Our first reading has such a pithy ending, and is so pertinent for those of us who live in California. The double threat of wildfire and insufficient water constantly confront us. If only our careful husbanding of water in our homes, even if it’s only a small portion of the overall water use in the state, could preserve us from wild fires into the future. But that’s off message.
The real point here is the effect of water on burning flames, blotting out access to oxygen and extinguishing the fire, while dissipating its lingering heat. It’s a lovely metaphor for the parallel effects of the generous support of the poor blotting out, literally wiping away our offenses. What a gift it is to have God’s pardon. What could we possibly do to earn it?
In Sirach’s time, sacrifices were possible if sins were committed unwittingly (Lev 4), but there was no
confession or reconciliation, no rituals for the forgiveness of deliberate sin, except to stone the sinner. Even Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement (Lev 16), seems directed at ritual impurity, rather than moral offenses. So what is a poor sinner to do? – Well, give alms.
So, as we now have the Sacrament of Reconciliation for the forgiveness of sins, should we still give alms? Absolutely!
Many passages in the New Testament actively encourage almsgiving. When speaking on the value of doing good acts and praying in secret, Jesus simply presumes we are giving alms for the poor
(Matt 6:2-4). When addressing the evils and bad inclinations that can pour forth from the heart, He directs us, “Give alms, and behold, everything will be clean for you” (Luke 11:41). When encouraging us to rely with greater trust on God, He instructs us to sell our belongings “and give alms” (Luke 12:33). In Acts 10:2, Luke recounts for us a story about a good man, Cornelius, a Gentile who is judged devout and God-fearing, in part because of his generous distribution of alms (Acts 10:2). Later in Acts (24:17), Paul defends himself to the governor, Felix, detailing his motive for returning to Jerusalem, which was to bring alms.
There are so many ways to give alms. The parish’s special collections all aim at the care of different poor populations. Giving to the United Way also counts, as does supporting health care
exploration – I’m thinking breast cancer research, in particular, but there are
many other worthy efforts.