Lent – Almsgiving By Very Rev. Fr. John Louis
1: Lent – Almsgiving
By Very Rev. Fr. John Louis
The link between fasting and almsgiving is evident in Isa. 58:6-9 cited above: the extra savings of food, etc. made from the self-denial of fasting should be used to help the needy. Let us now consider almsgiving, our spiritual insurance, by answering the following questions: What is almsgiving? How not to give alms? How to give alms?
WHAT IS ALMSGIVING?
Almsgiving is simply giving in kind or cash to the poor or needy. This includes feeding the hungry, giving water to the thirsty, clothing the naked, sheltering the homeless, aiding the sick and aged, etc. Such acts of charity constitute a spiritual insurance, because they are like “savings” unto our salvation. Here are the well-known words of Jesus:
The King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me. … [For] I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me’ (Mt. 25:34-40).
HOW NOT TO GIVE ALMS?
Giving alms with the intention or attitude of being superior to the poor, or to impress others or to “make name” for oneself is like infringing on the contract conditions of one’s car insurance and losing the insurance claims in the process. For this reason, Jesus cautions us: “when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. (Mt. 6:2).
HOW TO GIVE ALMS?
How then should we give alms so that we enjoy the full benefits of our spiritual insurance? Jesus says that “when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you” (Mt. 6:3-4). In other words, when we give to the poor or needy, we should do so, focusing not so much on the human recipient but on God whom they represent and who is the ultimate “Rewarder”.
Let me conclude this section on almsgiving by narrating the story of the conversion of a fourth century cavalry officer of Hungary. He later became the Bishop of Tours, and canonized as St. Martin. He was leading his troops, when he came upon a poorly clad beggar suffering from the frigid temperatures. Moved by the man’s suffering Martin took off his own elegant cape and put it on the beggar and he was about to go on his way when he was stopped by an amazing sight: the beggar was Jesus Christ, searching among men for evidence of charity. Soon after that incident Martin resigned his position in the military and became a monk (Glenn D. Kittler in Quotes and Anecdotes, p. 144).
2: Lent: CONFESSION
By Very Rev. Fr. John Louis
Let us now elaborate further on our spiritual “road worthiness”, namely, the confession of our sins. As usual, we are considering the threefold questions: What is confession? How not to confess? How to confess?
WHAT IS CONFESSION?
St. John writes: “My dear children, I write this to you so that you will not sin. But if anybody does sin, we have one who speaks to the Father in our defense — Jesus Christ, the Righteous One. He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world” (1 Jn. 2:1-2). When, unfortunately we sin and lose our spiritual “road worthiness”, we can fortunately be forgiven by God the Father, thanks to the sacrificial death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. Regarding the fact that our “worthiness” in God’s sight is restored when He forgives and reconciles us to Himself, St. John explains once more: “If we confess our sins, [God] is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness” (1 Jn. 1:8-10).
Confession could be understood in two senses. Firstly, it means confessing our sins to God in our personal prayers; and secondly, it means going for sacramental confession (penance and reconciliation). An example of the first case is that anytime we pray the “Our Father”, we plead with God to forgive us our sins. That is, we acknowledge the fact that we have sinned, and so we ask God to forgive us. Similarly, anytime we sin, we can go on our knees to ask God to forgive us. This, then, should be followed by receiving the sacrament of penance and reconciliation especially if the sin committed is a serious one. St. John says that all wrongdoing is sin; yet he makes a distinction between the less serious sin, which the church calls venial sin, and the very serious or deadly sin, which the church calls mortal sin (cf. 1 Jn. 5:17). Whereas one could ask God, in his/her private prayer, to forgive his/her venial sins and be truly forgiven, he/she needs to confess the mortal sins at the confessional and be forgiven through this sacrament (cf. 1 Jn. 5:16).
Though it is God who forgives sins, He empowered the apostles and hence the bishops and priests of the church to administer the sacrament of penance and reconciliation. This is supported by the fact that on the evening of Christ’s resurrection He empowered the apostles to forgive sins: “Jesus said, ‘Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.’ And with that He breathed on them and said, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone his sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven’” (Jn. 20:21-23).
HOW NOT TO CONFESS?
Let us now consider some obstacles to genuine confession: (a) an unforgiving heart (as we said when we spoke about prayer); (b) the lack of true contrition or repentance; (c) the lack of sincerity in confessing our sins (e.g. a person who has stolen a goat mentions only the rope by which he dragged the animal away); (d) remaining in the same sin while confessing (e.g. keeping a “relationship” while confessing about fornication); (e) the lack of humility to accept full blame or culpability for a sin, or trying to justify why one committed the sin; etc.
HOW TO CONFESS?
The pre-conditions for a proper (private or sacramental) confession are to ensure that we are free of the obstacles (mentioned above). Then, we should pray to the Holy Spirit to remind us of our sins (Jn. 16:8-10), to give us the humility of true repentance (cf. Lk. 18:9-14) and the grace of sincere confession. If the sin requires a sacramental confession, we should then go and see a priest. In a well-known gospel story, it was Jesus who healed the ten lepers, yet He told them to go and show themselves to a priest (Lk. 17:11-19). Similarly, He is the one who forgives us, yet He asks us to go and see the priest.
Those who have forgotten the format of sacramental confession should not worry; they should tell the priest about this and they will be helped step by step. After the confession, one should diligently perform the penance given by the priest in a spirit of gratitude to God and of sincere sorrow for the suffering and death Jesus endured for his/her sins.
We started these series of talks by employing the imagery of the fuel, servicing, insurance and road-worthy certificates of a car to illustrate respectively the roles of prayer, fasting, almsgiving and confession in the life of a Christian. For each of these, we looked at what is it, how not to do it, and how to do it. It is my prayer that as we reflect further on these issues, especially in this season of Lent, the Holy Spirit who helps us when we do not know how to pray (Rom. 8:26-27) will supply us with the abundance of the spiritual fuel; that aided by the same Spirit of God our fasting this Lent and beyond will be truly the servicing (the removal of dirty oil and grease) of our souls; that the Spirit will give us the grace of true repentance, so that in confessing our sins, we will be made “worthy” in the presence of God; that the Spirit will renew in our hearts the image of Jesus anytime we meet the poor/needy whom we can assist; and that when we do assist them, the same Spirit will insure us for eternal life. Amen.
3: LENT: PRAYER
By Very Rev. Fr. John Louis
Let us now elaborate further on our spiritual fuel, prayer, by answering the following questions: What is prayer? How not to pray? How to pray?
WHAT IS PRAYER?
“Prayer is a conversation with God” (Clement of Alexandria in A. P. Castle, Quotes and Anecdotes [Suffolk: Kevin Mayhew, 1994], p. 527). However, most often we make prayer a monologue: we speak to God, but we don’t allow time to listen to Him also. “How can you expect God to speak in that gentle and inward voice which melts the soul, when you are making so much noise with your rapid reflections [and talking]? Be silent, and God will speak again” (Francois Fenelon in Quotes and Anecdotes, p. 296).
Besides the period of silence that we observe during a prayer time, God speaks to us through the Scriptures. So let us make the reading of the Bible part of our prayer time.
HOW NOT TO PRAY?
The fuel of a car has its specific tank. It will be of no use to fill the radiator tank with the fuel; in fact, it will be a disaster to do that. Similarly one can “waste” his/her prayers, if they are not properly channelled. Hence let us consider “how not to pray?” Jesus Christ gives us some points about “how not to pray”. He says: “When you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. … And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words” (Mt. 6:5, 7, NIV).
In this text, our Lord mentions two things we should not do when praying. In the first place, since prayer is not a conversation with bystanders but with God, our prayer should not aim at impressing the former. Is it not odd that in speaking to someone on phone one intentionally speaks aloud just to impress bystanders and in the process incurs the displeasure of the person at the other end of the line, because of his loudness and bragging on issues unrelated to their conversation. Secondly, no show of eloquence or multiplication of words impresses God. In fact, this displeases God, because it betrays trust in God; for He is not a God who has to be convinced by us in order to act in our favour. After all, as Jesus says, God is our Father who knows what we need before we ask Him (Mt. 6:8). So, we should rather approach Him with faith: only by faith can we please God (Heb. 11:1-2).
Let me add another point on “how not to pray”. It is a common practice among some Christians today to be shooting guns and arrows and throwing fires with all the passion that goes with these acts. I find nowhere in the gospels when Jesus prayed in this manner; nor do I find anywhere in the New Testament when the apostles and the other disciples prayed in this way. This is not a true Christian spirit of prayer. Unfortunately, some Ghanaian and other African movies do encourage this sort of prayer. Prayer, as we have said, is a conversation with God; and if there is any battle against a spiritual enemy it is God, who sees the enemy, who fights for us (cf. 2 Chron. 20:17), after all we cannot see the enemy. Let us stop pouring the fuel of prayer into the wrong tank.
HOW TO PRAY?
How then do we pray? First let us consider the pre-conditions of prayer; and then look at the format of prayer. The first pre-condition is that we should pray with faith. Secondly, personal prayers should be done in private, with our attention on only God; for our conversation is with Him. For this reason, Jesus says that “when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you” (Mt. 6:6). Thirdly, prior to prayer one should have forgiven whoever might have offended him/her. For this reason, after teaching the “Lord’s Prayer” (Mt. 6:9-13), Jesus stated: “For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins” (Mt. 6:14-15).