These are things given to one in need to relieve his situation. While “gifts of mercy” (in some translations, “alms” or “acts of charity”) are not directly referred to as such in the Hebrew Scriptures, the Law gave specific directions to the Israelites about their obligations toward the poor. They were to be, not closefisted, but generous in dealing with their needy brothers.—De 15:7-10.
Provisions for the Poor in Israel. The Law permitted an individual to go into the vineyard and the grainfield of another and there eat of the produce to satisfaction; but none of it was to be carried away. (De 23:24, 25) In harvesting their crops, the Israelites were not to reap the edges of their fields completely nor to glean their fields, olive trees, and vineyards, for the gleanings were for the alien resident, the fatherless boy, and the widow.—Le 19:9, 10; De 24:19-21.
Every third year the Israelites were to bring out the entire tenth part of their produce in that year and deposit it inside their gates for the sustenance of the Levites, alien residents, orphans, and widows.—De 14:28, 29; see TITHE.
Every 7th year and every 50th or Jubilee year, the land was to lie fallow, to enjoy a complete sabbath of rest, and there was no regular harvest ingathering of crops. Then whatever grew of itself was to serve as food for the poor, although landowners, their slaves, and their hired laborers were also entitled to eat of it. Evidently, though, the Israelites in general drew on their stored-up food supplies during the Sabbath year.—Ex 23:10, 11; Le 25:1-7, 11, 12, 20-22.
The principles relative to Israel’s obligations toward the poor as enunciated in the Law are repeated in other parts of the Hebrew Scriptures. (Job 31:16-22; Ps 37:21; 112:9; Pr 19:17; Ec 11:1, 2) Those acting with consideration toward the lowly one are pronounced happy and are assured of blessing. (Ps 41:1, 2; Pr 22:9) In Isaiah’s day, unfaithful Israelites were called upon to divide their bread with the hungry, to bring the homeless into their houses, and to clothe the naked—a course that would result in divine favor. (Isa 58:6, 7) Concerning a righteous man, Jehovah said through Ezekiel: “To the hungry one he would give his own bread and the naked one he would cover with a garment.”—Eze 18:7-9.
Actually, there should have been no poor persons among the Israelites, for Jehovah promised to bless his people. But the absence of poverty was contingent on obedience to the Law. Therefore, because of human imperfection and disobedience to God’s law, the Israelites would always have the poor in their midst. (De 15:4, 5, 11) Nevertheless, begging was evidently a rarity in ancient Israel, because one of the calamities said to come upon the wicked one was that his sons would be forced to beg.—Ps 109:10; compare Ps 37:25; see POOR.
Improper Views of Giving. In time, the giving of gifts of mercy came to be viewed by the Jews not only as meritorious in itself but also as possessing power to atone for sins. Proverbs 11:4, which says: “Valuable things will be of no benefit on the day of fury, but righteousness itself will deliver from death,” came to be expounded as meaning, in harmony with Talmudic conception: “Water will quench blazing fire; so doth almsgiving make atonement for sins.” (The Jewish Encyclopedia, 1976, Vol. I, p. 435) Apparently, when Jesus Christ was on earth, giving was done by some with much showy display, causing him to speak out against such a practice in the Sermon on the Mount.—Mt 6:2-4.
Christian Gifts of Mercy. Those of Jesus’ “little flock” were encouraged to “sell the things belonging to [them] and give gifts of mercy.” (Lu 12:32, 33) To the rich young ruler Jesus gave like counsel, adding, “and come be my follower.” (Mt 19:16-22; Lu 18:18-23; see also Joh 13:29.) Jesus placed the emphasis on giving “as gifts of mercy the things that are inside.” He may thereby have had reference to the qualities of the heart, in view of his stress on justice and love immediately afterward.—Lu 11:39-42.
Organized relief measures. As a result of the addition of about 3,000 Jews and proselytes to the Christian congregation on the day of Pentecost and the continued increase in numbers shortly thereafter, an unusual situation arose among the Christians, calling for a temporary pooling of financial resources. This was to help those who had come to the festival from distant lands to stay longer than they had originally intended so that they could learn more about their new faith. Therefore, those having possessions sold them and turned over the proceeds of the sale to the apostles for distribution to those in need. “All those who became believers were together in having all things in common.” But the entire arrangement was voluntary, as is evident from Peter’s question to Ananias: “As long as it remained with you did it not remain yours, and after it was sold did it not continue in your control?”—Ac 2:41-47; 4:4, 34, 35; 5:4.
It appears that in time the extent of these relief measures diminished, but food was still distributed to needy widows in the congregation. In connection with this, the Greek-speaking Jews began to murmur against the Hebrew-speaking Jews, “because their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution.” To remedy the situation, the apostles recommended that the congregation select seven qualified men “full of spirit and wisdom” to distribute the food. The men selected were placed before the apostles who, after prayer, appointed them. Their work doubtless entailed the handling of funds, making purchases, and keeping certain records in the distribution of the food supplies. (Ac 6:1-6) When Paul wrote his first letter to Timothy, there was still an arrangement in operation for the care of widows, as is evident from his instructions to Timothy as to those qualifying for such financial assistance.—1Ti 5:3-16.
In addition to caring for widows, the first-century congregation organized relief measures in behalf of other needy believers. Again, such organized giving, though directed by the congregation’s appointed men, was completely voluntary.—Ac 11:28-30; Ro 15:25-27; 1Co 16:1-3; 2Co 9:5, 7; see RELIEF.
Relative importance of material giving. In the Christian Greek Scriptures encouragement is given to be hospitable and share with others, but in addition, providing for the members of one’s own family and aiding needy brothers are shown to be Christian requirements. (Ro 12:13; 1Ti 5:4, 8; Jas 2:15, 16; 1Jo 3:17, 18) Sincere concern for the poor characterizes true religion. (Jas 1:27; 2:1-4) In fact, as indicated by Jesus, the doing of good toward “the least of these [his] brothers” distinguishes “the sheep” from “the goats.” (Mt 25:31-46) However, instead of being merely acts of humanitarianism, the aid given by the “sheep” is prompted by their recognition of the position of Christ’s followers.—Mt 10:40-42.
For giving to result in real happiness to the giver, it must be done without grumbling and not grudgingly or under compulsion. “God loves a cheerful giver.” (2Co 9:7; Ac 20:35; 1Pe 4:9) Then, too, material gifts of mercy are not sufficient in themselves to gain everlasting life and were not given prime importance by Jesus Christ.—Joh 17:3; 12:1-8.