Mark Shea: Lenten Almsgiving

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Before breaking your fast, take a few minutes of silent prayer. Photo: Freepik.com
Before breaking your fast, take a few minutes of silent prayer. Photo: Freepik.com

Lent is a time we need to rethink what we are doing with our Lenten observances.

If, as we said last time, the point of Lent is to get ready, not for a holiday of chocolate eggs, bunnies, and nice clothes we call Easter but for the enormous, universe-transforming blast that is the Resurrection of the Son of God and all it means in the establishment and eventual triumph of the New Creation, then it follows that we need to rethink what we are doing with our Lenten observances.

This need to rethink everything is all through the New Testament. Paul, for instance, tells us:

“I appeal to you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” (Romans 12:1-2)
Likewise, he says:

“If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is our life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.” (Colossians 3:1-4)

“The Kingdom of God is not somewhere far away in Cloud Cuckoo Land, but is already here and is quietly working in secret all through the world.”

And all this is summarised by Jesus himself, who tells us:

“Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” (Matthew 6:19-21)

What all these sayings have in common is the idea we are to detach from this world system with its ridiculous obsessions over money, pleasure, power, and honor and instead start living into the reality of the New Heaven and New Earth that has already begun to take shape with the Resurrection of Jesus.

The Kingdom of God is not somewhere far away in Cloud Cuckoo Land, but is already here and is quietly working in secret all through the world, like yeast silently permeating creation, or like seeds germinating without fanfare and without notice from the Big Shots and principalities who think only in terms of force, domination, fear, and power.

It is like a virus quietly re-writing the DNA of the universe and preparing it, not for destruction, but for a Resurrection like Christ’s.

Photo: Shutterstock

It is significant that when Jesus addresses the works of Jewish piety that will later become known as “Lenten disciplines” he starts, not with prayer and fasting, but with almsgiving (Matthew 6:1-4). Why this focus on a crudity like money and not, as we would have supposed, on spiritual things first?

The answer is much the same as the answer to why he did exactly the same thing with the Rich Young Man, who likewise wanted to have a nice discussion about disembodied airy-fairy “spirituality” and who was not at all prepared for a hard, concrete demand to stop clutching his gold if he was serious about serving God.

Jesus gets right to the point: You cannot serve God and Mammon. So decide right now and show it by parting with your dough.

That’s the thing about Jesus: he emphatically does not preach a disembodied spirituality.

The whole point of the gospel is that God refuses to remain in a nice safe “spiritual” realm of abstractions and ideas, of gooey sentiments of piety, of moods and feelings and purely interior intuitions divorced from stuff like flesh and blood and bills and dirty diapers.

“He did this because He was headed for Resurrection in a glorious new body that was the first fruits of a Resurrection that will one day transform not just our bodies, but the entire cosmos.”

The gospel insists, as its most fundamental sacred truth, that the Word who is with God and is God became flesh: that he in fact wore diapers and, what was more, he soiled them.

It insists he was a working stiff for thirty years, that he paid taxes, and that when he met beggars he did not offer them Thoughts and Prayers, but handed them cold, hard money because that is what they needed.

And it preaches that He did this because He was headed for Resurrection in a glorious new body that was the first fruits of a Resurrection that will one day transform not just our bodies, but the entire cosmos.

That is why, as we shall see in this space next time, his main focus is not on how much to give nor to whom, but on the question, “Why are you giving alms?”