Alms are money or goods given to those in need as an act of charity. The word alms is used many times in the King James Version of the Bible. It comes from the Old English word ælmesse and ultimately from a Greek word meaning “pity, mercy.” In its original sense, when you give alms, you are dispensing mercy.
Almsgiving is a long-standing practice within the Judeo-Christian tradition. “Whoever is kind to the needy honors God” (Proverbs 14:31; see also Proverbs 19:17; 21:13; 22:9; and 29:7). Jesus and His disciples gave money to the poor (John 12:6), and believers are to “remember the poor” (Galatians 2:10). The godly Tabitha was eulogized as one who was continually “helping the poor” (Acts 9:36).
The word alms is used nine times in five chapters of the King James Version of the New Testament. Matthew 6:1-4 contains four occurrences:
“Take heed that ye do not your alms before men, to be seen of them: otherwise ye have no reward of your Father which is in heaven. Therefore when thou doest thine alms, do not sound a trumpet before thee, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may have glory of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward. But when thou doest alms, let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doeth: That thine alms may be in secret: and thy Father which seeth in secret himself shall reward thee openly.”
Here, Jesus taught that almsgiving is for God to see, not to show off before others. Those giving out of their love for God are not to announce their giving or draw attention to it.
In Luke 11:40-42, Jesus rebukes the Pharisees for giving alms but “neglect[ing] justice and the love of God.” In other words, these religious leaders gave to charity, yet they did not have true charity in their hearts. Giving to the needy does not necessarily prove a right relationship with God.
In Luke 12:32, Jesus tells a rich young ruler to sell all he had, give alms to the poor, and follow Him. Jesus’ challenge was meant to reveal where the young man’s devotion lay: did he love money more than the Lord? The man turned and walked away from Jesus, unwilling to part with his fortune. Doing so showed that he was not ready to become a disciple.
In Acts 3, a crippled man asks Peter and John for money. The apostles explain that they had no money, and they heal him instead. This miracle was much greater than any alms they could have given!
Biblically, giving financially to those in need is an important expression of the Christian faith. However, we should make sure our giving is done out of a true love for God, without drawing attention to ourselves. When we invest what God has given us to impact the lives of others, we can trust that the results will make a difference both now and for eternity.