What Is Almsgiving? Understanding the Third Pillar of Lent

By Divine Word Missionaries on February 26, 2021

"Not to enable the poor to share in our goods is to steal from them and deprive them of life. The goods we possess are not ours, but theirs." (Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 2446)

For 40 days each year, we come together to share in the penitential acts of the Lenten season. During this time we are called to a true conversion of heart as followers of Christ. The Church offers us three means of working towards this interior conversion: prayer, fasting and almsgiving.

These three pillars of Lent draw us closer to God and one another by

helping us to overcome our own selfish desires. Many of us are quick to make faithful resolutions regarding fasting and prayer. Almsgiving, the most outwardly focused pillar, tends to be the most overlooked.

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The Lenten Pillar of Almsgiving

Almsgiving is an ancient practice that brings us into communion with one another in ways that extend beyond fasting and prayer. By caring for the needs of those around us, we are participating in the merciful work of the Church to provide for all members of our universal family. 

Today, as we journey through Lent, let's explore this ancient practice by examining answers to the following questions:

Keep reading (or click on a topic in the list above) to learn more about the historical and biblical roots of giving alms, why charitable works are important for Catholics, and how you can incorporate almsgiving into your Lenten practice.

What is the definition of almsgiving?

The Catholic Church considers almsgiving "a witness to fraternal charity" and "a work of justice pleasing to God" (Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 2462). 

Almsgiving is the act of donating money or goods to the poor or performing other acts of charity.  However, when defining almsgiving, it helps to understand the meaning behind the word itself. 

The roots of the word “alms” can be found in ancient Latin and Greek words meaning mercy and pity. Similarly, the root of the word “charity” comes from the Latin “caritas” meaning love

Charity, or almsgiving, is an outward sign of Christian love for others. Typically, it involves some type of sacrifice on behalf of the giver in order to provide for the needs of the other. In doing this, bonds of community are formed.

What does it mean to give alms?

Charitable giving is an ancient practice that is customary in many cultures and religions. As Christians, we are called to follow in the example of Christ who showed great compassion to those on the fringes of society. Even if we have not seen them, the poor have always been among us and so has the call to support them. 

The Catechism states that charity is “the theological virtue by which we love God above all things for his own sake, and our neighbor as ourselves for the love of God” (CCC, No. 1822).

More than simply giving money, almsgiving is an act of love that incorporates both prayer and fasting and manifests itself by caring for our neighbor in need. As we help our brothers and sisters who live in poverty, we become more connected to God and to one another.

How is almsgiving an act of justice?

The Church teaches us that all people are made in the image of God and so possess equal and inherent dignity. Each person has a right to all they need to live their full potential as intended by God.

At the root of the practice of almsgiving is the principle that "everyone should look upon his neighbor (without any exception) as 'another self,' above all bearing in mind his life and the means necessary for living it with dignity" (CCC, No. 1931). This responsibility to care for our neighbor becomes even more important when it involves those who are disadvantaged (CCC, No. 1932). 

By treating our neighbor as “another self” we are removing any human barriers that might separate us. God sees all men and women as his children, equal in his eyes, and therefore deserving of fair and just treatment. Almsgiving allows justice to flourish through simple acts of love and compassion.

Where is almsgiving in the Bible?

The theme of giving charitably to those in need is seen throughout scripture and shows a connectedness that we all have to one another and to God. 

The Old Testament

In the Old Testament, the notion of alms is understood primarily through the context of justice, and charity was an integral part of Jewish custom long before the time of Christ. In fact, the Hebrew word for almsgiving, "tzedakah," means righteousness. It is believed that giving to the poor helps reestablish right order and encourages justice. 

Hebrew law ensured that the gleanings from the harvest should be left for the poor in the field and vineyard (Leviticus 19:9-10). In Proverbs, we are told that “whoever is kind to the needy honors God” (14:31); however, refusing to give alms to the poor brings just retribution (21:13). 

Tobit tells us that "it is better to give alms than to store up gold, for almsgiving saves from death and purges all sin. Those who give alms will enjoy a full life" (Tobit 12:9).

Throughout the Old Testament, scripture has a lot to say about the righteousness of almsgiving, including the following:

  • “When someone is reduced to poverty, welcome them into your home” (Leviticus 25:35)
  • “Do not close your hand to someone in need” (Deuteronomy 15:7)
  • “A man who is righteous will be remembered forever” (Psalm 112:5-9)
  • “If you satisfy the afflicted, your light shall rise in the darkness” (Isaiah 58:10)

The New Testament

In the New Testament, almsgiving is primarily viewed as an act of love and compassion. A critical component of Christ’s teachings is to love one another as God loves. By caring for others and sharing our fortune with them, we are participating in the work of Christ on earth. 

Christ directs us to care for others as we would care for him. He tells his disciples, “Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me” (Matthew 25:40).

The parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus also shows us the importance of almsgiving and caring for the poor in the eyes of God. The rich man ignored the beggar Lazarus while on earth and was cast into hell at the time of his death (Luke 16:19–31).

We do not, however, have to be wealthy and give great amounts. In Luke’s Gospel, the poor widow who gave only two coins to the offering (21:1-4) is a wonderful example of the power of almsgiving, even when we feel we have nothing to give.

The importance of almsgiving is seen repeatedly throughout the New Testament. Some additional examples include:

  • “Give to those who ask, and do not turn your back on anyone who wants to borrow” (Matthew 5:42)
  • “Sell all that you have and distribute it to the poor, and you will have a treasure in heaven” (Luke 18:22)
  • “If someone who has worldly means sees a brother in need and refuses him compassion, the love of God cannot remain in him” (1 John 3:17)

The scriptures show us that simple acts of kindness and selflessness are all that is required to make a meaningful difference in our lives and the lives of those around us.

Why do we practice prayer, fasting and almsgiving during Lent?

While giving alms to the poor is an important corporal work of mercy, the term “almsgiving” is one we hear most frequently during Lent. 

The three pillars of Lent—prayer, fasting and almsgiving—are expressions of the fundamental purpose of Lent, which is to turn to God in conversion of heart. Each pillar is distinct yet remains vitally connected to the others, forming a unique triad that draws us closer to God and one another throughout this penitential season.

Acts of almsgiving during Lent allow us to:

  • Let go of our own desires and focus on the needs of the less fortunate
  • Sacrifice our temporal comfort for the good of another person
  • Rely on God to meet our needs rather than providing for ourselves

Two of the central lessons of the cross are compassion and selflessness. As we enter the Lenten season, the world continues to suffer from pain and unrest. Now, more than ever, acts of almsgiving can bring us together and heal our wounds.

What are some examples of almsgiving during Lent?

In his 2020 Lenten Message, Pope Francis states that “there is a need to appeal to men and women of goodwill to share, by almsgiving, their goods with those most in need, as a means of personally participating in the building of a better world. Charitable giving makes us more human, whereas hoarding risks making us less human, imprisoned by our own selfishness.” 

This year, there is an unprecedented number of people in need, as the world continues to overcome the devastating effects of the pandemic. 

Many dioceses hold special appeals for local needs during Lent, and there are countless other ways to offer your time, talent and treasure.  

Need inspiration? Here are 20 creative ideas for almsgiving this Lent!

Look for ways to incorporate some of the following almsgiving examples into your Lenten practice:

  • Donate food to your local soup kitchen or food bank
  • Tutor a schoolchild or mentor a college graduate (this can be done virtually!)
  • Increase your donation to your local parish
  • Do some grocery shopping or run an errand for an elderly neighbor
  • Each week, write a note of affirmation to someone special in your life
  • Make a meal for an elderly neighbor or a new mother and leave it on their doorstep
  • Show an act of kindness to someone who is difficult to get along with
  • Support the work of the Church around the world by giving to organizations that serve at-risk and impoverished populations.

Great news—all of these can be done while safely practicing social distancing!

Support the Efforts of Divine Word Missionaries this Lent

As you consider adding almsgiving to your Lenten practice, we invite you to learn more about the work Divine Word Missionaries are doing around the world to serve those in need.

Divine Word Missionaries work tirelessly to feed the hungry, care for the sick, foster education, shelter the homeless and provide spiritual guidance for vulnerable populations. By making a financial gift, your generous almsgiving will ensure that our missionaries can continue to make Jesus known to every person in every nation. 

You can also support our work through prayer. Join our community in scriptural reflection every week and offer your time in prayer for the success of our missionaries and their work. Have a blessed Lent!

Need some guidance and a community to accompany you as you grow spiritually this Lent? Join us in our Lenten reflections. Sign up to receive devotionals from our missionaries every Friday, right in your inbox!

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