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(July 2006)

ALMS: The Return of HIS Offering

By Fr. Daniel G. Aerakis, from the Greek Orthodox monthly periodical “St. John the Baptist” («Ἅγιος Ἰωάννης ὁ Βαπτιστὴς»), issue no. 345, translated from the Greek by the staff of the Greek Orthodox Brotherhood of St. Poimen

But this I say: He who soweth sparingly shall reap also sparingly, and he who soweth bountifully shall reap also bountifully.” (2 Cor 9:6)

Children of Our Merciful God

A child resembles his father. This is one of our society’s several general rules. There is only one child that insists upon avoiding any resemblance to his father. This father is merciful while the child is stingy and greedy. Who is this child? It is man. Who is the Father? It is God. What is our merciful God’s most characteristic sign? It is His ever-continuing offerings to man. God continually offers His countless blessings to man. One would say that His treasury is exclusively available for expenses only and not for the receipt of any revenues. He offers us everything. And not only that, God Himself is also offered to man! He willingly came upon this earth to be offered. He truly is the One Who offers and is also offered.

Apostle Paul emphasizes this perpetual offering and self-offering by God and he calls upon all of us to also fulfill our part in this act of mercy. We are frequently invited, as citizens, to participate in various elections. For a Christian, there is one and only one election choice: Jesus Christ. He is the only One that solves all problems because He offers and is offered on behalf of all people.

Let us imagine that a law was passed which demanded that the Prime Minister be elected as the person who willingly and lovingly performs the following three acts: First, he must offer all of his property and estate to the people. Second, he must work non-stop and around the clock without any salary, bonus, or reward whatsoever. Third, he must be willing to sacrifice himself on a cross for the pure benefit of his citizenry. Let me ask you: Do you think we would find even one person to declare his candidacy for this office? Are we kidding ourselves? We all know the sad truth far too well; all of the candidates of our days pursue their election so they can be praised, gain in material wealth, or both…

But we all know very well that this is exactly the law that our Lord fulfilled. It is the one and only true law of love and self-sacrifice. He came upon this earth, clothed in humanity, and gave everything to man. And in the end, He willingly delivered Himself to be crucified for the salvation of His people. It is for this exact reason that a Christian has only one election choice, Jesus Christ, Who though He was rich, yet for your sakes He became poor, that ye through His poverty might be rich (2 Cor 8:9).

If we are thus true children of our Heavenly Father, we ought to act and behave in a similar manner when it comes to His primary characteristic, that being unselfish, self-sacrificing love. He that loveth not, knoweth not God, for God is love” (1 Jn 4:8). God’s true children become true Christians when they offer unselfishingly almsgiving, which St. Paul discusses in his second letter to the Corinthians. Let us never forget that our offering, no matter what the size, is minute and insignificant compared to God’s sacrifice on our behalf. God’s offering is a self-offering. Our offering is an “anti-offering”, i.e., in place of or in return for His mercy. God offers us what belongs to Him 100%. Whatever we offer, though, is from things that He has granted to us. We are simply giving back, in return. As we proclaim in our Divine Liturgy, “We offer You these gifts from Your own gifts, in all and for all.”

Is there anything in our possession that is truly ours? What did we have a hundred years ago? Nothing, just simple non-existence. Our life, our body, our soul, all of them are His gifts. What material possessions did we have at the moment of our birth? Nothing. Did you ever see or hear a child born with a bag of gold coins or a bank-deposit booklet in hand? We came into this physical world naked, without any material possessions, and we will exit similarly. Thus, what hast thou that thou didst not receive? Now if thou didst receive it, why dost thou glory as if thou hadst not been given it? (1 Cor. 4:7).

We came into this world as children of God. Let us not retain things belonging to Him. Let us spread it among many, let us give abundantly. Let us finally learn the true meaning of offering and almsgiving.

Almsgiving Must Be Unsparing

St. Paul delivers to us all an excellent lesson on the subject of offering and almsgiving. After all, this great saint set the standard, as he dedicated every beat of his own heart to God Himself and to all of God’s children.

Many of us believe that offering means to have a million drachmas and to offer one thousand; to have much and to offer little. Do you know how all of the Christians of our days appear when it comes to our manner of handling money and all others material possessions? We look like a faucet that willingly pours ample amounts of water upon a certain thistle or thorn. When, however, the same faucet must water a beautiful flower, it lets out the water drop by drop, until it gets completely dry. All of us are always willing to waste our money and material resources on useless things or purposes; when it comes to almsgiving, however, we become sparing, parsimonious, stingy, miserly, and tight. Let us realize today and from here on that true almsgiving is unsparing and lavish. He who soweth sparingly shall reap also sparingly and he who soweth bountifully shall reap bountifully (2 Cor. 9:6).

Why is it that we ought to offer more, much more, even everything we have? Because alms, in its fundamental essence, is an anti-offering, an anti-giving: You grant someone a lot of land and they give you in return a home. There exists something infinitely higher that happens with almsgiving: You offer land and in return you are granted heaven. You offer material things and in return you become the recipient of a heavenly home, an ever-lasting residence, part of God’s kingdom.

In order to comprehend this, the Apostle Paul presents us with the sowing example. Fall is the time for sowing; it is the same for our earthly lives. Our future life is the time of harvest. He who soweth sparingly shall reap also sparingly… St. John Chrysostom notes: “And he called the thing sowing; that thou mightest at once look unto the recompense, and having in mind the harvest, mightest feel that thou receivest more than thou givest” (Homily 19, on II Corinthians II).

When the farmer sows, not all of the seeds produce. He sows, for example, one hundred seeds, yet only one sprouts and delivers fruit. Almsgiving is quite similar. We must comprehend that true almsgiving does truly produce: it results in miracles! There exist two primary human acts that bring forth God’s miracles: prayer and almsgiving. Whatever happens with prayer, also happens with almsgiving. You pray to God many times; you present Him your problems, your request for a timely resolution, your appeal for His understanding and a miracle. You go on insisting and persisting; you tell yourself: “Come on now, God will listen to me!” You thus must be equally insistent and persistent with your almsgiving. Keep on giving! The miracle will take place! For in due season we shall reap, if we faint not (Gal 6:9). Give continuously, give always, give plenty. Almsgiving will result in the miracle; it will give back!...

What will almsgiving provide us in return? Let us see now: one seed, when it sprouts and grows, is capable of returning one hundred times over. The same is true with almsgiving, only greater: you give one and stand to reap one thousand! Surely we all recall the great upheaval caused by the Greek government’s proposal to impose a tax upon the interest earned through the ownership of government deposit instruments. Nobody wishes to have a tax levied upon the interest received from their bank deposits. And what is the quantity of this interest? Perhaps 5% or even 10%? God, my beloved brethren, not only does He not tax our almsgiving deposits but additionally offers us 1,000% interest!

Imagine that a secure earthly bank truly existed that offered 1,000% interest. Would we all not withdraw our funds from all other banks and deposit them in this bank? Should we all thus not withdraw our deposits immediately from the banks of wastefulness, earthly pleasures, and avarice, and direct them to the bank of almsgiving? The bank of almsgiving truly delivers 1,000% interest, steadily and dependably. He who soweth bountifully, shall reap also bountifully” (2 Cor 9:6).

Alms that is Joyful and of the Heart

The first element of true almsgiving is that it must be unsparing and open-handed. The second is that it must be of the heart. Whatever we give, it must be given from our heart. Every man according to his purpose in his heart, so let him give; not grudgingly, or of necessity: for God loveth a cheerful giver (2 Cor 9:7). God can read that which people are unable to read; God can read our heart, and through our heart, he knows our disposition, and, most important, our intention. What is intention? It is the deed before the deed. Just like before we embark in the construction of a home we have to develop and design its plans, it is likewise for any act of almsgiving; a plan is laid out ahead of the act. Intention is thus the pre-formation of any deed.

Before any of us surmise our ability to do alms, there exists within us the will to perform the deed, the “I want” pre-disposition. There exist a number of those who have a great desire to offer alms but are unable to do so because the means are simply not available. Then we have a great number of those who are fully able but refuse to do so. God observes the “I want” disposition within each of us. Do you truly wish to offer alms? Is your intention noble and from the heart? Do you have a great desire to offer whatever you can? That is what matters to God. Opening up your wallet and delivering the alms is actually the lesser of the deeds. It is of much greater significance to open up your heart. For most of us, we do not perform the lesser of the two deeds simply because we are unwilling to do the greater one; to truly open our hearts towards the act of true almsgiving. It is important for all of us to be aware that our Church considers as martyrs not only those who actually marched to their martyrdom, but also all those who had the true intention, the desire and will, as well as the decision to become martyrs, if God desired them to do so. They were (and are) the “martyrs of volition”. [Editor’s note: “confessors” fall into this category.]

Thus, what truly matters in the life of every Christian (and the significant subject of his personal salvation), what “tips the scale,” is his intention and free will exercised towards the performance of good deeds. For alms, it is the cheerful offering of whatever he is capable of giving. Let us take note: cheerful and joyful giving…this is the other element of true almsgiving. Not grudgingly, or of necessity: for God loveth a cheerful giver (2 Cor 9:7).

As far as the funds that we give as a result of the law of the land, that does not constitute almsgiving. For example, based on the local laws, the citizenry of an area are subjected to taxation that they must pay. Why is this not almsgiving? Because we would simply not give such amounts if it was not a legal requirement. The fact that we give merely what is exactly required of us (and most of us try to find ways to give lesser amounts) makes it apparent that such giving is done “grudgingly, or of necessity.”

Almsgiving is a voluntary offering. Through almsgiving, a person is not dragged into this virtuous deed, but instead he participates on his own while rejoicing. He does not give unwillingly but with great volition. Joy is apparent in his deed. Let us ask: When a person is relieved of a great worry, a so-called heavy weight, is he distressed or is he joyful? Surely he is joyful! Well, the joy is equally great when he performs a significant offering of alms and thus removes from within the weight of avarice and materialism that are ever-present in our world to drag and sink us in the abyss of the evil one, wherein a bottom is never found. We thus ought to always remember that alms are performed with joy and cheerfulness, never with grumbling and reflection.

St. John Chrysostom says that: “It is not possible that lust of wealth and righteousness should dwell together; they have their tents apart. Do not then obstinately strive to bring things together which are incompatible, but banish the usurper covetousness, if thou wouldest obtain the kingdom,” and, “extortion belongs to the unwilling, so that whoso giveth alms unwillingly giveth of extortion” (Homily 19, on Corinthians II series). In conclusion, almsgiving is not when someone takes a thing or two away from you; it is instead your voluntary, joyful offering, from your heart and on your own, and consisting of several things, which would preferably be more than you ever thought in the past that you could give.

God is Superabundant

Offering alms often leads to various thoughts. When you compel or simply ask a fellow Christian to consider a significant offering, he immediately sets in action his cold logic and associated deductive “reasoning.” He tells you: “How can this be possible? If I give this much and to so many, how will I live? I have many needs, you know. Am I to be the keeper of others now?” St. Paul addresses this exact thought process when he says: And God is able to make all grace abound toward you (2 Cor 9:8). To further support the Holy Apostle’s words, St. John Chrysostom adds regarding this type of “reasoning”: “For many persons are afraid to give alms, saying, ‘Lest perchance I become poor,’ ‘lest perchance I need aid from others.’ To do away with this fear then, he adds this prayer, saying, May ‘He make all grace abound towards you.’ ” (Homily 19, on Corinthians II series).

Let us suppose that you have a full glass of water while standing next to a spring out of which an abundant amount of clear water runs non-stop. I, your fellow man, ask you for a glass of water. Will you hesitate offering me what is in your hand? Will you concern yourself with what will happen to you and how you will be able to quench your own thirst? Surely, you will offer him your glass of water with no hesitation.

My brethren, right next to us we have the abundant spring called God’s Divine Providence. Is it possible for this spring of God’s blessings to ever dry up? Thus, even if we were to offer all of our miniscule material possessions, no matter how few or how many, there must be no thought given as to what will happen to us or how we will survive. We have God, Who is not simply “rich;” for He is not the fullness of earthly goods and blessings but rather the surplus. God’s love is abundant and plentiful, as are His blessings. God is thus enough for us all plus much more. God is superabundant. Why, then, worry?

Let us not forget that most of humanity is ready and willing to spend much more for their “needs,” even the sinful ones. Why, then, does any Christian stand so willing to be stingy with his most important offering, that which is so greatly needed for his personal salvation? Regarding this, St. John Chrysostom says the following: “But as long as thou spendest it upon thy belly and on drunkenness and dissipation, thou never thinkest of poverty: but when need is to relieve poverty, thou art become poorer than anybody. And when feeding parasites and flatterers, thou art as joyous as though thou hadst fountains to spend from; but if thou chance to see a poor man, then the fear of poverty besets thee.” (Homily 19, on Corinthians II series)

An Increase in Spirituality

God’s love is overabundant. He does not, however, wish for us to have an overabundance of material goods and riches. He wants us to have all that we truly need; he thus wants us to have the virtue of self-sufficiency. Do we think for a second that should God desire, He could not make us all wealthy? He surely could; this, however, would not be beneficial to us at all. If the sun pours all of its rays upon a single flower, that flower will burn. The sun is a true benefaction only when it is offered in moderation. It is likewise for man. We all go through our lives enjoying God’s benefactions; God, however, does not offer us more than we truly need, for that will result into our own demise. Naturally, there are quite a few individuals who “enjoy” much more than they could possibly need; that reality, however, is not the result of God’s providence. Most of what deviates from self-sufficiency constitutes ungodly greed and stealthy removal of goods belonging to others.

Almsgiving, among other things, also leads us to self-sufficiency, to being content with less and only what we truly need: That ye, always having all sufficiency in all things, may abound to every good work (2 Cor 9:8).

We must strive for self-sufficiency in material good and thus lead ourselves towards an overabundance of spiritual qualities. This is exactly what God promises all of His children. Be materially content and frugal and thus become rich in spirituality; rich to “every good work.” This is where we discover the solution to our socioeconomic problems. For as long as avarice and greed are permitted to drive us towards absence of material satisfaction, our “solution” for the socioeconomic problems will be found among injustice, theft, robbery, and perpetual stress.

Many of our fellow Christians are continuously in the pursuit of a raise, a new source of additional income, the latest way to lock in a quick profit. They could care less about at least asking at the same time for an increase in virtues, an increase of love, compassion, and faith. They do not ask for an increase in their fruits of righteousness (2 Cor 9:10). For what is truly needed or what constitutes unnecessary accumulation of goods, St. John Chrysostom tells us: “For when we are able even without a thing to live healthfully and respectably, certainly the addition of that thing is a superfluity.” (Homily 19, on Corinthians II series)

Conclusive Thoughts

The lesson of self-offering and almsgiving is a very difficult lesson for all Christians of our days. Avarice and greed, the direct result of a complete lack of faith, makes most of us incapable of learning the God-committed and God-taught lesson of offering and almsgiving. When will we learn how to give? All of us are focused on receiving only. Our own country is ours because the fathers of this land offered their life to the noble cause of freedom and independence. Furthermore, our Heavenly country, the Kingdom of Heaven, was earned for us all not because a mere human being, bur God Himself came onto this earth to give His human life for us all. Can we not notice that, without an offering, a self-sacrifice, nothing can ever be earned?

Let us all destroy all thoughts of what will happen to us all should we offer a generous amount towards alms, towards the needs of our fellow human beings. It is a faithless thought to worry, for it contradicts Divine Will by placing God and His Providence aside. God, Whose mercy is endless for us all, Who without receiving anything has given us so much, will surely look after us and give us His blessings in abundance when we self-offer, when we self-sacrifice; it is impossible for Him to do anything else but give back to us in abundance! As St. John Chrysostom informs us: “For if a man who hath received will not overlook, but will requite the favor, much more will Christ. For He that giveth even without receiving, how will He not give after receiving?” (Homily 19, on Corinthians II series).

Wherefore, with all earnestness let us shun greed and welcome almsgiving, that we may obtain both all freedom in this life and the kingdom of Heaven, through the grace and love towards men of our Lord Jesus Christ, to Whom, together with the Father and the Holy Spirit, be glory, might, and honor, now and forever, and to the ages of ages. Amen.