Forming Faith Blog

Almsgiving, Healing, and Justice (Acts 3)

Peter and John encounter a man, disabled from birth, at the temple. Empowered by the Spirit, they heal him so that he doesn’t need to rely on almsgiving but can support himself with work.

Black and white image of a person holding coins while sitting in car.
Photo by Erik Mclean on
Jesus’ Commission for the Apostles

Last week, the assigned Narrative Lectionary reading was from Acts 1, Jesus commissioning the apostles before ascending into the clouds. This commissioning was actually part one of two, as Jesus had promised in Acts 1:8:

“But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

In Acts 2 (which we will circle back to on Pentecost Sunday), the apostles receive the second part: the empowerment by God the Holy Spirit. This is our current theme made literal: God working through us. And this empowerment has had a transformative effect on Peter and the others. His portrayal moved from an overenthusiastic and a bit bumbling student to a confident and purpose-driven leader.

Asking for Alms

The setting for today’s reading is one of the gates of the temple. A man, disabled* from birth, was sitting and asking for alms. But what are alms, and why was the man asking for them? “Alms” isn’t a term used anymore, but, in the most direct definition, the man was asking for money. I hesitate to use the word “begging” for two reasons. First, the word isn’t used in this passage. Second, the term is—to our ears, at least—related to “groveling” and dehumanizing oneself. While the man was forced by circumstance to rely on others for sustenance, that doesn’t mean he was less than human, without dignity.

But why was the man sitting by a temple gate, asking for money? Simply put, his disability prevented him from finding gainful employment, which would have been physical labor (as this was an agrarian society). I assume that either his family couldn’t support him or he had no living family members to do so. The cause of this situation was his disability. But the problem was the lack of employment opportunities in the community because of his physical condition.

[I don’t know how the existence of begging in Jerusalem related to the distribution of resources from the temple. Unfortunately, I don’t have the time to do that research. If you know, please comment on this blog or Facebook post!]

Almsgiving and Mercy

The origin of the word “alms” is a bit surprising to me. If you dig back far enough, the word comes from the Greek word eleēmosunē, the word used in this passage. This means compassion or mercy (and almsgiving), which itself comes from the Greek eleos (also meaning compassion and mercy). I think that using the term “mercy” does the New Testament concept a bit of a disservice. It’s not wrong, but we usually understand the word to mean:

“Compassion shown especially to an offender or to one subject to one’s power.”

For us, mercy is basically a relenting of punishment or a nice thing to do for someone of lesser power than you. But it means so much more than that. Eleos is the Greek equivalent to the Hebrew hesed, which describes covenant loyalty and love, often translated as “loving-kindness” in the Old Testament. It is a powerful concept of love connected to God’s love for God’s covenant people. A prime example of hesed is Ruth’s amazing love and loyalty to her mother-in-law Naomi. That’s not the same as having mercy on a criminal.

Almsgiving and Justice

Another thing I learned today is that the Hebrew word used for “alms” is tzedakah. I highly encourage you to read Rabbi Jonathan Sack’s blog post “Tzedakah: The Untranslatable Virtue.” It honestly makes my heart sing.

Tzedakah cannot be translated because it joins together two concepts that in other languages are opposites, namely charity and justice… If there were absolute ownership, there would be a difference between justice (what we are bound to give others) and charity (what we give others out of generosity). The former would be a legally enforceable duty, the latter, at best, the prompting of benevolence or sympathy. In Judaism, however, because we are not owners of our property but merely guardians on God’s behalf, we are bound by the conditions of trusteeship, one of which is that we share part of what we have with others in need.

A Problem with Charity

One of the problems with almsgiving (or at least our common understanding if it) is the same with charity. Rabbi Sacks writes:

Aid in the form of charity can itself be humiliating for the recipient… Aid can also create welfare dependency, reinforcing, not breaking the cycle of deprivation. The greatest act of tzedakah is therefore one that allows the individual to become self-sufficient. The highest form of aid is one that enables the individual to dispense with aid.

Justice and a Life Transformed

Returning to our story, the man was forced by an economic system (and technological limitations) to beg for his sustenance rather than reinforce his dignity with employment. Peter and John were moneyless (“I have no silver or gold” in verse 6a). Whether they would have wanted to or not, they were unable to give the man a handout, temporary relief for his lack. What they were able to give him—motivated by love and empowered by the Holy Spirit—was so much better. Yes, they healed him in the name of Jesus. But more than that, they helped him become self-sufficient. The power of God transformed the man’s feet and ankles, but it also gave him the dignity of work.

Faith Formation Connection

An essential part of faith formation is teaching the Bible. This not only includes understanding the stories, but it also includes the themes and deeper concepts that undergird Scripture, like justice, dignity, love, and peace. Some important things to note while teaching this story:

  • Use respectful language (see below).
  • Point out that the man’s disability did not define him or make him any less of a person. He was forced to beg for his sustenance because the technological level and economic system of that time only had physical labor for employment.
  • While the greatest gift that Peter and John were able to give the man was a life transformed by God, the second was that he could now be self-sufficient and a full part of his community.

While we might not be empowered to miraculously heal people today, we can certainly work for justice for individuals and larger communities, including people with disabilities. Our technology and economic system do allow for many people with disabilities to live independently and sustain themselves with work. As followers of Jesus, we need to work together with people in these communities to ensure equal access and appropriate accommodations. And we can do all this “in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth” (verse 6b).

In the love of the risen Messiah,

Gregory Rawn (Publisher)

*Talking and writing about disability in a respectful way is difficult due to the prevalence of ableism (systemic and personal). One corrective is to make sure that people are not defined by their conditions, and a second is to make sure we are using the most respectful language. In our story today, the words “crippled” (not actually in the text) and “lame” are used to describe the man’s disability. These are outdated and very disrespectful and should be avoided. I’m still learning a lot about respectful, anti-ableist language here, but from my small amount of research, it would be better to explain that he is a man/person with a disability that prevents him from walking, and after that refer to him as a man/person or healed man. This same principle works against defining the man as a “beggar.”

Free Resource

During the main Narrative Lectionary year (this year: September 10 to May 19), we provide a free resource download from one of our products to help you in your faith formation ministry. This week, download the “Giving Alms” activity from our Living the Word: Cross+Gen Education (NL, 2023-2024) resource. This activity can be done in intergenerational groups, worship, youth, and adults!

Order Faith Formation Resources

The season of Easter is here. Hallelujah! Have you ordered faith formation resource for the rest of the program year (our Spring quarter going through Pentecost Sunday)? Purchase and immediately download the Spring quarters for the Narrative Lectionary, the Revised Common Lectionary, or even a classic Sunday school Classroom curriculum for PK-2nd and 3rd-6th. Our faith formation resources are easy-to-use, theologically sound, and inclusive.

Introducing our newest Learning Together unit: Created to Care! Wonder at God’s creation and learn about what we can do to protect and heal it in these five lessons, intended for children and intergenerational groups, family or churchwide events, a Lenten series, or Vacation Bible School. We also have six other topics, one of which is FREE!

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