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Almsgiving and Atonement for Sin

by Brant Pitre November 08, 2019 0 Comments


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In context you’ll notice that Luke pairs parables about being ready for the second coming with Jesus’ teachings on almsgiving. You might think, “Well how did those two go together?” Well it’s interesting, they go together because in ancient Judaism (and in the Old Testament itself), giving to the poor was seen as a kind of sacrifice. Like when we think of sacrifice, we pretty much exclusively think of animal sacrifice. We think of blood sacrifice. And it’s true, animals were offered on the altar. If you know a little bit more, you might also think of bread and wine being sacrificed in the Old Testament. In other words, unbloody sacrifices. And it’s true, those too were offered on the altar. But you know what we almost never think about is giving to the poor, in other words giving alms, as also being a kind of sacrifice that not only cared for the poor, but actually was seen as atoning for sin and delivering you from death.

Now in closing, I’m just going to give you a couple of parallels. If you want to read more about this, I would encourage you to check out Gary Anderson’s book called Charity: The Place of the Poor in the Biblical Tradition (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013), 54-55.  It is a brilliant book, amazing book on this, on the role of almsgiving in the Bible, Old and New Testaments, and in Christian Tradition, and in particular, how almsgiving was seen as a sacrificial act. I’m just going to show it to you from the Bible and Tradition with a few key quotes here that are on my outline:

Store up almsgiving in your treasury,
and it will rescue you from all affliction (Sirach 29:12)

Give alms from your possessions... Do not turn your face away from any poor man, and the face of God will not be turned away from you. If you have many possessions, make your gift from them in proportion; if few, do not be afraid to give according to the little you have. So you will be laying up a good treasure for yourself against the day of necessity. For charity delivers from death and keeps you from entering the darkness; and for all who practice it charity is an excellent offering in the presence of the Most High. (Tobit 4:7-11)

So notice, almsgiving here doesn’t just deliver you from death, it doesn’t just lay out treasure for yourself against the day of judgment, it also is an offering in the presence of God. In other words, it’s a sacrifice acceptable to God. It has atoning power. And you might be thinking, “alright Dr. Pitre, that’s in the Catholic Old Testament. I mean that might be Tobit, it might be in Sirach. I don’t regard…” maybe you don’t regard those books as canonical. Maybe you’re not Catholic yourself. Well, how about the words of Jesus? Luke 11:41:

Give for alms those things which are within; and behold, everything is clean for you. (Luke 11:41)

Notice this, Jesus connects almsgiving with the power of cleansing. Well, cleansing what? The cleansing from sin. So this imagery of almsgiving having the power to cleanse is something that goes back to Old Testament. The idea that giving charity to the poor atones for our sins. This is standard fair in the Old Testament and one of the teachings of Jesus. Now with that all in mind then, I’ll close with why is that important for Luke12?” Well, it’s real simple. It gives us a concrete meaning to what Jesus says when he says “build up your treasure in Heaven.” How do I build up my treasure in Heaven? According to the Bible, according to Sirach and the book of Tobit, the way I build up treasure in Heaven is to give away my treasure on earth. How can I be prepared for the son of man’s coming? Here’s a thought, start giving to the poor, like yesterday. Don’t be like the rich fool, but give your possessions away. And if you need an inspiration for this, I’ll close with this quote from St. John Chrysostom (golden mouth), a 4th Century Church Father, archbishop, bishop of Constantinople. In this passage, John Chrysostom is just assuming that of course, all Christians know that giving alms is an act of sacrifice. Well he says something interesting. He says if that’s true, then the poor person is like an altar upon which the sacrifice of alms is offered to God. Listen to what John Chrysostom says:

You [he is speaking to his Christian audience] honor this altar [meaning the altar of the Eucharist in the sanctuary] indeed, because it receives Christ’s body [at the Eucharist]. But the poor man, who is himself the body of Christ, you treat with scorn, and when perishing, neglect. You can see this altar [meaning the altar of the poor] lying around everywhere, both in streets and in market places, and you can sacrifice upon it every hour; for on this too is sacrifice performed.

So in closing then, what John is saying here is he’s taking the teaching of the Old Testament and the teaching of Jesus and saying, if you really want to build up your treasure in Heaven, if you want to pay down the debts of your sins, so to speak, then start offering the sacrifice of alms upon the altar of a poor person. In other words, when you give alms to a poor person, don’t just see it as like an act of benevolence on your part, see it as a liturgical act. Recognize in the poor the mystical body of Jesus Christ. And if Jesus’ body really is what the New Testament says, the Temple of God, then every person, every poor person to whom you give alms is kind of like a living altar, a living representative of Christ. So every act of almsgiving becomes an acceptable sacrifice to the Lord. It’s a beautiful mystagogical way of understanding what’s really happening when we give to the poor. I mean after all, it was Jesus himself who said “if you did it to one of these, the least of my brethren, you did it to me.”

Brant Pitre
Brant Pitre


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