The Widow’s Almsgiving Budget
He looked up and saw the rich putting their gifts into the treasury; and he saw a poor widow put in two copper coins. And he said, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all of them; for they all contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty….” (Luke 21:1–4)
Most so-called “charitable giving” does not rise to the level of Christian charity, IRS regulations notwithstanding. Giving to charitable organizations is usually from “abundance,” an exercise of justice, not charity.
Justice is the bedrock of charity. We have an obligation to support the Church and contribute to worthy charities from our excess wealth. “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.” (Mt. 25:40) Indeed, the sort of generosity displayed by the widow—generosity that exceeds the requirements of justice—is far more common among the poor and in concentration camps.
Our strategy to fulfill our “charitable giving” obligations before God requires thought and effort. Here are a few ideas for consideration.
Charitable contributions are expressions of worship.
Mosaic Law requires tithes. “Honor the Lord with your substance and with the first fruits of all your produce.” (Prov. 3:9) Even the recipients are obligated to tithe: “When you take from the people of Israel the tithe which I have given you from them for your inheritance, then you shall present an offering from it to the Lord, a tithe of the tithe.” (Num. 18:26)
Orthodox worship stimulates almsgiving.
“At the end of every three years you shall bring forth all the tithe of your produce…and the Levite [priest], because he has no portion or inheritance with you, and the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow…shall come and eat and be filled.” (Deut. 14:28) Tithing in worship begets almsgiving.
Contributions to unworthy organizations are idolatrous.
Saint Paul warns: “What pagans sacrifice they offer to demons and not to God. I do not want you to be partners with demons.” (1 Cor. 10:20) There was even an Old Testament version of Planned Parenthood: “…they had slaughtered their children for their idols.” (Ex. 23:39)
Occasionally we hear that historically worthy organizations have gone off the Catholic rails, in effect inviting false worship. We must ask whether the abuse was systemic or transitory. Perfect performance is unlikely; even Jesus had a thief and deserters in His midst. But the evangelists rendered a proper accounting for the betrayal and denials, and reclaimed their organizational integrity. Avoid idolatry by carefully evaluating the worthiness of recipient organizations.
A budget helps us to fulfill our giving obligations.
Mosaic Law required tithes—“tenth” (cf. Leviticus 27:30). A practical substitute word for “tithe” today is “budget.”
Throughout history and various economies, a generous response to the demands of justice remains the same, but its economic expression varies. Excessive government taxation that forcibly replaces charitable giving complicates the calculation. There is no substitute for the virtues of justice and generosity, fortified by prudence, when calculating an annual giving budget.
Continue to support worthy organizations.
The Jews went up to Jerusalem three times a year to offer sacrifices: Passover, Pentecost, and Tabernacles. The ritual had subliminal budgetary aspects and provided the necessary financial support of the Temple.
Charitable organizations also have cyclical operating expenses with payrolls to meet. If you choose to support an organization, resolve to make regular contributions according to your budget. Ditto those Catholic websites that we frequently use and often take for granted.
Be open to new appeals, but toss into the trash most fundraising appeals.
A new fundraising letter may catch your attention. If inclined, check your budget and, in general, commit to possible regular support. Be realistic. We cannot possibly support all of the worthy organizations. So there should be no guilt in trashing most fundraising letters.
Trust your practical instincts.
When a fundraising solicitation is manipulative or aggressive—like those that include a “dime for your thoughts”—take the dime and throw the mailing into the trash. Overlook the benign gimmicks of the fundraising racket. But aggressive appeals that promise too much or shame benefactors are danger signs.
Monitor the integrity of charities, but avoid unnecessary entanglements.
If we’re satisfied as to the integrity of the organization, abide by these words of Jesus: “When you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be in secret....” (Mt. 6:3-4) Remain humble. “When you give alms, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by men.” (Mt. 6:2)
But there is no violation when benefactors use the power of the purse to prevent organizations from committing major mistakes or deviating from Catholic morality. Alas, even the best organizations tend to promise too many new programs with very little cost control. Further, not every Catholic organization is faithfully Catholic. Benefactors may indeed have an obligation to muscle in on wayward charitable organizations and terminate funding if necessary.
- Most so-called “charitable giving” does not rise to the level of Christian charity.
- But justice is the bedrock of charity.
- Charitable contributions are expressions of worship.
- Orthodox worship stimulates almsgiving.
- Contributions to unworthy organizations are idolatrous.
- A budget helps us to fulfill our giving obligations.
- Continue to support worthy organizations.
- Be open to new appeals, but toss into the trash most fundraising appeals.
- Trust your practical instincts.
- Monitor the integrity of charities, but avoid unnecessary entanglements.
Tobit provides an impressive and concise theology of almsgiving:
Give alms from your possessions to all who live uprightly, and do not let your eye begrudge the gift when you make it. Do not turn your face away from any poor man, and the face of God will not be turned away from you. If you have many possessions, make your gift from them in proportion; if few, do not be afraid to give according to the little you have. So you will be laying up a good treasure for yourself against the day of necessity. For charity delivers from death and keeps you from entering the darkness; and for all who practice it charity is an excellent offering in the presence of the Most High. (Tobit 4:7-11)
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