his omission of the poor in his instructions on almsgiving says to me is that its meaning does not lie in the recipients: the meaning of almsgiving lies in the giver, and its meaning is almost entirely hidden within the giver.
Before we explore the deeper hidden meanings of almsgiving, let’s talk first about the surface, literal meaning of the word. As I understand it “almsgiving” is the voluntary and direct transfer of wealth from one person who is wealthier to another who is poorer. We redistribute wealth in many ways: we give gifts to friends and loved ones, we pay taxes to redistribute wealth in our nation, we give to our church and to charitable organizations that do work we believe in and want to support. Properly speaking, any of these activities—except perhaps paying taxes: who does that voluntarily?—could be considered almsgiving.
Over the years, I’ve developed both a more expansive practice of almsgiving and a narrower definition of it. I give to loved ones. I pay my taxes. I give to the church and to charitable organizations. But I don’t think of these things as almsgiving. For me, almsgiving is the practice of handing money directly to a person in need: from one hand to another. And in my experience, giving alms is the single most transformative of the Lenten practices.
Lenten almsgiving, first and foremost, makes us less judgmental of others. Before I started the practice of Lenten almsgiving, I used to cross the street to avoid beggars. I was suspicious of their motives, their sincerity, their sobriety, even their need. But I found that by simply letting go of my money into the hands of another person, my heart opened to that person. This should not be a surprise, for Jesus says “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” Our treasure goes first, and our heart follows.
Giving alms puts us in right relationship with our possessions. When we give money freely to a person in need, we become more careless with our possessions, not in the sense of treating them irresponsibly, but in the sense of holding them less anxiously. When we give generously, we come to see our own wealth and possessions as conditional and transitory. The buck no longer stops here, it was never meant to; rather, it passes through me on its way to somewhere else.
Giving alms gives us new perspective on our own need. It helps us sort out needs from wants. Some months ago I noticed that my two favorite white T-shirts were looking worn and dingy. In the past, I would have just gone out to Kohl’s and picked up a couple of new ones without giving it much thought at all. But this time the thought occurred to me: someone else needs to eat more than I need a perfectly white T-shirt. So those two dingy white T-shirts are still in my dresser and still make regular appearances at work. My appearance is just not that important anymore.
Jesus instructs us to give alms secretly because he knows that there is deeper meaning in the practice than a simple transfer of wealth. Jesus wants us to dig more deeply into the state of our own hearts. The practice of almsgiving—and likewise the Lenten practices of prayer and fasting—are inward practices. We give, we pray, we fast not to change the world—though the world can be changed by all of these things—but to change ourselves. As Jesus says, “The poor will always be with us.” Our Lenten almsgiving will not alter the root causes of poverty, or mend the systems that trap people into poverty, but it will change our hearts, our minds, and our souls.
If we teach someone to fish, they will eat for a lifetime. But if we give someone a fish, we will find a whole new life.