“Ye Should Do Alms Unto the Poor”

Brant Gardner

This verse begins a new section in the Sermon on the Mount. The previous section contained the formulaic Antitheses, where the structure of the message was also part of the message. The context of that message was horizontal relationships, that is, the way people relate to each other. Now the Savior begins a new section that concentrates on the vertical relationship between men and God. It is still a discussion of the nature of a relationship, but now the focus of that relationship is on the way that we ought to relate to God.

One of the religious acts of the day was the giving of alms. While this served a “horizontal” purpose, it was nevertheless an act that showed piety before God. The emphasis is therefore on the proper way to give alms. Notice that there is no question about whether or not they are to be given. The focus of this lesson is on the spiritual value of the giving, not the social effect of the reception of what was given.

A theme running through this set of instructions for vertical relations with God is that of a reward. The concept that living the law of God results in either a reward or punishment is a common theme in the scriptures. While it is certainly a simplification of the process, it is a familiar enough metaphor that we all understand it. We break the law of God: we are punished. We live the law: we are rewarded. The theme of the reward flows through this section rather than punishment because all of the examples assume that the correct act is done. It is not the correct action, but rather the internal motivation to that action that is the focus, just as it was in the section on the horizontal relationships. All of these actors perform their religious duties. All of them therefore are liable to reward rather than punishment. However, the source of the reward becomes the focus. All who perform the acts are rewarded, but the source of the reward changes.

Old World Context: In the ancient world there was no Social Security. There was no church welfare system. There were abundant needy, but no official governmental program to address their needs. What there was, was public and private offerings. These offerings, or alms were collected on regular bases, and distributed to the needy. Certain festivals would provide particular occasion for the redistribution of goods. Alms took three forms in the Israel of Jesus day.

The first was the alms dish. This was a collection plate that was accompanied by three men and taken as an active collection. This was apparently a door to door collection, and the presence of the three men was to provide assurances that the offering would arrive at the intended location.

The second type was the poor’s-chest. This was a more passive collection in that the offering point was the synagogue. The collection was made on the Sabbath as worshippers came. This offering was distributed on the next Sabbath’s eve.

The final type of alms was the alms of the field. Since one of the great needs of the poor was food, a direct offering occurred in the fields. A corner of the field was left unreaped. Sheaves left in the field were alms whether left intentionally or unintentionally. The poor also had the right of gleaning in the field as part of the alms-offering of the owner of the field. (John Lightfoot. A Commentary on the New Testament from the Talmiud and Hebraica. Hendrickson Publishers, 1989, 2:138-140).

As Jesus opens this unit on the true nature of our religious devotions to God, he takes an accepted and necessary devotion, that of offering alms, and makes a distinction. That distinction is that the offering should be done for God and not for man. It should be done in private, not public. This sets the theme that will continue though this section. There is an association made between public/private and men /God. That which is public belongs to men, and the private belongs to God.

Book of Mormon Context: We do not know what the social mechanisms were for the redistribution of goods in Nephite society. We know that the people were consistently admonished to treat all equally, and we have King Benjamin’s statement that they should not turn away the beggar (Mosiah 4:16). The economic situation in Mesoamerica was very different from that of the Old World. The communities were still more tightly associated with the land, and therefore there were probably fewer needy that there were in Israel in Jesus’ time when the economics of the world had removed land ownership from many of the poor and reduced the amount of produce from the land that they could keep for themselves. We also do not know of any situation in which there were public collections for the poor where ostentation before men would be a temptation.

Nevertheless, while the specific case of alms before men and God is not a known social problem for the Nephites, they did have temptations to ostentation before God as witnessed by the Zoramite heresy. The Zoramites clearly arranged their religious devotions to be seen of men, and in their case, to exclude the poor. They are witnesses of the existence of the problem of the nature of one’s devotions, even if their example better fits the section on prayer which follows than this current lesson on the proper way to give alms.

Textual: Although this section comprises a shift in the text of the Sermon on the Mount, it is not the beginning of a new sermon, but a continuation of the sermon. The chapter breaks intentionally follow those in the KJV, but those are arbitrary and break up the Sermon on the Mount into three chapters. In the 1830 edition, the entire sermon is given as a block, without the breaks. Even though it is clear that the KJV text is the base model for the 3 Nephi redaction, it is not copied blindly. In this case, an important change is made by recreating the sermon as a whole rather than splitting it into pieces that make greater conceptual divisions for the reader than ought to be there. Our modern versification makes it easier to correlate to the KJV, but it recreates the artificiality of the KJV (and other Bible versions) chapter breaks.

The only textual change is the addition of the introductory statement: “Verily, verily, I say that I would that ye should do alms unto the poor.” This sentence serves as a clarification for a modern audience for whom the term alms might not be familiar in its social context. In the ancient world, the connection between alms and the poor would have been so obvious that the qualifier that alms were for the poor would be redundant. In the modern world it might be like saying “taxes for the government.” That is redundant, as we understand that taxes have no other direction. What this sentence does, therefore, is render the ancient more intelligible to the modern. It is not translation of words, but rather of concepts, and in this case the translation of a concept where the connection might have been diminished through time.

Multidimensional Commentary on the Book of Mormon