Giving Alms



Two weeks ago in this space, I shared with you a reflection on Christmas, as we were still in the Christmas season. Today I am shifting gears and looking ahead a few weeks to the next big thing on the Liturgical calendar. Ash Wednesday is Feb. 17, which means that Easter will be upon us shortly – and now is the time for us to get ready.

One of the Lenten practices we are encouraged towards is giving alms, which is the act of freely giving money, food or other donations to the poor. Rather than discuss where we can drop off our canned goods, let’s talk about what prevents us from dropping them off, giving some cash and/or signing up to help out.

We live under the impression that the stuff we have is ours. I have written about this in the past, but it’s so key to understanding stewardship that I want to talk about it again. The fact is, the stuff that surrounds us is not ours at all; it belongs to God. It is merely on loan to us.

When I read about stewardship, the discussion inevitably points to the “gifts” we are given by God. If I could change one thing in our stewardship language, it would be that word. A gift is something given to us that is unfettered by conditions. What God provides us with are not gifts, because they are loaded with conditions. Chief among them is the fact that He wants them all back, with increase, and there is a penalty for non-compliance.

That, my friends, is a loan.

When you get money from a bank to buy a home, you have to pay it back with interest. That is also a loan. Try telling your mortgage company that the big bundle of money they handed you is a gift and see how far it takes you.

Try telling God that what he has given us is a gift and does not need to be paid back. Scripture tells us that the result of that action will be wailing and gnashing of teeth for eternity.

What we receive from God are not gifts. On its face, that statement is nearly heretical. Gifts are permanent, but we can make no claim to permanence on anything that God provides to us.

Pope Francis once quoted his grandmother, stating, “Burial shrouds have no pockets.” When we die, we take nothing with us. As Job told us, naked we came into the world and naked we leave it. All the stuff we have in this world is transitory. While we may claim ownership of it, the stuff is only in our care. It belongs to God.

In Scripture, Jesus is asked by a young man what he must do to get to heaven. Jesus tells him to follow the Ten Commandments and sell everything he had and give it to the poor. That last part was too much for the young man and he walked away. Jesus then told His disciples that “…everyone who has given up houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands for the sake of my name will receive a hundred times more, and will inherit eternal life” (Mt 19:29).

It is impractical for us to sell all we have and give it to the poor because then someone would have to take care of us. Rather, we must change our view regarding all that we receive from God. Remember, all things come from God. God still owns them. He wants them back with increase. We do that by sharing the things entrusted to us with those whose needs are greater than ours.

St. Thomas Aquinas said, “Man should not consider his material possessions his own, but as common to all, so as to share them without hesitation when others are in need.” St. Augustine simplifies that, writing, “Find out how much God has given you and take from it what you need; the remainder belongs to others.”

Look at all that God has provided you. Go ahead and take those canned goods to the food pantry. But to live up to God’s expectations, leave some cash and sign up for a shift to help out.

That’s giving alms, and that is being a Christian steward.

As always, thanks for reading. I would love to hear from you. Write to me at

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