Among the many duties that Almighty God requires of His faithful servants by which He wants them to glorify His Name and declare the certainty of their calling, none is either more acceptable to Him or more profitable for them than works of mercy and pity shown upon the poor who are afflicted with any kind of misery. Nevertheless, such is the slothful sluggishness of our dull nature to that which is good and godly that we are almost in nothing more negligent and less careful than we are in this requirement. It is therefore a very necessary thing that God’s people should awake their sleepy minds and consider their duty in this matter. It is also appropriate that all true Christians should eagerly seek and learn what God by His Holy Word requires of them; so that, first knowing their duty, of which many by their slackness seem to be very ignorant, they may afterwards diligently endeavor to perform the same. By this knowledge of their duty, godly charitable persons may be encouraged to continue in their merciful deeds of giving alms to the poor, and also such as previously have either neglected or condemned it may, when they hear how much it pertains to them, advisedly consider it, and virtuously apply themselves thereunto.
And, to increase comprehension of these matters, I intend to speak on the following points in order:
First, I will show how earnestly Almighty God in His Holy Word requires us to do almsdeeds, and how acceptable they are unto Him.
Secondly, how profitable it is for us to use them, and what commodity and fruit they will bring unto us.
Thirdly and last, I will show out of God’s Word that the one who is liberal to the poor and generously provides for their needs shall nevertheless have sufficient for himself and shall be in no danger of poverty or scarcity.
Concerning the first, which is the acceptation and dignity or worth of almsdeeds before God, know this: to help and succor the poor in their need and misery pleases God so much that nothing can be more thankfully taken or accepted of God, as the Holy Scripture in various places records. For first we read that Almighty God accounts what is bestowed upon the poor to be given and bestowed upon Himself. For so the Holy Ghost testifies unto us by the Wise Man, saying, “He who has pity on the poor lends to the Lord, And He will pay back what he has given” [Proverbs 19:17]. And Christ in the Gospel asserts, and as a most certain truth binds it with an oath, that the alms bestowed upon the poor were bestowed upon Him and so shall be counted at the last day. For thus He says to charitable almsgivers, when He sits as Judge to give sentence on every man according to his deserts: Truly, I say to you, “Whatever good and merciful deed you did upon any of the least of these my brethren, you did the same unto Me. In relieving their hunger, you relieved mine; in quenching their thirst, you quenched Mine; in clothing them, you clothed me; and when you harbored them, you lodged Me also; when you visited them, being sick or in prison, you visited me” [Matthew 25:35-40]. For just as he who receives a prince’s ambassadors and entertains them well honors the prince who sent them, so he who receives the poor and needy and helps them in their affliction and distress, thereby receives and honors Christ their Master. He was poor and needy Himself while He lived here among us to work the mystery of our salvation, and at His departure He promised to send to us in His place those who are poor [Matthew 26:11]. Whatever we would do for Him, we must do unto them. And for this cause Almighty God says unto Moses, “The land in which you dwell shall never be without poor men” [Deuteronomy 15:11], because He would provide a continual test of whether His people loved Him or not; that in obeying His will, they might assure themselves of His love and favor towards them, and not doubt that as they accepted and willingly performed His law and ordinances in which He commanded them to open their hand unto their brethren in the land who were poor and needy, so He would lovingly accept them, and truly perform the promises that He had made to them.
The holy apostles and disciples of Christ, who daily saw by His deeds and heard in His doctrine how generous He was to the poor; the godly fathers also who lived both before and since Christ, no doubt endued with the Holy Ghost and most certainly certified of God’s holy will; they both most earnestly exhort us and all their writings almost continually admonish us that we would remember the poor and bestow our charitable alms upon them. St. Paul exhorts us as follows: “Comfort the feeble minded, lift up the weak, and be charitable* toward all men” [1 Thessalonians 5:14]. And again: But do not forget to do good and to share, for with such sacrifices God is well pleased” [Hebrews 13:16]. Isaiah the Prophet teaches, “Share your bread with the hungry, and bring to your house the poor who are cast out. When you see the naked, clothe him, and do not hide your face from your poor neighbor, neither despise your own flesh” [Isaiah 58:7]. And the holy father Tobit gives this counsel:
“Give alms from your possessions, and do not let your eye begrudge the gift when you make it. Do not turn your face away from anyone who is poor.” [Tobit 4:7]
“Give some of your food to the hungry, and some of your clothing to the naked.” [Tobit 4:16]And the learned and godly doctor Chrysostom gives this admonition: “Let merciful alms be always with us as a garment;” that is, as careful as we are to put our garments upon us, to cover our nakedness, to defend us from the cold, and to show ourselves decent, so careful let us be at all times and seasons to give alms to the poor and show ourselves merciful towards them. But what do these frequent admonitions and earnest exhortations of the Prophets, Apostles, fathers, and holy doctors mean? Surely, as they were faithful toward God and therefore discharged their duty truly in telling us what was God’s will, so of a singular love toward us they labored not only to inform us, but also to persuade us, that to give alms and to assist the poor and needy was a very acceptable thing and a high sacrifice to God, wherein He greatly delights and finds particular pleasure. Similarly, the wise man, the son of Sirach, teaches us that whoever is merciful and gives alms offers the right thank offering [Ecclesiasticus/Sirach 35:2]. And he adds that the right thank offering makes the altar fat, and it is a sweet smell before the Highest; it is acceptable before God, and shall never be forgotten [Ecclesiasticus/Sirach 35 6-7].
And the truth of this doctrine is verified by the examples of those holy and charitable fathers of whom we read in the Scriptures, who were given to merciful compassion towards the poor and charitable relief of their necessities. One of those fathers was Abraham, with whom God was so pleased that He deigned to come to him in the form of an angel, and to be entertained by him at his house [Genesis 18]. Such was Abraham’s kinsman Lot, whom God so favored for sheltering His messengers, who otherwise would have lain in the street, that He saved him with his whole family from the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. Such were the holy fathers Job and Tobit, with many others, who felt most sensible proofs of God’s special love towards them. And as all these by the mercifulness and tender compassion that they showed to the miserable afflicted members of Christ by relieving, helping, and succoring them with their temporal goods in this life, obtained God’s favor, and were dear, acceptable, and pleasant in His sight; so now they themselves take pleasure in the fruition of God, in the pleasant joys of heaven, and are also in God’s eternal Word set before us as perfect and permanent examples, both of how we may please God in this mortal life and also of how we may come to live in joy with them in everlasting pleasure and felicity. For most true is that saying of St. Augustine, that the giving of alms and relieving of the poor is the right way to heaven: Via coeli pauper est, or “The poor man is the way to heaven.” In times past, a picture of Mercury used to be placed beside highways to point with his finger the right way to the town. And a wooden or stone cross is set up at crossroads to caution the travelling man which way he must turn to direct his journey in the right way. But God’s Word, as St. Augustine says, has set in the way to heaven the poor man and his house; so that whoever will take the right road to heaven and not turn out of the way must go by the poor. The poor man is the Mercury that shall set us the ready way; and if we look well to this mark, we shall not wander much out of the right path.
The manner of wise worldly men among us is that if they know a man of lower estate than themselves to be in favor with the prince or any other nobleman whom they either fear or love, such a one they will be glad to benefit and please, so that when they have need, he may become their spokesman, either to help with his good word to obtain a benefit or to escape a displeasure. Now surely it ought to be a shame to us that worldly men for temporal things lasting only a season should be more wise and provident in procuring them than we in heavenly. Our Savior Christ testifies that poor men are dear to Him and that He loves them especially, for He calls them His little ones [Matthew 10:42; 25:40] by a name of tender love; he says they are His brethren. And St. James says that God hath chosen them to be heirs of his kingdom [James 2:5]. “Has not God,” says He, “chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that He has promised to those who love Him?” And we know that the prayer which they make for us shall be acceptable to and heard by God. Their complaint shall be heard also. Of them Jesus the son of Sirach certainly assures us, “If the poor complains of you in the bitterness of his soul, his prayer shall be heard; even He that made him shall hear him” [Ecclesiasticus/Sirach 4:6-7]. Be courteous therefore to the poor. We know also that He who acknowledges himself to be their Master and Patron, and refuses not to take them for His servants, is both able to give us pleasure and displeasure, and that we stand every hour in need of His help. Why should we then be either negligent or unwilling to procure the friendship and favor of the poor, by which we may be assured to get the favor of Him who is both able and willing to provide all we need of goods and wealth? Christ declares how much He accepts our charitable affection toward the poor because He promises a reward to those who give even a cup of cold water in his name to those who need it [Mark 9:41]; and that reward is the kingdom of heaven. Undoubtedly, God regards highly that which He rewards so liberally. For He who promises a princely recompense for a beggary benevolence declares that He is more delighted with the giving than with the gift and that He esteems the doing of the thing as much as the fruit and commodity that comes of it.
Therefore, whoever has previously neglected to give alms, let him know now that God requires it of him; and he who has been liberal to the poor, let him know that his godly doings are accepted and thankfully taken at God’s hands, which He will repay two- and three-fold. For as the Wise Man says: “He who has pity on the poor lends to the Lord, And He will pay back what he has given” [Proverbs 19:17], the gain being primarily the possession of life everlasting through the merits of our Savior Jesus Christ, to whom with the Father and the Holy Ghost be all honor and glory forever. Amen.
* Editor’s note: Most translations render the last phrase as “Be patient with all men.”