“Alms Unto the Poor”

Brant Gardner

Redaction: This verse begins a new section in the Sermon on the Mount. The previous section contained the formulaic Antitheses, in which the structure was part of the message. The context of that message was the vertical and horizontal relationships among human beings. Now the Savior begins a new section that concentrates on the vertical relationship between humankind and God.

One of the religious acts of the day was almsgiving. While this benevolence served a “horizontal” purpose, it also showed piety. Jesus is not focusing on the duty of giving alms but on the correct way to do it. The horizontal obligation is taken for granted, but the vertical relationship is in question. He explains the spiritual value of giving, not the social effect of what was given.

“Reward” is a theme running through this set of instructions for vertical relations with God. The concept that living God’s law 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 concept so familiar that we all understand it. If we break the law of God, we are punished. If we live the law, we are rewarded. The theme of the reward, rather than punishment, flows through this section because all of the examples assume that the correct act is being done. Jesus is not urging the act itself but rather is focusing on the doer’s internal motivation, just as he did in the section on the horizontal relationships. All of these actors perform their religious duties. All who perform the acts are rewarded, but the source of the reward changes.

Old World Context: The ancient world, characterized by numerous needy, had no social security or church welfare system. The only safety net was public and private charity. These offerings, or alms, were collected regularly and distributed to the needy. At certain festivals, goods would be distributed. Alms took three forms in the Israel of Jesus’s day.

The first and most active was the alms dish. This was a collection plate accompanied by three men who took it, apparently door-to-door. Having an escort of three assured that the offering would arrive at the intended location. The second type was the poor chest at the synagogue where worshippers deposited their offerings on the Sabbath as they entered. This offering was distributed on the next Sabbath’s eve. The final type was the alms of the field. Since one of the great needs of the poor was food, landowners left a corner of the field unreaped during harvest and/or left sheaves in the field. The poor had the right to glean in the field as part of the owner’s alms.

As Jesus opens this unit on the nature of true religious devotion, he takes the practice of offering alms and teaches that the offering should be done for God and not for man, in private, not public. He develops this theme throughout this section, which lasts through verse 21. That which is public belongs to men, that which is private to God.

Book of Mormon Context: Mormon does not describe the Nephite mechanism for redistributing goods. The quoted sermons make it plain that believers were consistently admonished to treat all equally, and Benjamin explicitly instructed them not to turn away the beggar (Mosiah 4:16). The economic situation in Mesoamerica was different from that in the more urbanized Palestine. The communities were still closer to the land; therefore, there were probably fewer abjectly needy than in Jesus’s world where land was moving consistently into the hands of already wealthy landlords, reducing the amount of produce that poor sharecroppers could keep for themselves. Mormon describes no situation in which public collections for the poor might tempt donors to ostentation.

Nevertheless, as the Zoramite heresy demonstrates, ostentation in religious settings could be a problem. Zoramite worship was primarily designed as a public display of wealth that specifically excluded the poor. (See Alma 31 and accompanying commentary.)

Comparison: Although this section comprises a new topic in the Sermon on the Mount, it is a continuation of the sermon already in progress. The chapter endings of editions since 1879 intentionally follow those in the King James Version, which arbitrarily breaks the Sermon on the Mount into three chapters. The 1830 edition of the Book of Mormon includes the entire sermon in a single chapter.

Even though the King James Version text is the base model for the 3 Nephi redaction, Joseph Smith did not copy it blindly. An important change is recreating the sermon as a whole, rather than splitting it into pieces that overemphasize divisions despite their conceptual continuity. Modern versification makes matching it to the King James Version easier but doing so also replicates the artificial divisions of the 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 clarifies the religious obligation of alms for a modern audience who might not make the connection between alms and the poor that would have gone without saying for an ancient audience. Specifying that alms were for the poor is like, in modern terms, saying “taxes for the government.” Specifying the destination is redundant. This sentence therefore renders the ancient concept more intelligible to modern readers. Joseph Smith was not translating words but the concept—in this case, one that had become blurred over time.

Second Witness: Analytical & Contextual Commentary on the Book of Mormon, Vol. 5