Alms and Widows and Orphans

Alms and Widows and Orphans

By Mark Yow

Alms in the Bible refers to the act of donating money or goods to the poor and needy, or to a charitable cause. Alms is a form of mercy and charity, and a witness to fraternal love and justice. The word “alms” comes from the Greek word eleemosyne, which means “compassion”. The Hebrew word for alms is mattan and it is a form of charity, a giving of money or goods to someone in need or to a charitable cause.

Alms in the Bible refers to the act of donating money or goods to the poor and performing acts of charity. Almsgiving is considered a witness to fraternal charity and a work of justice pleasing to God. The Bible emphasizes the importance of humility and doing good for God’s glory rather than seeking the praise of others. The concept of almsgiving is found throughout the Bible, and it is commanded by God. The giving of alms is an expression of love and concern for one’s neighbor.

Throughout the Old Testament the notion of alms (concrete aid given the poor) is understood primarily in the context of justice; just as Yahweh acts with justice, so, too, must his worshipers. The Hebrew word for alms, ṣādāqâ, means justice or righteousness; giving to the poor helps reestablish the right order; it produces justice. To return to the poor man his pledged cloak at nightfall that he may sleep in comfort is justice (ṣādāqâ) before Yahweh (Dt 24.13). Mindful of the poor, the Law prescribed that the land should lie fallow every 7th year (Ex 23.11) and that the gleanings from the harvest should be left for the poor in the field and vineyard (Lv19.9–10; 23.22; see also Ru 2.2–8). After the Exile there was a growing emphasis on the religious nature of personal almsgiving. Job, in his plea of a clean conscience, asserts that his reverence for God prompted him to give food, clothing, and shelter to the needy (Jb 31.16–23). Alms purge away sin, deliver from death (Tb 12.9; see also Dn 4.24), and bring God’s favor on the giver (Tb 4.7); on the other hand, refusing alms to the poor brings a just retribution (Prv 21.13) because God, who created the poor man, too, will hear the latter’s cry (Sir 4.1–6).

In the New Testament almsgiving is considered primarily as an act of religion springing from love and compassion; its note of social justice also is alluded to, especially in the writings of St. Luke and in the Epistle of James. Jesus enjoins unostentatious almsgiving, together with prayer and fasting, as one of the pillars of the religious life (Mt 6.1–2, 5, 16, 19). It merits a heavenly reward (Mt 6.4, 20; 19.27–29; 25.40; Lk 12.33; 16.1–9) and makes the donor a true son of the Most High (Lk 6.35). Luke’s writings, in particular, commend almsgiving; he alone relates the stories of Zachaeus, a chief tax collector, who gave half his possessions to the poor (Lk 19.1–10), of the Baptist’s advice to share food and clothing with the needy (Lk 3.11), and of Christ’s advice to lend money without thought of return (Lk 6.35). Luke also takes the opportunity of relating that Paul worked with his hands to provide for the needs of others as well as his own (Acts 18.3; 20.34–35). St. Paul organized collections for the poor (Rom 15.25–28; 1 Cor 16.1; 2 Cor 8–9), in order not only to alleviate want, but to break down prejudices between Jew and Gentile and to knit the members of Christ into a community of good will. According to St. James, true religion demands that those in the Christian community who possess the means should help their needy brethren (Jas 1.27; 2.14–17; see also 1 Jn 3.17; 1 Pt 4.8–10).

God commands us to care for orphans and widows. When He gave the Law to Moses and the Israelites, He gave instructions for how to treat the orphans and widows among them—with harsh consequences promised if they failed in their responsibility (see Exodus 22:22–23). In the New Testament, James says that taking care of the needs of orphans and widows is part of religion “pure and faultless” (James 1:27). Caring for those in distress is not optional for followers of Christ.

We should not view caring for orphans and widows as simply a command from God we must fulfill “or else.” There is tremendous blessing in serving and standing up for orphans and widows. In considering what our own attitude should be toward the orphans and widows around us, it’s helpful to remember that all of us were adopted into God’s family through Jesus Christ (Ephesians 1:3–7) and betrothed to Christ (Ephesians 5:32; Revelation 19:7). It is our joy and privilege to partner with God in loving, serving, and protecting the orphans and widows among us.

Caring for orphans and widows is a significant theme in the Bible, reflecting God’s compassion and justice. Here are some relevant passages:

  1. James 1:27(ESV): “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.” This verse emphasizes the importance of practical care for those in need.
  2. Isaiah 1:17(ESV): “Learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause.” God calls us to seek justice and advocate for the vulnerable, including orphans and widows.
  3. Psalm 146:9(ESV): “The Lord watches over the sojourners; he upholds the widow and the fatherless, but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin.” God actively cares for widows and orphans.
  4. Exodus 22:22(ESV): “You shall not mistreat any widow or fatherless child.” God commands us to treat them with kindness and fairness.
  5. Hebrews 13:1-25(ESV): This chapter encourages brotherly love, hospitality, and compassion. It reminds us to remember those in prison, mistreated, and vulnerable, including widows and orphans.

Remember, our privilege lies in partnering with God to love, serve, and protect those in need. As we care for orphans and widows, we reflect God’s heart and experience His blessings


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