This may have slipped by you in the reading of the gospel, but Jesus pays us a supreme compliment in this portion of the Sermon on the Mount. Listen again to the language:
“When you do merciful deeds…
when you pray…
when you fast…”
The tone would be entirely different if he had said, “If you give alms … if you pray … if you fast.” The fact that he said, “When…” makes all the difference in the world. It’s as if he assumes that we will keep these spiritual disciplines, that he takes for granted the faithfulness of his listeners.
Not if, but when.
And it’s not all about religious piety. These practices – giving alms, praying and fasting – come naturally to all people, from time to time. In fact, I’m often amazed at the extent to which people do these things without being told.
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I spent most of the day Friday out on the parking lot of the Manse helping with our Souper Bowl of Caring food drive. We really didn’t do that much to promote it. We certainly didn’t twist any arms. Yet, without prodding, people would stop by to drop off a sack of cans or give us a cash donation.
Why? Because compassion comes naturally. It’s an innate quality. It comes from deep within. True, some are more compassionate than others, and that’s probably because of their upbringing. Yet, in every age and every culture we find this same characteristic: Those who are strong are drawn to helping those who are weak.
I’ve been reading Khaled Hosseini’s latest novel, A Thousand Splendid Suns, set in recent-day Afghanistan. In it there’s this beautiful scene of two women at odds with each other. The older, Mariam, is the wife of Rasheed, a shoemaker. The younger, Laila, is only fourteen and has recently been orphaned by the warring factions. Rasheed takes advantage of her vulnerability and offers to marry her on the pretense of wanting to protect her and provide for her. Having no other choice, she consents. So, the two women are now forced to share a husband and a home.
Mariam will have nothing to do with Laila, and Laila feels powerless to compete with Mariam. In time, Laila gives birth to a beautiful little girl whom she names, Aziza. At first, this only heightens Mariam’s jealously. But as she watches Laila nursing her daughter and feels her powerlessness to do anything but submit to Rasheed’s demands – and, often – his wrath, her heart begins to overflow with compassion, sympathy and love.
One morning, Laila opens her bedroom door and finds a neatly stacked array of baby clothes for her daughter, all lovingly hand-stitched by Mariam. The wall of hostility begins to crumble, as the two women form a common bond with each other.
No, we don’t have to give alms to the poor. We do so because we care, because we feel compassion, and because others have helped us in so many ways. It comes naturally.
The same is true of praying. No one forces us to pray. We do so because, deep within us, the human soul longs for a relationship with its Creator. And the more we pray, the more prayer becomes for us a life-giving source of strength and confidence.
It’s also true of fasting, though we don’t talk about it that much. I suppose that’s because we live in a world that is so driven by self-indulgence. Yet, people have fasted for as far back as we can tell, both for religious, as well as physical reasons. If you listen to your body, it’ll tell you, from time to time, of its need to be set free of food and drink for a while, whether it’s alcohol or chocolate or carbs or extra calories.
Something within us sounds an alarm and drives us to purge our bodies of harmful contaminants, to make space for the indwelling of the Spirit. And the hunger we feel when we do only quickens our awareness of God’s sustaining grace.
The Good News is that Jesus knew this from the start. His concern was not to tell us what we ought to be doing; rather, to remind us to stay focused on why we’re doing it. He says, and I paraphrase:
“When you give alms, don’t make a big show of it … give anonymously … don’t let your left hand know what your right hand is doing and, by all means, don’t give hoping that somebody will be impressed or want to give you something in return.”
“When you pray, don’t make a big show of it – haven’t I said this before? Find a secluded spot so you can pray privately. And, whatever you do, talk to God the same way you’d talk to a friend – honestly, openly, straightforwardly – not with a bunch of platitudes and empty phrases.”
“And when you fast, as many of you are doing today, don’t make a big show of it. This is beginning to sound like a broken record, isn’t it? Wash your face and hands, comb your hair, look your best, because if people know you’re fasting, you’ll be the center of attention, not God, and that defeats the whole point of the matter.”
The sense of this passage is crystal clear: Whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything to the glory of God and God, who is all-knowing, will be pleased and honored with your gifts of devotion and service and will bless you far beyond anything you might otherwise imagine.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
Copyright 2008, Philip W. McLarty. Used by permission.
Scripture quotations are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible.