About ten years ago at a UMJC Conference morning minyan (gathering for prayer), I remember being puzzled by a box that was put out for those participating to make donations to charity. Someone said this was an aid to prayer, giving to charity as a way of enhancing the sincerity and power of our prayers.
At the time, I was sure this was not right. What, does God take bribes now?
A few years later, in Israel, as I approached the Kotel (Western Wall), I encountered a large number of beggars. Many walking to the wall would place a few shekels in their hands as they came to say the morning prayers.
In my recent readings in the gospels, especially in Luke at the moment, I find an emphasis on almsgiving and being wise with mammon to make friends who will invite me into eternal tents.
Of course, there is plenty in Torah about various forms of almsgiving: leaving the corners of the field unharvested so the poor can take what they need, leaving the gleanings, forgiving debts and loaning money without taking vital items for security, and so on.
My favorite comes from the wisdom literature: He who is kind to the poor lends to the Lord, and he will repay him for his deed (Proverbs 19:17).
But isn’t that theology of divine reward, or God hearing our prayers differently if we give alms, a bit primitive and unworthy of mature theology?
Luke tells the story of a centurion named Cornelius, “a devout man who feared God with all his household, gave alms liberally to the people, and prayed constantly to God.” When an angel appears to him and grants him a request he had made in prayer, the angel says, “Your prayers and your alms have ascended as a memorial before God” (Acts 10:4).
Yesterday, when researching the parable of the unrighteous steward (or shrewd manager, Luke 16:1-9), I was struck by the comment from Luke Timothy Johnson’s commentary that the righteous use their mammon now to make eternal friends. And the parable of Lazarus and the rich man questions whether people who are not regularly practicing tzedaka can even hear the Torah of Moses at all (Luke 16:19-31).
And, of course, Yeshua said, When you give alms, sound no trumpet before you (Matthew 6:2).