The story of Cornelius in Acts 10 demanded my attention in a new way. I like to think of myself as a fairly seasoned reader of scripture. But here I was — mesmerized — as if reading it for the first time. We all know the story. The Gentile Cornelius is used by God to usher in a world-changing view of salvation through Jesus, available to all people. But there was something else. A short phrase stood out to me. Why had it not caught my attention before?
How about that? Prayer and alms giving mentioned with equal billing. I know that prayer matters — but — alms? Luke is very specific with the details of this story. It’s around 3 o’clock. It’s the middle of the day during the regular time of prayer when religious Jews and God-fearing Gentiles would take a break and commune with God.
Seems to me we might do well to talk more about the role of giving alms and the impact money has on our spiritual life in general. Jesus certainly didn’t shy away from the subject. Matthew 6, which falls in the middle of the Sermon on the Mount, has three references of the role of money in the life of a disciple (6:1-4; 19-21; 24-25). The first of them being about alms giving, or giving to those in need — the poor, widows and aliens.
In Deuteronomy 14, we have instruction about three forms of giving — each of which was to be offered as a tithe. One was a tithe to be consumed (Deuteronomy 14:22). Ever wonder how all the feasts and celebrations were catered in Old Testament times? The people brought the firstlings of their flock and the first-fruits of their field to be enjoyed by the whole community. It was the potluck tithe.
There also was the tithe for the Levites and finally, the tithe for the poor, widows and aliens — or alms giving (Deuteronomy 14:27-28). The benevolence tithe was collected every third year. Altogether, the Old Testament “tithe” amounted to between 20% and 30% per year, depending on whether it was the year the benevolence fund was resupplied.
Giving did seem to matter in times as far back as Moses and even to the time of Abraham and Jacob (Genesis 14:20, 28:22). The Genesis accounts occurred before the law was in place. Many who currently resist practicing the tithe — because it was part of the law and not relevant for us today — may need to work through these texts as well.
More could be said about the 2,300-plus texts on money and possessions in scripture. I have not counted, but it’s generally agreed that more is said about money in scripture than any other subject other than the Kingdom or Reign of God. We also know that prayer is important. But in contrast to alms giving and other money-related topics — words like pray, prayer and praying are mentioned about 500 times.
Money does seem to matter to God. In Acts 10, the angel even mentions that the alms given by Cornelius were received as a “memorial before God.” We are all familiar with the phrase, money talks. Could we also say that money — prays? How we use money communicates to God. God receives the gifts we give to those in need as if the gifts were given in God’s honor.
“Prayer changes things” and “prayer makes a difference” are familiar phrases. Couldn’t the same be said for alms giving? There continues to be a reticence in our homes and in our congregations when it comes to talking about money and giving in general. We might do well to recognize the spiritual role money does have in our lives. God, for one, seems to be paying attention if what is written in Acts 10 has any implication to us today.
Beryl Jantzi served as a pastor for 23 years with Mennonite Church USA and is now in his sixth year with Everence, working from the Harrisonburg, Virginia, office as the Director of Stewardship Education. Everence helps individuals, organizations and congregations integrate faith with finances through a national team of advisors and representatives. Everence offers banking, insurance and financial services with community benefits and stewardship education. Everence is a ministry of Mennonite Church USA and other churches.