Monday, February 04, 2013
On almsgiving and the desire to be seen by men....
The Church has always insisted on the necessity of almsgiving. In Christian tradition, almsgiving (the word alms coming from the Greek word eleemosyne meaning mercy or pity) is a corporal work of mercy. Throughout the Old Testament, we are admonished to provide for the needy. For example, in Proverbs 3:27, we read: "Whenever you possibly can, do good to those who need it." And Proverbs 22:9 exhorts us, "Be generous and share your food with the poor. You will be blessed for it."
The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches us that, "The interior penance of the Christian can be expressed in many and various ways. Scripture and the Fathers insist above all on three forms, fasting, prayer, and almsgiving, which express conversion in relation to oneself, to God, and to others." (CCC, 1434). And again, "The works of mercy are charitable actions by which we come to the aid of our neighbor in his spiritual and bodily necessities. Instructing, advising, consoling, comforting are spiritual works of mercy, as are forgiving and bearing wrongs patiently. The corporal works of mercy consist especially in feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, clothing the naked, visiting the sick and imprisoned, and burying the dead. Among all these, giving alms to the poor is one of the chief witnesses to fraternal charity: it is also a work of justice pleasing to God." (CCC, 2447).
But the same authoritative Catechism warns us that, "The New Law practices the acts of religion: almsgiving, prayer and fasting, directing them to the 'Father who sees in secret,' in contrast with the desire to 'be seen by men.' Its prayer is the Our Father." (CCC, 1969).
It is this desire "to be seen by men" which we must all be on guard against. Our almsgiving, our prayer and our fasting should be motivated by love of God and love of neighbor (for God's sake) and not by a spirit of self-promotion.
This past Saturday, while at Holy Mass, the liturgy was interrupted by the celebrant's call for members of the congregation to bring bags of groceries up to the altar. This unfortunate practice has no place within the liturgy and betrays that desire "to be seen by men." In Matthew 6: 1-4, Our Lord warns, "Beware of practicing your piety before men in order to be seen by them; for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven. Thus, when you give alms, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by men. Truly, I say to you, they have their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you."
Almsgiving, prayer and fasting were always the basic expressions of personal piety among the chosen people. But Jesus insists that true piety must go beyond the mere external and should be practiced with sincerity and in privacy before God without any ostentation.
What motivates our almsgiving, prayer and fasting? Is it love of God and neighbor or the crippling desire to impress others with how "virtuous" we are? If the latter, then we should reflect very carefully on these words from Saint Francis of Assisi: "If you were the most handsome and the richest man in the world, and could work wonders and drive out devils, all that would be something extrinsic to you; it would not belong to you, and you could not boast of it. But there is one thing of which we can all boast; we can boast of our humiliations and in taking up daily the holy cross of our Lord Jesus Christ."
We must - all of us - remind ourselves often that nothing in which we might take pride is really and truly our own doing. Even our desire to do good comes from the Lord Jesus. So then, let us not boast like the Pharisee in Luke 18:12: "I fast twice a week, I give tithes of all that I get," but rather, let us recall the words of the Holy Spirit given through Saint Paul, "For not he who commendeth himself, is approved, but he whom God commendeth" (2 Corinthians 10: 17-18).