Jesus spoke at length about 3 spiritual disciplines that He assumes His disciples are practicing. These 3 disciplines Jesus preaches on are 3 that have for centuries been a part of Lent, as well as a fundamental part of the Christian life as a whole until the time of the Reformation.
Can you name them?
Prayer, most of us know. But almsgiving is a neglected virtue, and fasting has all but vanished, except for among Roman Catholics and Orthodox Christians. As comfortable as this is, I can’t let myself off so easily. Why do we so easily accept the red-letter words of Jesus when we like them but so easily reject other red-letter words? It would take a book to unpack the religious, cultural, and personal assumptions that allow us to so easily pick and choose (as consumers of Jesus’ words) which we will obey and which we won’t.
In Matthew 6, Jesus speaks about each of these, and the first assumption He makes is that His disciples are actually doing all 3 of these things. We know we’re supposed to pray and need no convincing about the commandment to pray and the necessity of it for our souls. But what does Jesus say about almsgiving and fasting?
In verse 2 of Matthew 6, He says, “When you give alms do not sound a trumpet before you,” while in verse 3 He commands, “When you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing.” Jesus’ instruction on prayer takes the same form: “When you pray, do not pray as the hypocrites” (verse 5). On fasting, Jesus similarly teaches, “When you fast, do not fast as the hypocrites” (verse 16).
There are a few things that each of these 3 spiritual disciplines has in common. The first is that we should not express our private spirituality in an ostentatious way (Jesus certainly isn’t prohibiting the prayers of the people in the Temple and synagogue or the collecting of alms that the early church practiced). Secondly, each of these 3 spiritual disciplines is a crucifying of the flesh so that Christ might live in us. This is the real point of the spiritual disciplines and of the spiritual life: to deny self that we might come to Jesus. For this reason, these spiritual disciplines are Spiritual disciplines, with a capital “S,” because it involves the work of the Spirit in our lives, which is to bring us to Christ.
Because our Christian spirituality, which Christ Himself lived out and gave to His disciples as an example, involves “giving up something” – ourselves – for the sake of the Lord – it appropriate that these 3 disciplines – almsgiving, praying, and fasting – are seen particularly as Lenten disciplines. Of course, they are meant for our entire lives.
We should keep in mind as well that we don’t do any of these things for their own sakes.
But if we give alms, pray, and fast with Jesus Christ and through Him, we find that not only do we “give up something” but also that we get something much better in return, for Christ Himself, as we shall see, promises the reward of God.
When we give alms, we give up what we have worked for, the money, the fruit of our labor that is, humanly speaking, ours. It is hard to give alms because our money is a symbol of ourselves and our power to get things for ourselves. But giving alms reminds us of 1 Corinthians 4:7 – “what do you have that you did not receive?” Giving what God has first given us reminds us of the words of our Lord Jesus Christ, how He said it is more blessed to give than to receive.
Almsgiving is, therefore, a Christian duty, because God first gave to us. He is the giver of every good and perfect gift, and all that we have has come from His loving hand.
It wasn’t something that Jesus said glibly but left for His disciples to practice: He Himself went around doing good, healing, and spending time with the poor of this world. Much better than money, He gave Himself to the poor of this world.
What does this mean practically for us? We are to give to the poor. The Greek word for almsgiving generally means doing works of mercy and compassion. Although it is usually used to mean giving to the poor, I believe there are many ways to show mercy and compassion, especially when we remember that the poor are primarily the poor in spirit. This means we have an obligation to look for the poor around us, who may be closer than you think. They may be a relative, a neighbor, or a stranger – or it might even be someone half way around the world.
Almsgiving has declined in recent decades, at least partially because we have delegated this personal obligation to the government. In doing so, we are robbed of truly giving because the process is invisible and impersonal. The personal choice that one has to make to give is taken away if the government compels us to give alms by taking and redistributing wealth. In Jesus’ time, the giver of alms would also know the beggar to whom they gave money. They knew his family and that he was really blind or lame and wasn’t going to spend the money getting drunk.
The second spiritual discipline is prayer. I won’t spend much time on it because it’s dealt with in other places in the New Testament. We might begin by observing that the spiritual disciplines are meant to work together in synergistic fashion. Some demons, after all, only come out by prayer and fasting.
Prayer is at the center of Christ’s teaching on Christian disciplines, and rightly so. It is to be the most frequent and most important of all disciplines. What is given up is the biggest thing of all: your pride. In prayer, you must humble yourself before God and acknowledge that
He is your God and you need Him. Prayer is a very humbling thing, which is why we know to kneel to pray. Perhaps because it is so humbling is the reason we sometimes avoid it.
It was through a constant life of prayer that Jesus was able to have a constant life in the Father, whose will He perfectly obeyed. Amazing! that He who was also God found it necessary to pray so constantly to His Father! Throughout the Gospels, Jesus found places to pray (Matthew 14:23 “He went up on the mountain by Himself to pray;” Luke 15:16 He “withdrew to the wilderness to pray”); He prayed when His soul was troubled (Matthew 26:42 and the Garden of Gethsemane); and He found the time to pray (Mark 1:35 “He rose up early in the morning to pray”). He prayed constantly for His disciples (John 17) and intercedes for us even now at the right hand of the Father!
(To see more on the Lord’s Prayer, which I haven’t dealt with here, see the Daily Bread for Monday of 5th Sunday after Easter on Matthew 6:5-15. If you don’t have this archived, e-mail me, and I’ll send it to you.)
In fasting, we give up for a time the food that sustains us, to remind us of our dependence upon God for all things. Fasting is meant to teach us to let go of the things of this earth and to teach us to let go of ourselves. It is to remind us of our sin and mortality that we might turn all the more to God. Every time we have a hunger pang from something we have given up, it should remind us of God and all that Christ gave up for you.
Prayer and fasting should often go together. Consider not only Matthew 17:21 and the casting out of demons but also Nehemiah 1:4, as Nehemiah seeks what the Lord would have him do in a ruined Israel, and Acts 13:3, when Paul and Barnabas were chosen by the Church.
There are other kinds of fasts, other than from food, but the essential thing is that we should periodically give up our daily physical food, or some other earthly good, to remind us to fill our greater hunger for the Bread of Life.
Jesus gave up not only food at times but also sleep, as He stayed up all night praying. At
other times He was too busy or too crowded to eat, because his bread was to do the will of the Father. When my twin brother Danny was in junior high and high school, he would play war game solitaire for hours on end. I remember several occasions where he would park himself in the den beside Panzer Blitz or Third Reich and play against himself for an entire day (the good news is that he won. The bad news . . . .) Sometimes, he would not eat or drink (which meant he also probably didn’t have to hit the bathroom) for the entire day.
That’s the kind of intensity and desire (although not in every detail!) I want to have in my serving the Lord!
Jesus Christ loved each of us so much that He gave up His life for those around Him, especially at the Cross. This Cross was the ultimate fast: to give up not only one thing that He loved in this life but to give up life itself for love of another.
It is more blessed to give than to receive, and so in each of these 3 spiritual disciplines: almsgiving, prayer, and fasting, the ultimate blessing of which Jesus is speaking is the spiritual treasure we obtain, which is Jesus Christ Himself. They are not magical ceremonies, nor should they be onerous. For, in fact, they are the Cross of Jesus itself, by which we are united with Him.
Prayer: Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be Thy name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever and ever. Amen.
Point for Meditation: To which of these 3 spiritual disciplines is the Lord calling you? How might you begin, if it is not already a discipline you practice?
Resolution: I resolve to begin or renew one of these spiritual disciplines, if I hear the Lord calling me to do it. (Remember: Don’t try and begin too many spiritual practices at once. If there is something else the Lord is calling you to first, then do it!)
© 2016 Fr. Charles Erlandson