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Category results for 'religion'.

Eighth grader Gujjar wants to know, what is an "amount set aside for the poor and needy?"

Hi Gujjar, I'm guessing that you're looking for a specific word with that meaning? Probably the word you're looking for is "alms."

The word alms is defined by one dictionary as "charitable donations of money or goods to the poor or needy."

Notice that "alms" is a plural noun; it is defined as "donations" rather than "donation." However, I have never ever heard the word used singularly as "alm" - you wouldn't say "I gave an alm" for "I gave a gift to the poor." Even if it was just one gift, you would still say, "I gave alms."

Alms-giving is treated differently in different parts of the world. Here in the United States, if you're driving down a city street, it's not unusual to find a person standing at the corner with a sign asking for money. The tendency here is to not engage; we are often suspicious that the recipient might use the money for bad purposes (i.e. drugs). In one place I visited in north Africa, I remember being surprised at the number of people who were on street corners asking for money, but I was even more surprised at the number of people who engaged with them. It was explained to me that it is simply part of the culture, and people carry coins in their pockets specifically for the purpose of giving. In some religions, alms-giving is commanded, and in most religions it is strongly encouraged.

In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus famously said, "Therefore when thou doest thine alms, do not sound a trumpet before thee, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may have glory of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward. But when thou doest alms, let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doeth: That thine alms may be in secret: and thy Father which seeth in secret himself shall reward thee openly."

Jesus makes the assumption that people will give to the poor and needy*, and then points out that even something as good as giving to the poor can be undertaken badly; it is not done in order to receive glory from people. If you give in the hope that people will pat you on the back for your giving, you're doing it for the wrong reason. 

Instead, Jesus says, your giving should be so secret that even your left hand doesn't even realize that your right hand is being generous. That's a clever way of saying, "Keep it VERY secret" To this day, people still use the phrase "left hand doesn't know what the right hand is doing" - although most people use it to describe a situation where people are working at cross-purposes because they don't know what the other person is doing. But originally, it was meant as a positive thing, not negative.

Incidentally, in case "alms" wasn't the word you were looking for, here are's synonyms:

aid, assistance, benefaction, charity, contribution, dole, donation, offering

[Note: the image shown above is a portion of a painting of Bishop Nicholas of Myra giving alms, painted by Jan Heinsch in the 1600s]

* It's no wonder that Jesus makes this assumption; the Old Testament has several commands and recommendations to this effect, such as in Deuteronomy 15:7 "If among you, one of your brothers should become poor, in any of your towns within your land that the Lord your God is giving you, you shall not harden your heart or shut your hand against your poor brother, but you shall open your hand to him and lend him sufficient for his need, whatever it may be." and Proverbs 19:17 "Whoever is generous to the poor lends to the Lord, and he will repay him for his deed."

Rusia, from New Zealand, asks, "What is the meaning of this phrase: Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God."

Hi Rusia, when I read this question, I thought, "Surely I've answered this question on the Professor Puzzler blog before?" So I went through the archives to find it, and realized that I was remembering wrong: I previously answered a question about another one of Jesus' statements involving a camel: straining at a gnat, swallowing a camel.

I mention that because it's interesting that in both cases, Jesus is making a rather absurd-sounding claim about camels. In the first, that if you're not careful, you could actually swallow a camel, and the second, that you might somehow fit a camel through a sewing needle's eye.

So, what's actually happening when Jesus makes the statement about swallowing camels? A rich man has come up to Jesus and asked him (note: you can find this entire exchange in Matthew 19:16-26. Rather than quoting the text, I'm putting it in my own words.): "What good thing should I do, if I want to get eternal life?" Jesus responds by telling him that he should keep the commandments. "Which ones?" the man replies, so Jesus gives a run-down of a partial list of the Ten Commandments, plus the additional "Love your neighbor as yourself," which is one of Jesus' favorites; he mentions in another place that this is the second most important commandment ever given.

The rich man proudly declares, "I've done all of these things since childhood!"

At this point, Jesus suggests that the man isn't as perfect as he thinks he is - Jesus says to him, "If you want to be truly perfect, go sell everything you own, give the money to the poor, and follow me." The man turns and walks away, sad, because of his great wealth.

At this point, as the man is walking away, Jesus turns to his disciples and announces, "It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God." It is an absurd mental image, to suppose that a camel could fit through the eye of a needle; a camel is significantly taller than me, and the eye of a sewing needle is tiny. It's a comparison designed to sound utterly absurd and impossible.

The disciples are stunned by this, and with good reason. If you ever read through some of the Old Testament stories about the patriarchs, you find that wealth is often shown as evidence of God's favor. Abraham, Job, King David, King Solomon, and others. Jesus seems to be turning this idea on its head, by saying that wealth isn't evidence of God's favor, and in fact can be an impediment to godliness and God's favor. So the disciples, with the biblical background they have under their belts, are astonished, and demand, "Well, if the rich can't make it, who can?"

Jesus considers that they've gone from one misunderstanding to another; He never said that a rich man can't make it - only that it's difficult. So he answers, "With man this isn't possible, but God can do anything." In saying this, he highlights one of the central tenets of Christianity - that man, on his own, is incapable of being "good enough" - God's intervention is required on his behalf.

That's the story, in a nutshell, and now I'll add a few comments for clarification and additional information.

What Did the Rich Man Do?

In the story of the rich man, he is described as "going away sad, because he had a lot of money." There is some disagreement on what that statement means: some people think the man is sad because he can't bring himself to give away everything; some think he's sad because he's going to give away everything and is sad that he won't have it any more. The former is the more commonly held view.

A Jerusalem Gate?

There is a popular explanation that one of the many gates to the city of Jerusalem is actually called "The Eye of the Needle." It is a small gate - smaller than a camel. So if a merchant comes to that gate with a loaded camel, the camel has to be unburdened, and crawl through the gate on its knees. Thus, the gate becomes a symbol of conversion; the camel loses its burden (representative of sin, perhaps) and takes a posture of humility (bended knee) before God. This is an interesting story, but there doesn't seem to be historical evidence that such a gate actually existed, or that camels went through any gates on their knees. 

Money in the Bible

In this section of the Bible, it sounds like Jesus is vehemently opposed to money. People will pair this with another statement (which Jesus never made) "Money is the root of all evil," To prove that Jesus was opposed to money. The actual quote (which was from Paul, not Jesus) is, "The LOVE of money is the root of all evil." In other words, money itself is not evil, but the greed that often goes with it is evil.

A better understanding of Jesus' views on money might be that he was opposed to the purposeless hoarding of wealth.  This view could be supported by considering his story of the wealthy man who had so much stuff he couldn't store it all, so he built bigger barns, in order to avoid having to work. It was after he did this that God rebuked him and called him a fool. The book of James makes similar commentary about rich men having storehouses filled with money that is rusting away.

With that as background, the statement Jesus makes about the wealthy would not be understood as "money keeps people from the kingdom of God," but instead, "the love of money keeps people from the kingdom of God." So people are not exempted because they have money, but because of an inner quality that goes hand-in-hand with money: greed.

Give it all Away?

It's interesting that Jesus didn't tell everyone to give away everything they own. Some of his own followers (Joseph of Arimethea, for example) had money, and were never instructed to give it away. Why in this particular instance, but not others? Perhaps because he knew of the underlying greed in the man's heart. In the book of Ephesians, Paul keeps in line with Jesus' message on money by telling the Christians in Ephesus, "Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labor, doing honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need." (Ephesians 4:28). Work, not so you can hoard money, but so you have something to share with those who are in need.

I think that this is a very important lesson, especially as we consider the physical state of our world, with people suffering from natural disasters everywhere. An abundance of hurricanes, forest fires, and earthquakes have left record numbers of people homeless and destitute. Someone who holds to the teachings of Jesus and Paul might ask, "Do I have something to share with those who are in need?"

If you're in that position, let me suggest it might be time to find a favorite charity working in areas of natural disaster, and make a donation. Some charities even allow people to come and volunteer time, working in rebuilding efforts. One charity that I highly recommend is Nazarene Compassionate Ministries. This charity has a very low overhead percentage, which means your gift goes where you want it to. Whatever your favorite charity, please consider doing what you can to help those in need.

Thanks for asking the question, Rusia - it's fun to take a break from answering math and science questions once in awhile! :)

A visitor for the US asks the following question: "Who is the father of light?"

"Father of Lights" (note that I'm using the plural of "light") is a phrase which is found in the Bible, and is used to describe God. The reference, in case you want to know, is James 1:17, which reads as follows (using the King James translation):

Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and cometh down from the Father of lights, with whom is no variableness, neither shadow of turning.

Reading this in a modern translation (New International Version):

Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.

What does the phrase mean? Well, that's a good question! And there are a few ways to take meaning from the title.

  1. It is a reference to creation; God as the creator of all the heavenly lights, is referred to as the father of them. In a sense, then, you could give Him the title "Star Father."
  2. It is a reference to Jesus, who called himself "the light of the world." Following the logic of that; if Jesus is the light, and God is his father, then God is the "Father of Light."
  3. Light, in the Bible, is usually associated with either knowledge or righteousness (or both). For example, Isaiah 9:2 says that "the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light," and according to one Bible dictionary, the word "darkness" there metaphorically means one of the following: misery, destruction, death, ignorance, sorrow, or wickedness. Thus, of course, light would be, metaphorically, the opposite. So saying "Father of Light" could be the equivalent of "Father of Knowledge" or "Father of Righteousness."

The conclusion of the verse, which says he is unchanging, and has no shifting shadows, may be a reference to the stars, which twinkle and shift - indicating that God is greater than the stars of the heavens.

Thanks for asking, and I hope that was helpful!

Professor Puzzler

Kendrick asks, "What is the meaning of the phrase straining at a gnat?"

Good question! The phrase comes from the words of Jesus, as recorded in the Gospel of Matthew. In Matthew 23, Jesus launches into what could best be described as a tirade against the religious leaders of his day. He doesn't hold back in his indictment of them, and calls them names like "hypocrite," "family of snakes" (technically, he calls them a "brood of vipers," but that's the meaning), and "whitewashed sepulchers."

In verse 23, he says: "Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have omitted the weightier matters of the law, judgment, mercy, and faith: these ought ye to have done, and not to leave the other undone."

What does he mean by this? He's saying that they've picked out the smallest and least commandments to focus on, and take pride in doing those, while completely ignoring the most important matters, like justice.

He follows this up in verse 24 with the phrase you asked about: "Ye blind guides, which strain at a gnat, and swallow a camel."

Jesus is indulging in a bit of hyperbole here. He's imagining someone who is about to take a drink of water from a cup, notices that there's a small bug in it, strains the bug out, and then drinks the water, never noticing that there was a camel floating in the cup.

Silly? Sure, but it gets the point across. Jesus' claim was that the religious leaders were focusing on the lesser matters, while completely ignoring the more important ones.

A similar idiom would be "penny-wise and pound-foolish." Someone who is penny-wise is someone who is very careful about how they spend small amounts of money. Someone who is pound-foolish is someone who throws about large amounts of money indiscriminately.

So someone who is both penny-wise and pound-foolish is straining at a gnat (focusing on small things) while swallowing a camel (ignoring larger things).

Would you like a modern day example of straining at a gnat and swallowing a camel?

As a teacher, if I gave a student a detention because he was slouching in his chair, but did nothing when he punched a classmate in the face, then I'm straining at gnats while swallowing camels.

By the way, if you have the time, you should take a few minutes to read Jesus' entire tirade against the religious leaders. Because we tend to think of Jesus as "meek and mild," this chapter can be quite astonishing to a lot of people: Matthew 23.

7th grader Colleen from Oregon asks, "How many people believe in god?"

Hi Colleen, I'm guessing you mean "how many people world-wide believe in a god or gods of some sort?"

That's a pretty tough question, but to help me out I visited a site called "Pew Research." They are an organization that does studies on a wide variety of social, political and religious trends. From their "Religion and Public Life" section of their site, you will find that a recent statistical study showed that about 83% of the world's population considers themselves to be affiliated with a specific religion. Christianity, Islam, Buddhist, Jewish, and various folk/traditional religions (for folk religions, think of a group of ethnically and geographically connected people who have a traditional - but usually unwritten - set of beliefs passed down from one generation to another).

So it seems like a vast majority of the world's population believes in a god or gods. However, it's interesting to note that in a separate study, in which they asked respondents how strongly they believe in God, Pew Research discovered that only about two thirds of the U.S. population confidently believes in God. Many other people gave responses like "I think there's a God, but I'm not sure."

Thus, there's a fairly good sized section of the population who identifiy with a particular church or religion, but aren't convinced there's actually a god. Why? Perhaps they see the church as a sort of "social club," or perhaps they are trying to figure out what they believe, and are associating themselves with a church in hopes that it will help them settle their religious questions/doubts.

Also, it's important to keep in mind that not all the religions that Pew included in their study have a "god" in the sense that you might think of it. For example, Buddha rejected the concept of a creator god, and Buddhism is described sometimes as a nontheistic religion. Similarly, many of the folk religions are nontheistic in nature as well. This means that the 83% obtained by Pew Research includes large populations which adhere to a religion but do not believe in God.

If I had to make a guess (and since you asked me, I guess I will!) I would say that the actual percent is closer to 60 than 80. So let's say 2/3 of the world's population. Since the population of the world is approaching 8 billion, I would put my wild guess somewhere in the vicinity of 5 billion people who, with a reasonable degree of confidence, believe in a god or gods.

Thanks for asking!
Professor Puzzler

PS - the picture shown above is a public domain image by Rursus, which contains symbols from 9 of the world's most widely held religions:

  • 1st Row: Christian, Jewish, Hindu
  • 2nd Row: Islam, Buddhist, Shinto
  • 3rd Row: Sikh, Bahai, Jain

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