Showing posts with label Gospel according to St Matthew. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Gospel according to St Matthew. Show all posts

Saturday, 9 August 2014

Intercessory Prayer is Either Power or Poverty

When you are in the world of Christianity, you hear it often: please pray for this or that, for this situation or that person, for me or for someone else. You also, when you are a bit into the game, start remembering that praying for others is not something to be done only on request, but that it forms a core part of any Christian's prayer life. The causes are endless, but some strike us as requiring our attention more than others, and we pray for these things most keenly.

I fall into a trap when it comes to this sort of prayer. Something will catch my eye as being a matter of concern to bring to God, and I will instinctively think of praying for the situation. For instance, I might see a homeless person on the street, or see a car crash that looks nasty, or a build up of armed police officers that signal a dangerous situation. Whatever the case may be, one jumps into prayer mode.

This prayer for others is known as intercessory prayer, and Jesus speaks quite frequently of its importance, for your friends, "your enemies and...those who persecute you" (cf. Mt. 5:44). In light of this, I decided to pray also for anyone who annoyed or perturbed me, in part because of this directive but also because praying for someone else has a profoundly humanising effect. One does not pray for objects, one prays for persons.

I have found that, instead of humanising others like I intended, what often happened is that I perceived myself to be exerting a certain power over others, and hence making objects of them once more. Not that prayer is an exertion of power per se, and it is important to clarify our theology of prayer to make this evident within a framework in which prayer is still efficacious, but that was none the less my experience: insofar as I consider prayer to be effective, praying for others was twisted into self-exaltation, as I elevate myself into a position where I bless others. In other words, if I pray for someone who is doing something wrong, I prayed from a status of exalted moral virtue, or if I pray for a poor person, I prayed from an exaltation of spiritual wealth. In short, my prayer was an expression of self-exaltation and and exercise of power over others, a power that I had because I was praying for them.

This attitude is, I think, highly problematic. It colours not only my interactions with the persons I pray for, but even my perceptions of the more distant situations I pray for. Like giving money to some poor person - which can also be an expression of dominance, a clarification that "I am richer and you are poorer" - praying for someone in this way is just a matter of self-righteous pride and contrary to the beatitude "blessed are the poor in spirit." The poor in spirit cannot dish out these blessings upon others like some people babble words of prayer: "I pray for this, and this, and that, and..ah yes, that one, and him, and those people, and definitely her....hmmm...and that too. Amen." because they have no blessing to give.

What then is the right way to experience intercessory prayer? I think that if intercessory prayer is to be genuine and avoid this pitfall of self-exaltation, it must begin with poverty of spirit. The first step is to recognise that we cannot bless others, that our prayers are simply petitions, we ask God for this or that. Being keenly aware of this fact is the right step towards avoiding the spiritual pride that can come with praying for others, since we become conscious that we are doing nothing for the situation or person other than presenting it to God.

Yet there is a more important step than this mere recognition of fact. I contend that intercessory prayer is a prayer made from the poverty of the other being prayed for. In this petitionary prayer, we enter into the other's needs, not insofar as they affect us, but from within their otherness. I think on this point we can learn from the experience of parents: a good mother, for instance, will not see their own needs, wants, desires and sufferings and those of her children to be particularly separate. If I were to break my arm, I have no doubt that my dad would feel the pain just as much as I would, if not more. Similarly, Jesus makes this link between his hungry brothers and himself in that famous line in the Gospel according to St Matthew when he says "as you did to the least of these my brothers, you did it to me." For a mother, the needs of her children are her own. For Jesus, the hunger of his brothers and sisters is his own. When we pray for another, their needs should be our own.

Hence, I have learnt, and am slowly learning, to shift intercessory prayer from a mode of power to a mode of poverty. For as I pray for the poor man, I do not pray as someone foreign to him, but I go to his side and pray for him as if for myself. I make his poverty mine and plead to God for him.

This is the essence of the Incarnation, is it not? The Son does not intercede to God first at his right hand, instead he takes on our flesh and so represents us before the Father. Indeed, Jesus takes on our poverty until death, even death on a cross. It is written that "the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us," meaning nothing other than that Jesus, as High Priest, first inherits our poverty before God as human creatures before he intercedes for us. Jesus prays as we should pray: from the position of the one being prayed for, from the poverty of the poor man.

If I can make a practical aside for the celebration of the Mass, which as the highest prayer of the Church certainly includes intercessory prayer, the posture of "I stand, not as myself, but for them for whom I pray" is best displayed in Ad Orientum celebration of Mass. The priest acts in the person of Christ as he intercedes to God the Father in the name of Jesus, bringing to God our petitions as our head (for Christ is the head of his Body, the Church), and so it makes most sense to pray in the same direction as the people. A lawyer interceding for the defendant will not speak to the judge facing the defendant, but will look with the defendant towards the judge as the case is pleaded. Likewise, our representative Jesus Christ, in the person of the priest, looks towards God and offers to him our petitions.

Friday, 2 May 2014

Loving the Lovely and Unlovely

It has become commonplace, at least among young idealists, to talk about "always finding the good in someone." No matter what the person is like, they always have something good in them, they say, and we should love them because of it. Whether it is true that all people have something good in them, I do not know - probably, but perhaps not. In either case, this is not a Christian approach to loving people. Christians love as required by Jesus, who says to us:

"You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you salute only your brethren, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect." (Mt. 5:43-48)

I have written on that before, now I want to bring out a crucial point here: nowhere does it talk about finding something good in the person to love. It just asks you to love them regardless. In fact, loving the good in others, like loving those who love you back, is easy and it comes naturally. Christian love is special love because it is predicated on the assumption that we should not love people because they are good, but simply because they are people, and it is hence supernatural rather than natural, because it is modelled on the love of God.

I have found over the months a quote from Martin Luther to be insightful into this point, from the Heidelberg disputation, thesis 28:

"The love of God does not find, but creates, that which is pleasing to it. The love of man comes into being through that which is pleasing to it."

It is all very well and good to love the good in people, and the good in people certainly makes it easier to do. Nonetheless, that is no sufficient. We must love the most horrible of people, not because they are horrible, in fact, quite independently of this. For whether a person is good or bad is not a direct matter of concern when the Christian asks whether or not to love them - the Christian does so, without asking that question.

So the Christian is called to love the person. Very well. This does not at all render whether someone is good or bad irrelevant in general. In fact, as Luther pointed out, the love of God does not come into being because it finds something pleasing to it, it comes into being because God is love, and yet it creates the good in the other person. This is important, it means that Christian love does not seek that the person remain as they are, it requires change.

It can be hard to make this point clear because we are so used to the "love of man" which Luther refers to, and that adores that which is pleasing to it already. If some attribute is already pleasing, and our love comes into being because of it, then it stands to reason that this should not change, that changing it might well make it less loveable, or that changing it implies that we did not really love to begin with. However, if our love comes into being simply because the object of that love is a person, as is the case with divine love, then love might well entail the transformation of that person into that which is good.

I think this is, at least to some extent, intuitive - it is just really hard, by the same token. For instance, we might love the alcoholic, despite them being a rotten drunkard and not so nice a person when sober, and yet we try to transform them, not despite our love but because of it. Or take the greedy person who is thrifty with giving but generous when it comes to gifting themselves - we can love the person, but not because they are greedy, quite in spite of this fact. We can love them, and so desire to transform them. In short, when we love people, we want their transformation, because people are imperfect, and love seeks the perfection of the other.

We cannot love some people for what they are (personality wise), because what some people are is often not very lovable naturally. But we can love them simply because they are, simply because they exist. They have human dignity, whether or not they have human goodness. For us who take the divine example to love all, this is what we must do. We must dissuade ourselves from "love" being "liking a lot" - we may not like whatever it is we love, because, once again, we must not simply love what who we like, but also who we do not like. I hardly imagine Jesus expected us to find something very likeable in our enemies, and then love them.

So next time someone says to me "everyone has something good in them", I might say "sure, but who cares?" Or perhaps "excellent, that will make it easier to love them." What I should not say, or think, or assimilate unconsciously is "Oh, that means I should (or could) love them." I admit, I mostly fall in to ruts of loving only those that are easy to love, and for that matter, when they are easy to love. This is just not good enough.

Friday, 4 April 2014

That Deadly Vice of Pride

That I am a vicefully proud person is no secret to anyone who knows me well. I am absolutely horrible at this. If "big headed" were a literal expression, instead of being figurative, my head would have moons orbiting, it would have that much gravitational pull.

What I reflected on whilst on the bus trip home today is that one's pride is always about some good one has. This seems obvious enough, but I had never considered it in depth. I had always thought one is proud in general, not proud in particulars. See, I can fool myself into thinking I am humbler than I am by thinking about the areas I am humble in: I am dreadful at music, dance and art, I have a fairly poor memory, and dreadful eye sight. I suppose one can also say that I am humble in the areas where I am not easily insulted: it would be hard to care less for being told I am ugly, uncultured or ill-informed.

There are, however, two areas where I am incredibly proud, in such a way so as to be deadly. These are, in a sense, my only two virtues, but because they are my virtues, when mixed with vices they are capable of killing me spiritually: I am quite intelligent, and I am an extremely productive person. Compliments in these areas make me soar. Insinuations that these are places I have an elevated view of myself tear me down. To be quite honest, I think both of these are true qualities of myself: I am no idiot, and I get a lot done. The problem is, I like everyone to know about it, something which a good friend and priest rightly rebuked me for it today, in private. It sort of stung at the time, but it was exactly what I needed. I ended up thinking about it all the way home.

Just from a practical point of view, because I have such a pedastal view of myself, I cannot improve either of them. Precisely because people say I manage to do so much, I cannot disciple myself to do more, even though I waste an enormous amount of time daily on games or trivialities. Precisely because I view my intelligence as enormous, I am incapable of studying effectively - for the true genius does not need to study, right? I end up doing quite well at university regardless, because I really do love the things I study, so learning about them becomes part of my daily life. But man, if could get past my inflated ego, I'd do so much better.

Come on though, I know what that says, heck, I derived it -
I really am a genius, right? Amusingly, as painful as that looks
 if you're unfamiliar with it, it's actually not that complicated.
This obvious insight of pride being about particulars in my life, and not about generalities, has led me to a new resolve: I am going to avoid making myself out to be intelligent or productive. In fact, I am going to try and create the opposite image: that I am a little dim-witted and spend a lot of time on my Playstation 3 (which is now predominantly used by my brother, actually, since I have almost no real spare time - or at least, booting up the PS3 seems like a commitment to time wasting, whereas what I end up doing is always that "last check" or the "quick sesh"). In a quiet way, I will still try and be intelligent, because being smart is a good thing. It is when my desire is for other people to know that I actually do know what those long fancy words mean in philosophy or theology, or can actually understand those nasty looking strings of symbols that make up the maths involved in my research project, or, like today, actually do know that the Liturgy of the Hours has the Ave Regina Caelorum and not the Salve Regina this time of the year - it is when others knowing is the actual goal that this becomes problematic. It is the difference between my (real) excitement about my research project in a really cool area, and my excitement that people know I have a research project in a really cool area. One is good, the other...not so much.

This might seem trivial to some, but it will no doubt be a challenge far greater than mastering Fourier transforms for me (which was surprisingly painless). From now on, I do not study "physics, mathematics and philosophy", I study Science and Arts - which is a decidedly less impressive way of putting it. It is my way, I think, of doing what Jesus said in the sermon on the mount, to the crowd which lived in a culture that gave glory based on piety:

"When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show others they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to others that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you." (Mt. 6:15-18) [cf. comment]

The point is not to stop fasting - or in my case, not to stop being intelligent or getting things done - but to do so in secret. Hopefully, forcing myself to make small changes like that will precipitate me fulfilling those petitions of the Litany of Humility:

O Jesus! meek and humble of heart, Hear me.

From the desire of being esteemed,

Deliver me, Jesus.

From the desire of being loved...
From the desire of being extolled ...
From the desire of being honoured ...
From the desire of being praised ...
From the desire of being preferred to others...
From the desire of being consulted ...
From the desire of being approved ...
From the fear of being humiliated ...
From the fear of being despised...
From the fear of suffering rebukes ...
From the fear of being calumniated ...
From the fear of being forgotten ...
From the fear of being ridiculed ...
From the fear of being wronged ...
From the fear of being suspected ...

That others may be loved more than I,
Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.
That others may be esteemed more than I ...
That, in the opinion of the world,
others may increase and I may decrease ...
That others may be chosen and I set aside ...
That others may be praised and I unnoticed ...
That others may be preferred to me in everything...
That others may become holier than I, provided that I may become as holy as I should… 


Thursday, 27 March 2014

I Cannot Criticize the Abbott

For St Benedict of Nursia, the founder of Western monasticism, obeying the abbot was pretty important. The monks who chose to live under St Benedict's rule were bound to obey the abbot in his ordinances, at the same time as the abbot was required to care for his monks and serve them in their needs.

I am not a monk, but I do have an Abbott I have to obey, when he gives ordinances relevant to his role as Prime Minister. The reason for the required obedience is simple: as I live in a democratic system under a social contract, by virtue of living on Australia, I am bound to whoever the leader of the country is, in the constitutionally appointed ways. I may not have voted for him (most people did not, since only those in his electoral division even have the opportunity to do so), or the Coalition parties, but because of how our representative democracy works, he is rightfully the leader of Australia.

Whilst the social contract of this representative democracy requires me to recognize him as Prime Minister, and all which that entails in terms of leadership, I do not have to like him, only obey. I would be permitted to criticize him, I would be permitted to tell anyone how horrible I think he might be - but I cannot.

It is not from some sort of patriotism, since we are both English, or love of Oxford University, since he was a Rhodes Scholar. If what I am told about some of his policies is true, particularly the environmental, laboral and asylum seeker ones, then it is far from being because I agree with him. It is both simpler and more complex: I cannot go around criticizing him casually, because he is my brother.

"Your surname is not Abbott!" That is true. We do not share biological parents. He is instead my brother in a way that is at least as real: he and I are both Catholic. As I outlined elsewhere, an important practical consequence of sharing that crucial element in common is that we are brothers, and I must put up with him as a brother.

It could be objected at this point that I am not acting in line with other important Catholics, such as bishops, laypeople and even one of Pope Francis' inner-circle, the highest ranking Catholic in the country (up until very recently), George Cardinal Pell. They have all criticised Tony Abbott for this, that or the other (see here and here, just as examples). Without presuming to judge them for their actions, I still find I cannot go out in public and proclaim distaste. There is nothing in Church teaching that forbids speaking out against a brother in public (indeed, within the confines of the Christian community, it is mandated, after due private rebukes), and yet, I still find that it is not my place.

Jesus is said to be both lion and lamb, and as good rule of thumb for when to imitate him in lion-ness or lamb-ness is whether one is confronting a harmful idea, action or policy (in which case, lion), or a fellow sinner, to which one is like the Agnus Dei (qui tollis peccata mundi - misere nobis). One could quite reasonably say that I should, in fact, speak out against some of his godless policies, the ones that the Church has spoken out against.[1] Part of why I do not is general ignorance: I do not understand the complex political issues of today well enough to deem myself having rid my own eye of the plank, before rebuking my brother's splinter, or as Jesus says:

"Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. Why do you see the speck in your neighbour’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? Or how can you say to your neighbour, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ while the log is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbour’s eye." (Mt. 7)

Ignorance aside, and noting the importance of fighting the inward battle before the outward one, there is another important reason why I find it tough on my conscience to criticize my brother, and here I think much on the political left is to blame. I am generally quite capable of disagreeing with someone's views without attacking them as a person, but the left has confused policy with politician, meaning an attack on one is an attack on the other. I will not attack my brother in public, so I find it difficult to attack any erroneous policies he might have.

So, whenever I complain about Tony Abbott's statement on this or that, and I have done so occasionally, I try and do so to my other brothers and sisters, not in public accusations, and I do so minimally. It is not, at this point in time, my place to criticize the Abbott.

[1] For an overview of the Church's position on social issues from an Australian perspective, see "Lazarus at Our Gates", from the ACBC. The statement can be found here.

Sunday, 6 October 2013

Practicality of the Church as Mother

[i]When one is little, one sees one’s mother as practically omniscient. It is not out of experimentation that I trusted my mother when she said not to dip my hand in the boiling water, it was because I have always found her to be a reliable source of knowledge. When invariably I tested something my mother had told me, like that the steaming chocolate cake was far too hot to eat, without exception she turned out to be right. Moreover, my mother is a living repository of knowledge: even when my understanding of theoretical physics far surpasses hers, if I want to know what temperature to roast a chicken at, or the smell of cheap hotels in the Soviet Union, I would make haste to ask my mother.

I have learnt to trust my mother, because even when her answers seem perfectly counter-intuitive (indeed, never surprisingly in such cases) her responses to my questions are dependable. These experiences, at least, I share with the great G.K. Chesterton, who shares similar stories in the last chapter of Orthodoxy. After reviewing all sorts of odd doctrines the Church has and finding them to align, upon reflection, most markedly with reality, he draws the point that:

This… is my reason for accepting the religion and not merely the scattered and secular truths out of the religion. I do it because the thing has not merely told this truth or that truth, but has revealed itself as a truth-telling thing. All other philosophies say the things that plainly seem to be true; only this philosophy has again and again said the thing that does not seem to be true, but is true.[1]

If you want to know what insights and facts he found that the Church had revealed to him and had turned out to be true against all odds, you ought to read the book – I have never met anyone who has lamented reading Orthodoxy. It is not my task at present to describe his points in summary, but instead to explain my own relationship to the Church as Mother.

I have learnt to trust Mother Church for precisely the same reason I trust my biological mother: both turn out to be right whenever they speak about their area of expertise. For this reason, I have learnt to trust the Church even when she appears to be in doctrinal error, because it always turns out that she is right and I am wrong.[2] Just like my own mother and the warnings about the cake being too hot to eat, I ignore the Church’s teaching more at my own peril than at hers. It certainly may seem that I am correct in opposing her, but indubitably there comes the time when I realize my error. Rhetorically brilliant counters to her teaching often overlook some crucial piece of data which, when considered, either produces repentance or increased bitterness. The former is appropriate; the latter is dangerous and unfortunately far more common.

Though I have much faith in the teachings of the Church, just like I can have confidence in my mother’s advice, the Church-as-Mother view has recently made me realize something far more interesting: from the fact that I am a child of the Church, and that the Church has other children, it follows that I have siblings – and one thing I have been taught by growing up with a brother is that such a conclusion is as inescapable as it can be unfortunate.

Much as I appreciate my brother most of the time, like any other human, he has faults. He sometimes snores. He wants to play this or that. He acts like he is six even though he is almost sixteen. He shouts across the whole house with no regard to the sleep of others. He is nonetheless my brother, and any plea to deny it would result simply in contradicting reality: I am stuck with him.

In the same way, I am stuck with other annoying Catholics. Were I to be Protestant, I could simply deny the familial bond to anyone outside my church, but if the Church is universal, that is, if the Church is Catholic, her children’s faults are my own family’s faults. Being almost-Catholic for a few months has taught me at the very least that I will not get along very well with a lot of my family – but unlike more fluid churches, in the Catholic Church that means I will have to put up with it. I cannot leave her, because at the end of it all, she is still my Mother.

What conclusion may I draw from this consideration? I must remember the inevitability and finality inherent in the word “brother” and “sister” – they are not terms that I can assign to some people but not to others at whim. Much like biological siblings, the other children of the Church are my own brothers and sisters. I am obliged to recognize this and so treat them accordingly. In fact, just like being true children of Abraham has less to do with the flesh and more to do with imitating his faith, my brothers and sisters in the Church are similarly more my siblings for being in Christ than they ever could be by having inhabited the same womb. This bond is what moves Jesus to say:

            “As you did it to one of these my least brethren, you did it to me.”

[1] Chesterton, G.K., Orthodoxy, Dover Publications, New York, 2004, p. 150.

[2] Doctrinal and moral errors are very distinct – the Church is pure in her teaching, but she is certainly not without sin as a corporate People of God, in her members or in her more structured positions. Indeed, it is the essence of the doctrine of Original Sin that these two are distinct categories: if humans were not sinful, we would not by hypocritical either.

[i] Similar considerations to the ones in this blog post probably apply (in modified form) to God as Father. I have chosen to express it instead in terms of Mother, both to emphasize my relationship with the Magisterial teaching of the Church, in addition to making a more marked point about how even the peskiest member of the Church, even when that member is the priest, bishop or Pope, is not and cannot be grounds for leaving the Church.

Saturday, 28 September 2013

Though I Walk Through (Fortitude) Valley, I Will Fear No Beggar

Written for Social Justice Sunday, 29th of September, 2013 AD.[1]

I get off at the Valley railway station.

[i]It is a Thursday in the evening, as I walk through Brunswick Street to do some errands. People hailing from all parts of the world, particularly the neighbouring East Asian countries, bustle in the walkway going about their daily lives. The night brings people dressed in more expensive clothes, ready to partake in the Valley's night life. Some are wearing more formal dresses and suits, others seem to be going for sexual appeal - all seem to be getting ready for the entertainment the Valley brings.

Except not quite all. Looking a little more carefully at the people not rushing to get somewhere or huddling in large groups, some people are wearing rather inexpensive clothes indeed, perhaps sufficient for warmth in the upcoming months of Australian spring and summer, but barely enough to survive the ending winter. They seem to live on the streets, making surviving off the waste and generosity of others. Or perhaps they do have some accommodation – still, they barely scrape by the day.

One such person walks up to me now, a lady probably in her early-thirties, but looking closer to fifty years old. Her body looks fatigued, but her eyes dart rapidly around, as if she were paranoid about being attacked by someone behind me. We lock eyes and she, after looking at my chest for a split-second, approaches me with a little more energy.

“Spare a few bucks, mate?”

I stopped.


Someone like me gets asked that sort of question around Brisbane daily and probably every other second somewhere in the world. I suspect that anyone reading this has been asked on the street for money – not just by someone busking, but by someone in financial woes.

When I talk to people about the issue of giving money to beggars, or giving alms in language that is more common in the Bible, what the saying that usually pops up is “give a man a fish, and he will eat for a day, teach him how to fish, and he will eat for a lifetime.” That sort of logic seems to me to be correct: giving in a way that produces sustainability is better than giving in such a way that produces dependence.

When Caritas International says something to the same effect, I nod my head. Browsing the financial statement for Caritas Australia, I can see that every cent in produces a cent out in targeted and wise relief and humanitarian aid.[2] However, when I talk to the average person about giving to persons such as the lady that approached me on that Thursday evening, I am more than often talking to someone who justifies not giving fish by fooling themselves that they will teach them how to fish.

The brilliance of using that line is obvious upon a little reflection: one is able to justify to oneself one’s lack of kindness by pretending that one is being truly kind. After all, those darting eyes probably came from spending the last merciful soul’s money on drugs, right? One can rationalize the competing desires to give alms because it seems right, and keeping the money because we like money, by making out that keeping one’s money is actually right! With all one’s generosity, one can now abundantly not give.

The utilitarians can stop reading now. Considering only the outcomes of the action, and given that utilitarians are practically obliged to give away the money anyway, their not-giving is more like the targeted giving of Caritas.[3] Though I used to be a utilitarian, I must say I fell too often into the trap of self-deceit and selfishness. I should have known better than to conjure up a rule that justified my doing what I really wanted to do anyway.

The Christian perspective on giving is dramatically different. Of all the numerous parables, discourses and sayings of Jesus about judgement, caring for those in material need is one of the most prominent: be it caring for Christian brethren in need (such as in Matthew 25), or the poor person in the street (such as the parable of Lazarus and the rich man). In fact, Jesus gives us the very clear command to give to whoever begs from us, right after  talking about turning the other cheek, giving one’s cloak after having one’s coat taken and walking two miles when forced to walk one:

"Give to him who begs from you, and do not refuse him who would borrow from you." (Matthew 5:42 – see comments here)

Anyone who refuses a beggar is, in a very real sense, sinning. But the reason we managed to convince ourselves that we were doing the right thing originally is that there was some truth in the fear that the money would just go towards making the lady’s eyes turn red, and it’s distinctly possible that this will be the case now.

Let me say a few words about people in material need who abuse drugs and alcohol: there may be very few people in the world who have more of an aversion to these two substances than me. For various cultural and personal reasons, substance abuse in all its forms is abnormally repugnant to me. It probably is to them, too. These people often abuse substances because forgetting their woes for a few hours, even a whole day, is often far more exciting a prospect than having some food. Particularly those involved in the sex industry, substance abuse can be the only way to get through the day. More generally to the question “what do you do with your pain?” that I heard asked to a group recently, the response was fairly quick: “get drunk.” Another said “Sex, drugs and rock and roll”. This is not a poor investment for many of them: it is an attempt to remedy something deeper, a reflection of the fact that “man does not live by bread alone.”

Suppose there’s a good chance any money given will be squandered on drugs – then is it OK to ignore the beggar? No. We followers of the Risen Lord have the example of Jesus to model our love on. Consider the recklessness with which Jesus graces us: imagine the angels giving counsel to God, saying “you shall give them the grace to do great things, and they shall squander it with sin!” I cannot speak for anyone else, but when God has given me much, too often I have used it all for my own gain. When, by the sheer love that Christ in his forgiveness has lavished upon me, I am pardoned of all my transgressions, when I am invited to dine with Jesus at the Supper of the Lamb, I frequently decline in favour of wrongdoing. So no, the chance, even a high chance, of misuse is not grounds for Christians to refuse alms.

I would go further and say that even the bank note in my wallet[4] is not mine by right, but instead mine by grace. St John Chrysostom famously said "Not to enable the poor to share in our goods is to steal from them and deprive them of life. The goods we possess are not ours, but theirs." The grace given to me in the form of wealth is in fact a chance to give it away to someone who needs it more. This grace of Jesus is the essence of the Gospel, and grace dies if it is not shared, that is, the Gospel withers in a person if it is not nourished by its proclamation by word and deed.

Money might produce temptation in a drug addict, so if we are fairly certain the person will misuse the funds, then are we justified in not giving? Almost, yet absolutely not. As I said, people in material need rarely take drugs because they are overflowing with cash. It is the rich-though-spiritually-needy who try to fill the holes in the soul with the extravagance of drugs, not the materially needy. So although giving money might produce the temptation which leads to sin – obviously a negative outcome – it is still the lack which ultimately produces the sin. We as Christians are not justified in not giving, now is the moment when we must give the most: now we must give instead our time, energy, mental strength, compassion, and not just our money. For instance, I have at times had the opportunity to go out for lunch and talk – or perhaps just listen – to people who usually get ignored because of the guilt they produce in us.

I, at least, must remember that the added energy that came to the lady after glancing down at my chest came from the hope she saw in the Cross of Christ which I wear around my neck. From there all my hopes come, from there her hope came. I should never disappoint, for I have never been disappointed by God.

[1] My gratitude to Marc who wrote an inspiring piece that I have borrowed in large part and recast as my own here. See his version:

[2] The Caritas Australia financial statement for the financial year ending 2012 can be found starting page 70 here:

[3] For an understanding of why this is the case, see the "Demandingness Objection" - I would have said I was Singerian, though very poorly:

[4] I am, as a university student, not exactly rich anyway, though I have far more than many and my parents provide for all my basic needs. Every so often, though, I do have some spare money in my wallet.

[i] Source for Image:

Sunday, 1 September 2013

Your Father Who Sees You In Secret Will Reward You (Passages from Matthew 6)

After deepening the law to include the fullness of the moral law, Jesus turns now to three traditional forms of piety and condemns their misuse; they are almsgiving, praying and fasting. Chapter 6 thus begins:

Beware of practicing your piety before men in order to be seen by them, for they will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven. (v. 1)

The logic of Jesus’ statement, which he will reiterate for each of the forms of piety, is this: piety is not done for the sake of men, rather for the sake of God. Of what use are these acts if done before men? They bring praise and recognition on the person doing them, which is to completely pervert the true reason for doing them.

Now, what is the true reason for acts of piety? The superficial answer is to get a reward from “your Father who is in heaven,” yet such an answer can easily be misunderstood. One might think that works of piety are a form of coercion of God, as if God were some sort of game-master who gives prizes to good contestants and punishes bad ones – this is far from the truth! We must understand that the use of the term “Father,” prefixed even with the possessive “your” makes this statement a profoundly relational one. We come to our Father as children, glad to give to our fellow siblings, glad to talk to him and give things up for him. Our actions demonstrate a child-like joy in our Father, and the loving reward that he imparts unto us ought to be understood in the context of a relationship between a father and his child – it is not something sought, but something received once again out of joy, whereby the relationship grows once again.

This notion of reward for works may always be a red-light for me, immersed as I am in a profoundly “grace alone” soteriology.[1] I must therefore make even clearer how these works of piety are not done by the merely human will. God does not owe us if we pray, or fast or give alms – we have no right to any reward, for between God and us there is an enormous inequality, for we have received everything from our Creator. In the words of St Augustine of Hippo: “Grace has gone before us; now we are given what is due… Our merits are God’s gifts.” Or the words of the Roman Missal: “You are glorified in the assembly of your Holy Ones, for in crowning their merits you are crowning your own gifts.[2]

These two notes – that the reward should be understood in relational terms, and that the reward is simply the association God freely makes between the works done by God’s grace and us – serve as a solid foundation for continuing on the examine what Jesus says about alms, prayer and fasting.

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. (vv. 2-4)

The grace of God is freely given such that we may properly give alms – but we are only rewarded if we respond to that grace properly. Or more precisely, we must ponder: who do we want to receive the reward from? We may choose to notify hordes of people, and they might see how wonderfully good we have been, and when we are praised by them, we receive the fullness of our reward. Jesus asks us to instead to be God-centred, and so seek the fullness of treasure from God alone: thus, we must not parade our good works for the praise of others, but in secret give alms, almost not even knowing it ourselves, that we may not reward ourselves for our good deeds either. For our Father, who sees in secret, will only then reward us.

And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by men. Truly, I say to you, they have their reward. But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. (vv. 5-6)

Once again, we ought not to display our goodness for the world, but instead be in secret with our Father in prayer. God alone must be the ultimate reason and recipient of prayer, and so to pray in public for the public’s approval is an absurdity of pride. This act showcases, moreover, the objective of piety, which is to build that relationship with God. It is an intimate thing, something to be done most often in private, in secret, much like two lovers that enjoy the secluded time of contemplation of each other. We shall examine the Lord’s prayer in another blog article, but it is important to make note of how prayer can take various forms: contemplative, petitionary, penitent,[3] laudatory, et cetera. Once again, all these must be understood in relational terms: God is the object of our highest love, the one to whom our lives must be orientated.

And when you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by men. Truly, I say to you, they have their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by men but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. (vv. 16-18)

Fasting has a very interesting theology and history within the Jewish and Christian traditions, and it would be difficult to summarize very quickly all the different ways in which fasting is used as a form of piety. It can express dependence on God, penitence, exclusion to prayer, the conscious dethroning of our bellies as gods and idols…many things. Once again, fasting as a pious practice must be done for God and God alone,[4] not done to boost our vainglory.

Whereas almsgiving is intrinsically good, and meritorious when done with the right condition of heart, and as is praying, fasting is a means to an end and can be abused far more than the others. The prophet Isaiah, for instance, calls out the hypocrisy of some Israelites who are using fasting as a means to gain attention, and are displeased when they are unable to coerce God:

Is such the fast that I choose,
a day for a man to humble himself?
Is it to bow down his head like a rush,
and to spread sackcloth and ashes under him?
Will you call this a fast
and a day acceptable to the Lord?

“Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of wickedness,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?

Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover him,
and not to hide yourself from your own flesh?
(Isaiah 58:5-7)

We may draw the threads together as so: God works in hiddenness often, yet sees all. We are to act always out of love for God, and recognize fasting, almsgiving and prayer in their proper place. God’s seeing in secret ensures that we ought not to parade our accomplishments in public, but allow the most important person to see them in secret. It also means that wrongdoing done in secret will also be seen – for those of us who are often deceived that sin done in private is barely sin at all, this commentary on where our good deeds ought to be done also issues a reminder that no place is secret from our heavenly Father, who sees all and judges in righteousness.

Such statements do not negate that we ought to be the light of the world, and not covered or hidden. As the Church of Christ, we are the manifestation of his glory – yet we as individuals ought not receive the praise due to God and God alone.

Before ending, I may also comment on how formulaic these phrases have been. Notice the deep structure in each of these statements – this is no accident. Undoubtedly, the Sermon on the Mount was first transmitted orally, and sentences like these serve as reminders of this – such statements are easily memorized and internalized, especially for heavily oral cultures like the ones that have existed up to fairly recently in human history. If I were attempting to apply historical criticism to these remarks, I think I ought to conclude that these refer to statements only slightly adapted – if at all – from Jesus’ original words. Stylistic differences between the original and that preserved here are most likely simply ones that would make the teaching easier to commit to memory.


[1] Soteriology: the study of salvation. I wish to emphasize the alone – not that other orthodox soteriology is anything other than grace alone, but that for me, the free gift of God must be emphasized above all.
[2] See Catechism, section on merit, CCC 2006-2011. In particular, note the citation of St Thérèse of Lisieux, paragraph 2011.
[3] This is probably the one I have to do most frequently, unfortunately.
[4] Since probably the time of Gandhi, fasting has been used as a political tool for coercion as well as for spiritual and religious practices. Nowadays, “hunger strikes” are a form of protest, often separated for the spirituality that gave birth to the practice of fasting. These are fine in proper context, but I will not be addressing them presently.