Helen C Romero This is just one of the academic reflections that I loved doing while still at the Franciscan

School of Theology. This is one of the issues that turns me on and fires me up, one of the reasons why I have enjoyed and loved my education and stay at the Franciscan School at Berkeley. I’ve been blessed and privileged to be taken care of by the loving and supportive FST community!

Alms: The Inheritance and Justice Due to the Poor

One does not naturally think of alms as the patrimony of the poor. But in Chapter IX of the Earlier Rule (ER,8), Francis of Assisi gave us a radical description of alms: “Alms are a legacy and justice due to the poor that our Lord Jesus Christ acquired for us.” This description will not sit well with the New York Police Department (NYPD) and the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA). Both these city agencies prohibit panhandling and begging on subway trains and city buses. This prohibition squarely considers begging and panhandling as “crimes”1 not as rights. From a scholarly perspective, legal philosopher, Stephen R. Munzer posits that in contemporary Western societies, “public begging is associated with economic failure and social opprobrium [disgrace]—the lot of street people.”2 Munzer, however argues that begging or being a mendicant can be a Christian “ideal” in any time and place especially when this act engenders a “radical attitude and practice of trust, self-abandonment, and acknowledgement of dependence on God.”3 His aim is to present the practice as “ideal”, a concept that he wants to introduce among contemporary moral theologians and religious ethicists. It is beyond my expertise and competence to discuss the methodology that Munzer describes in his article, “Beggars of God: The Christian Ideal of Mendicancy.” However, what caught my attention is


See NYPD’s Web site, http://www.nyc.gov/html/nypd/html/crime_prevention/subway_information.shtml (accessed May 7, 2012).

Stephen R. Munzer, “Beggars of God: The Christian Ideal of Mendicancy,” The Journal of Religious Ethics 27, no. 2 (Summer, 1999): 305, http://www.jstor.org/stable/40018232 (accessed April 25, 2012).



2 Munzer’s definition of his moral concept of “ideal” that can help me unpack Francis’s own view of alms. Munzer defines an ideal as a “way of living that is extraordinarily, and not merely instrumentally, good. One who has internalized an ideal is disposed to hold it out to others as worthy of emulation by others.”4 By studying and reading the Rule,5 I can say that Munzer’s definition of ideal fits Francis to a “T”. Francis was impelled to write the Rule when some men in Assisi were attracted to his form of life and began to join him. These men had seen the Christian ideal in Francis and they were inspired to leave their own privileged and comfortable lives to join Francis in his evangelical way of life. The Rule definitely lays down a way of life that is “extraordinarily, and not merely instrumentally, good,” a life that is rooted faithfully in the Gospel. While Francis may agree with Munzer’s interpretation of begging as a radical attitude of dependence on God, Francis would go even further by situating begging into an act of justice. This is where Francis’s view of alms takes on a radical shift from the one offered by Munzer. William J. Short, a Franciscan scholar, underscores Francis’s paradigmatic view on alms. Alms are described as “legacy” or “inheritance” (hereditas) and as “justice” (iusticia), something that is “owed to the poor,” “their due.” They are the heirs to this rightful inheritance because they have received it from Jesus: it is something that he “acquired to us,” that is, for the poor, including the brothers.6 Here, Francis does not only consider begging or asking for alms as an expression of his and his brothers’ dependence on God but as an action that does justice and carries out God’s will


Ibid., 306.


The Rule is a shorthand for The Rule of the Lesser Brothers, a compilation of documents written by St. Francis that include the Earlier Rule (ER), Fragments (Frg), Later Rule (LR), and the Rule for Hermitages (RH). This paper deals with the ER (9.8).

William J. Short, The Rule of the Lesser Brothers: The Earlier Rule, Fragments, Later Rule, The Rule for Hermitages (St. Bonaventure, NY: Franciscan Institute, 2012), 49.

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3 for the poor, including the brothers. It is to advocate on behalf of the poor and to secure what Jesus had acquired to them. To live on alms is to imitate Jesus who was born poor and lived as one. Jesus, along with the Blessed Virgin and his disciples lived on alms. While there is no evidence that they did, Francis nonetheless exhorted the brothers to follow their examples when they beg for alms. If we want to gain a deeper understanding of Francis’s perspective on alms and how this relates with the lives of Jesus, Mary, and his disciples; it may be worthwhile to examine this by using the Matthean lens. In particular, we may glean Francis’s insights from the Beatitudes where Jesus proclaims, “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the land” (Mt 5:5). Noted Franciscan scholars, like Short who can compare the writing of Francis with the Vulgate, may choose a more appropriate biblical passage that carries the same vocabulary used by Francis as well as similarity in structure and exhortation. While Francis can read, write, and understand Latin, his vocabulary was largely based on the biblical passages that he read in his breviary or heard from church liturgy. This is one of the keys in understanding Francis’s writings. In this paper, however, I decided to situate Francis’s writing on alms within Matthew 5:5 because Francis’s concept of alms is part of his larger view of “holy poverty.” In Matthew, Jesus himself claims this status of being meek, which in biblical language is also one who is poor or lowly.7 From what I have learned, Francis paid particular attention to the words uttered by Jesus himself or the prayers that Jesus would pray, like the Psalms in the Old Testament. I chose the Beatitudes, in particular Matthew 5:5, because they serve as a “preamble” to Jesus’ teaching. Francis desired to follow the Lord thus his worldview and form of life had been deeply shaped by the Gospel. This is where he framed his rule and where he drew instructions on how

The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1962), 334.

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4 to live his life. And since others wish to join him, he was impelled to put into writing what he learned from the Lord through the Gospel as well as from his prayers, and relationships with others and the world. With his own interpretation and understanding of the Gospel, Francis gave his unique view of alms and voluntary begging. For Francis, to be poor and meek like Jesus is not simply a manner of living an ethical life. It is rather to lead a life given from above (cf. Jn 3:3, 6-7, 31). The term above in Johannine gospel connotes the realm of God, the world that is spiritual, inhabited by people who believe in this God and have the disposition to see and be taught by this God. Francis in his Testament,14, declares: “And after the Lord gave me brothers, no one showed me what I should do, but the Most High Himself revealed to me that I should live according to the form of the Holy Gospel.”8 Clearly in his Testament, we can see that Francis is one person who inhabited the world of God, the world given from above. Most, if not all of his writings, are suffused with biblical vocabulary and imagery. The Rule is almost like the shorthand version of the Gospel, particularly the New Testament. It is from this perch where I will attempt to unpack Francis’s description of alms based on Matthew 5:5. Hopefully, from this approach, we may be able to see how justice and charity play crucial roles in Francis’s interpretation of alms. Francis’s own understanding of alms as justice may also help us appreciate the relevance of the Christian ideal of “begging” in contemporary Western societies. It may also help us see why those who give alms can be considered stewards of the poor’s “inheritance.” The poor who cannot participate in the economic system can get their dues from those who amply benefitted from it. This exchange, or transaction if you will, constitutes justice. As Munzer points out in his article, justice can be considered a strong constitutive good or is “good in itself, and also is an

Regis J. Armstrong and Ignatius C. Brady, trans. Francis and Clare: The Complete Works (New York: Paulist Press, 1982), 154.

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5 integral part of the larger good, namely, a good society.”9 Through alms, everyone can gain access to this inheritance.

The meek will inherit the earth The meek in the biblical sense, particularly in the Old Testament, are the people who are primarily “poor” and “needy” (Deut 15:11).10 This term evolved to express the attitude of the truly religious person, one who relies on God’s providence; it is a term used to describe a proper attitude of “complete dependence on God.”11 Matthew 5:5 in this context shows most clearly the connection of the term “meek” with its Old Testament background. Matthew further pairs it with Psalm 37:11, “But the poor will inherit the earth, will delight in great prosperity.”12 In the gospel of Matthew, Jesus claimed this status himself: “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart; and you will find rest for your selves” (Mt 11:29). Jesus himself lived in poverty and in complete trust in God. So did Mary and the rest of the disciples who followed Jesus. The risen Christ gives this humility as a gift of the Spirit to his people, so that in their meekness, they may also share in Jesus’ glory.13 Francis recognized this. In The Second Version of the Letter to the Faithful, Francis exhorted those who do penance to have charity and humility … for the Lord will reward them and give them a suitable remuneration for the charity and the alms which they gave to others (v.30). To those


Munzer, 307. The Interpreter’s Dictionary, 334. Ibid. Ibid., 335.





Dictionary of the Bible, rev. ed. by Frederick C. Grant and H.H. Rowley (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1963), 641.

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6 who shun God and arrogate every talent, power, knowledge and wisdom to themselves, worms will eat their body and they will go down to hell where they will be tormented without end (vv.83, 85). Francis is consistent in his view that everything belongs to God. Thus, according to Short, Francis’s interpretation of alms as “inheritance” and “justice” can be explained in the following way: …all that is given as alms is, in fact, the property of the “Most High,” Who is the Owner of all good things. All that is potentially “alms” has already been promised to the poor, as “heirs” of the Kingdom of Heaven (Matt 5:3 // Luke 6:20). These “resources’ of the Kingdom of Heaven were acquired by our Lord Jesus Christ, and at his instruction are to be distributed to his “heirs” as a matter of justice, according to the testament he has left (in the Gospel).14 Those who are meek and poor, who take a proper view of themselves in relation to God and to other people, will possess the Kingdom of God; they are God’s “heirs.” Francis believed that God’s reign or Kingdom is given to those who are humble before God and who yearn and desire God’s justice. We find this similar thought in Mary’s Magnificat where she proclaims, “God filled the hungry with good things; and the rich he has sent away empty” (Lk 1:53). The Incarnation itself, the Word made flesh, is the highest example of humility and meekness. Again, Franciscan scholar Short explains Francis’s perspective on alms situating it within Francis’s larger view of the Incarnation: For Francis the commitment to "holy poverty" means to recognize our true state: we are the recipients of the alms God graciously gives to us each day. The greatest almsgiving on God's part is the gift of Jesus Christ, the eternal Word who became poor for our sakes through the Incarnation, in order to make us rich in every gift of God.15


Short, 42.


William J. Short, “Franciscus vir catholicus et universalis: From Tradition to Translation,” Ordo Fratrum Minorum, http:// www.ofm.org/educ/doc/bill.rtf (accessed April 25, 2012).

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7 It is in poverty that we experience the abundance of God. The meek indeed inherit the earth, the Kingdom of God. It is in the richness of Francis’s biblical imagination and insightful interpretation where we gain a deeper appreciation of his description of alms. As readers belonging to different era and place, we might read Francis’s writings with puzzlement. When did Jesus, Mary, and his disciples beg for alms? Why would Francis ask the brothers to live on alms? When we sit with the material and compare it with the other writings of Francis, we begin to realize that Francis tries to transport us inside the biblical world. He makes us interact with the biblical characters. It is from this perspective where we can particularly appreciate his exhortation to his brothers to live in the examples of Jesus, Mary, and his disciples. The contemplation of who Jesus is in the scripture forms the basis of Francis’s Christian life and actions. Francis’s writings, particularly the Rule, are all about this. Francis brought the ideal into the actual world. He just did not offer his life as a biblical exegetical tool; he lived it just so we know how to be “heirs” of the land, the Kingdom of God. The Rule is not a prescription of how to live. It is Francis’s gift to his brothers and the world. Like his brother, Jesus, Francis gave us the treasure map. Chapter IX (ER) shows us how to live on our inheritance. United in divine love, Jesus’ power empowers, his poverty enriches, and his humility glorifies. “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the land.” Francis reminded his brothers that they were not doing something new. They were simply following Jesus, who shared his life with others and the world, so all might have life and have it abundantly (cf. Jn 10:10).

Begging Alms: Changing the vocabulary from mendicancy to justice The Later Rule still carries Francis’s writing on begging alms, albeit an abridged version.

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8 Comparing both writings on alms, I tend to gravitate more to the ER version than the LR because the earlier writing carries the richness of Francis’s biblical imagination and interpretation. In the earlier version, he did not simply write about spiritual goods but actual material and economic goods as well. Chapter IX in the ER also engages the participation of wealthy people in Assisi. They are stewards of the material goods. Even if they are not bound by the Rule, they could participate in the Kingdom by taking care of the material needs of the poor, including the brothers. The brothers who work at acquiring them will receive a great reward and enable those who give them to gain and acquire one; for all that people leave behind in the world will perish, but they will have a reward from the Lord for the charity and almsgiving they have done” (ER, 9.9). This particular verse comes after the one that describes alms as “legacy” and “justice” due to the poor. Rich people, in this context, serve as custodians of the material goods that can be distributed to the poor, including the brother. While the rich are not subject to the same Rule as the brothers, their possessions are not solely and wholly their own. Their wealth sourced from the land has been acquired by the Lord Jesus Christ for the poor. Seen from this perspective, begging alms is an act of justice, it is having the right relationship with those who hold the goods and those who need them. It is also having the right relationship with the goods of the earth. Everyone, especially those who are meek and poor like Christ, partakes of the legacy or the inheritance. While the fullness of God’s rewards and justice can be experienced at the end of time, the heirs, those who follow in God’s ways and footsteps, can enjoy their legacy in the here and now. Perhaps, that is why, the brothers are asked to live on alms. By doing so, they can get their share and enjoin those who give them the alms to participate in the Kingdom already inaugurated by Jesus. By being dependent on others for their needs, they share with them their

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9 own legacy. They allow the others to be as generous as Jesus. There is abundance in poverty because the Lord God himself lived poor, became poor so we can partake in the divine riches. Through begging alms, the rich are reminded that what they have are not their own. They are simply the stewards and the custodians of the property that Jesus himself had gained for the poor, like the brothers. This is where the ideal meets the actual world. To be beggars of God is to become the advocate for the poor and guardian of the inheritance. Francis asked the brothers to be “without anything of one’s own,” because everything is God’s. This is the commitment of Francis to “Lady Poverty” and the condition of alms as legacy and justice due to the poor. “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the land.”

Conclusion Francis viewed poverty as an ideal because Jesus claimed this status for himself. Who Jesus is dictated the engagement and action of Francis. This also framed the Rule he wrote for the brothers. It is worth emphasizing that Francis drew his inspiration from what Jesus stands for and who he is: the beloved Son of God; rather than just on a singular deed or a particular saying. Francis’s radical concept of the alms as legacy and justice reiterates his view that everything belongs to God, the “Most High” is the Owner of all good things. Jesus gave to the poor what the “Most High” owns. Alms thus are their inheritance. To beg alms on behalf of the poor is to do justice. It is this evangelical concept of alms that can make “begging” for the poor very relevant in today’s time. What Francis wrote in Chapter IX hews closely to the kind of judgment that Jesus declared in Matthew 25:34: “Come, you who are blessed by my Father. Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.” It is through attending to the basic

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10 needs of the poor and the needy that we fulfill God’s justice and mercy in this world: food for the hungry, water to the thirsty, shelter to the homeless, hospitality for the stranger, care for the sick and the imprisoned” (Mt. 25:35-36). God gave us the world’s resources at our disposal to do these acts of justice and mercy! Chapter IX of the ER reiterates this. Blessed indeed are the meek, for they inherit the land. The inheritance does not dissipate or does not go to waste for as long as there are disciples who are willing to walk the way of Jesus. Francis in his writings, particularly the Rule, brings this forcefully to mind. He wrote not only what he was asked to but what he had lived. Sometimes, we wonder if the ideal is just for someone like Francis. But then, Francis always seemed ahead of us. He left us the Rule and lived it the best way he could so we can keep the inheritance. He simply counseled: “I have done what is mine to do, may Christ teach you what is yours to do.” The Rule and the Gospel give us the treasure map. And the treasure is not in the vault. It is for everyone who seeks, gives, and asks for alms.

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11 Bibliography Armstrong, Regis J. and Ignatius C. Brady, trans. Francis and Clare: The Complete Works. New York: Paulist Press, 1982. Grant, Frederick C. and H.H. Rowley, rev. eds. Dictionary of the Bible. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1963. Munzer, Stephen R. “Beggars of God: The Christian Ideal of Mendicancy,” The Journal of Religious Ethics 27, no. 2 (Summer, 1999): 305-330. http://www.jstor.org/stable/40018232 (accessed April 25, 2012). Short, William J. The Rule of the Lesser Brothers: The Earlier Rule, Fragments, Later Rule, The Rule for Hermitages. St. Bonaventure, NY: Franciscan Institute, 2012. _____. “Franciscus vir catholicus et universalis: From Tradition to Translation.” Ordo Fratrum Minorum. http:// www.ofm.org/educ/doc/bill.rtf (accessed April 25, 2012). The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1962.

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