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May 16, 2008 / vivator

Augustine on almsgiving

The Catholic Church recognizes almsgiving as one of three forms of interior penance (the other two are prayer and fasting, Catechism of the Catholic Church # 1434). For almsgiving delivers from death, and it will purge away every sin (Tobit 12:9, note that Protestants do not recognize Tobit as part of Scripture and reject such practice).  Augustine’s view on almsgiving was in agreement with the Catholic Church.  He stated that alms should be offered as propitiation for our sin while at the same time declared it is not some sort of payment to God for our sins.  Thus he wrote in Handbook of Faith, Hope and Love (English translation by Albert C. Outler with added underlined emphasis, available online at www.ccel.org):

We must beware, however, lest anyone suppose that unspeakable crimes such as they commit who “will not possess the Kingdom of God” can be perpetrated daily and then daily redeemed by almsgiving. Of course, life must be changed for the better, and alms should be offered as propitiation to God for our past sins. But he is not somehow to be bought off, as if we always had a license to commit crimes with impunity. For, “he has given no man a license to sin” [Ecclesiasticus or Sirach 15:20] although, in his mercy, he does blot out sins already committed, if due satisfaction for them is not neglected.

Augustine, Handbook on Faith, Hope and Love 19

According to Augustine prayer like Our Father can blots out sins and giving alms applies to all acts of mercy including even forgiving others.

For the passing and trivial sins of every day, from which no life is free, the everyday prayer of the faithful makes satisfaction. For they can say, “Our Father who art in heaven,” who have already been reborn to such a Father “by water and the Spirit.” [John 3:5] This prayer completely blots out our minor and everyday sins. It also blots out those sins which once made the life of the faithful wicked, but from which, now that they have changed for the better by repentance, they have departed. The condition of this is that just as they truly say, “Forgive us our debts” (since there is no lack of debts to be forgiven), so also they truly say, “As we forgive our debtors” [Matthew 6:9-12]; that is, if what is said is also done. For to forgive a man who seeks forgiveness is indeed to give alms.

Accordingly, what our Lord says-“Give alms and, behold, all things are clean to you” [Luke 11:41] applies to all useful acts of mercy. Therefore, not only the man who gives food to the hungry, drink to the thirsty, clothing to the naked, hospitality to the wayfarer, refuge to the fugitive; who visits the sick and the prisoner, redeems the captive, bears the burdens of the weak, leads the blind, comforts the sorrowful, heals the sick, shows the errant the right way, gives advice to the perplexed, and does whatever is needful for the needy not only does this man give alms, but the man who forgives the trespasser also gives alms as well. He is also a giver of alms who, by blows or other discipline, corrects and restrains those under his command, if at the same time he forgives from the heart the sin by which he has been wronged or offended, or prays that it be forgiven the offender. Such a man gives alms, not only in that he forgives and prays, but also in that he rebukes and administers corrective punishment, since in this he shows mercy. Now, many benefits are bestowed on the unwilling, when their interests and not their preferences are consulted. And men frequently are found to be their own enemies, while those they suppose to be their enemies are their true friends. And then, by mistake, they return evil for good, when a Christian ought not to return evil even for evil. Thus, there are many kinds of alms, by which, when we do them, we are helped in obtaining forgiveness of our own sins.

Augustine, Handbook on Faith, Hope and Love 19

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