Handbook on Faith, Hope, and Love: Lesson 5
In the last chapter, Augustine treats of the relationship between faith and works. In this chapter, he continues on this topic by discussing the relationship between almsgiving and forgiveness. One of the first points Augustine makes is that almsgiving is not a means of buying off God; it does not give "license to commit crimes with impunity." Augustine makes a very curious remark. He states, "for to forgive a man who seeks forgiveness is indeed to give alms. Accordingly, what our Lord says—'Give alms and, behold, all things are clean to you' (Luke 11:41)—applies to all useful acts of mercy." Thus, for Augustine, to give alms is not simply restricted to monetary giving; it involves any act of mercy.
Augustine states that the greatest alms gift is "the forgiveness from the heart of a sin committed against us by someone else." By forgiving the sins committed against us by another, we can help the process of reconciliation between ourselves and that person. In this way, we can come to "love our enemies."
In Chapter XX, Augustine illustrates the importance and depth of "alms-giving," that is, works of mercy. He asks, "How, then, should all things be clean to the Pharisees, even if they gave alms, but were not believers?" The answer, as Augustine sees it, has to do with the importance and depth of alms-giving. It is not simply a tool one uses every once in a while; it is a "set plan" for life. And, one should begin "with himself and give [alms] to himself." Giving alms to oneself is recognizing one's "wretchedness" before God.
Thus, commenting on the Pharisees, Augustine notes that they neglect to give alms to themselves; they neglect to show mercy on themselves and admit their wretchedness before God. One must begin with showing mercy to one inwardly, and begin with oneself before moving to showing mercy to others. As Augustine writes, "therefore, if one really wished to give alms to himself, that all things might become clean to him, he would hate his soul after the world's way and love it according to God's way."