February 24, 2013 - Second Sunday in Lent
He liked to buy drinks
for his friends. He wanted to be accepted by other young men who were above him
in social class. So he bought them gifts and paid for expensive parties. It
worked. He became popular and was even seen as the leader of a little band of
party animals with whom he hung out.
I’m talking about St.
Francis of Assisi… before he became a saint. A new biography of Francis tries
to dig into some of the reality behind all the legends which grew up around
him. In the process, the biographer tells us that Francis was generous even before
his generosity became more deep and more holy. Giving was basic to this young
man’s character. It was almost an obsession.
As God began to
wrestle with Francis, he aimed his giving in a different direction. Still at
home and working in his father’s mercantile business, he gave away food and
clothing. He would pull off his shirt and give it to a beggar. He would get his
mother to pile loads of food on the table and then carry it out in the street
to distribute. Once when he was busy in the shop, a poor man came begging and
Francis brushed him off. A few minutes later he felt so bad that he went
running after him to press some money into his hand.
speculates that at that time in his life Francis was probably motivated like
many people in the medieval world and in our own time as well. He was trying to
atone for his sins by his acts of generosity. He gave first to be accepted by
his friends. Then he gave in order to be accepted by God.
started with an ulterior motive. The son of a successful merchant wanted to be
friends with nobility, so he made a show of giving them gifts. When he found
himself wanting to be friends with God, he made a show of giving Him gifts in
the form of kindness to the poor.
At the beginning of Matthew 6, our famous chapter of the Bible today, Jesus has something to say about giving
or any act of piety or holiness that is done as a show. It’s as pitiful as a
young man trying to purchase friendship by buying drinks. It may have some
rewards, but it’s far from the best reward, far from the best way to live.
You may get the
impression that this chapter, this central part of Jesus’ famous Sermon on the Mount,
is just a mishmash. It feels like He hops from one subject to another, just
spinning off whatever comes to His mind. I’ve heard preachers like that, but
that’s not Jesus. There is a theme here, a connection, and that connection
through all of chapter 6 is giving.
Jesus starts, of
course, with what Francis did as a young penitent, the practice of giving alms,
to use the old fashioned word. By a long chain of transitions in pronunciation,
the word “alms” derives from the Greek word used here, which means something
like “acts of mercy.” Jesus pictured a person who made a big show out of giving
gifts to the poor.
As far as we can tell
historically, no one ever actually did what Jesus imagines here, going out and
blowing a trumpet to announce he was about to place a coin in the hand of a
beggar. No, it’s a sarcastic exaggeration of the attitude of a person who does want everyone to know that he is making such a gift, whether it’s by some
flamboyant act in public or by telling anyone who cares to listen about how
much and how often he gives.
Instead of that
hypocrisy, which is literally a kind of play-acting at doing what is good,
Jesus called for giving to be done quietly, even secretly, hiding even from
ourselves the good deed being done. “Do not let your left hand know what your
right hand is doing,” means that we not only do not seek congratulations from
others for our generosity, but that we do not even congratulate ourselves.
Instead, we seek God’s approval.
Jesus went on to say
the same thing about prayer and fasting. He picked up the three main practices
of Jewish religion: almsgiving, prayer and fasting. The same practices figure
prominently in other religions. They are the center three of the five “pillars”
of Islam, the cardinal duties of every good Muslim. Whether it’s Islam or
Buddhism or Hinduism or Christianity, giving, prayer and fasting are what holy
As I quoted from John
Wesley last week about fasting, Jesus just assumed here that His followers
would do these things. Jesus did not say, “If you give…,” or “If you
pray…” He said “when” you give or pray or fast, here is the spirit in
which you are to do it. It’s the spirit previewed in verse 1. Don’t do it as a
show before other people. Do these things to be blessed and rewarded by God.
What I came to realize
as I read this whole chapter as a unit and tried to see how it all fit together
is that the rest of it, everything Jesus says here, is about becoming the kind
of person who is seeking God’s reward and only God’s reward. He is telling us
what we need to learn in order to become good givers rather than people
who do things like giving or praying because we want to be liked or even
because it’s our duty.
Matthew 6 is all aimed at the cultivation of a genuine spirit of generosity, at becoming
people who are able to give freely and unselfconsciously, out of love for God
and love for others. It’s a way of life by which we become more like Jesus,
more like God.
Wanting to be like God
feels more than presumptuous. It feels blasphemous, the epitome of arrogance.
Yet over and over Scripture asks for that to be our aim. Jesus asks that. Right
before our text, in the last verse of chapter 5, He told us, “Be perfect,
therefore, as your Father in heaven is perfect.” Chapter 6 is just telling us
how to do that.
The rewards Jesus
talks about here, as He asks us to practice our piety with an eye to God, are
not things like popularity or success in business or, as a few of us heard
Thursday night, a life free from suffering. No, the reward that comes from God
is a life like God’s. The reward is knowing how to give, and in giving to
become truly blessed and truly happy.
One of the few sayings
of Jesus found outside the four gospels is in Paul’s last message to the elders
of the church in Ephesus in Acts 20. He concluded the story of his ministry by
quoting Jesus in Acts 20:35 saying, “It is more blessed to give than to
receive.” That was the aim of Paul’s whole life. He caught and lived by what
Jesus taught us right here in Matthew 6. He sought blessedness and happiness
that came from learning to give.
That same lesson is
learned by every good follower of Christ. Francis became Saint Francis
as he learned it. His acts of generosity came less out of a need to demonstrate
something and more out of a simple spirit of love and generosity. One of the
pivotal moments of his life was when he took off not only his shirt, but all
his clothes and gave them away to a beggar, putting on the poor man’s thin,
ragged tunic. G. K. Chesterton said about Francis that, “He was above all
things a great giver…”
You may be wondering
how prayer and fasting fit into this. At first blush they don’t seem to be
about giving, but they are. The first thing Francis did while wearing that
beggar’s rags was to go to a little church and pray. What Jesus says about
prayer and fasting is here to help mold us into givers.
In verses 5 and 6
Jesus said about prayer something similar to what He said about almsgiving.
Don’t pray for show, to impress others. Then He expands His thoughts on prayer
and in verses 9-13 gives us what we call the Lord’s Prayer. Not much about
giving it seems. But look at how Jesus introduced His model prayer. In verse 7
He warns against praying with heaps of words and empty, flowery phrases. And
then in verse 8 tells us not to do that, why? Because “your Father knows what
you need before you ask him.”
So much of our praying
is about what we need. And Jesus tells us not to worry so much about that. Our
Father knows. He doesn’t need a long, eloquent shopping list from us in order
to take care of our needs. He knows and is ready to provide. And if we have
what we need, then we will also be equipped to share with those who are in
It happens that way
even on the spiritual level. As we pray for our forgiveness, trusting that God
will give it, Jesus tells us to be ready to offer forgiveness to others. Even
in the way we pray, we are preparing our hearts to give.
We spoke about fasting
last week, so I won’t say much more about it other than to note that both last
week’s text from Joel 2 and part of this chapter from Matthew are readings for
Ash Wednesday. My son-in-law noted the incongruity between Jesus telling us in
verse 16 not to be like hypocrites who “disfigure their faces” when they are
fasting and putting ashes on our foreheads on that Wednesday evening. Aren’t we
doing the opposite of what Jesus said when He told us to make a secret of our
No, not if displaying
the ashes is not the point. We don’t wear them so others will congratulate us
on our spiritual discipline. We wear them to remember that we are dust, to
remember what fasting is supposed to teach us. We came into this life with
nothing and we will carry nothing out of it. We remind ourselves how material
things disintegrate and we give up some of those things in order to rememberthey
are not what we need most.
And if we can do
without food or some other pleasure for a little while, then we will be that
much more ready to let go, to give them away for God’s service, to someone else
who needs them more. Ashes and fasting are a spiritual discipline which lead
straight to the teaching in verses 19 through 21, “Do not store up for
yourselves treasures on earth…, but store up for yourselves treasures in
Once again, this is
about giving. It’s not about earning spiritual mileage rewards for every prayer
you offer or church service you attend. As Jesus makes clear in verse 21, it’s
about what we do with our treasure, with our money and possessions. We miss
this sometimes because in thinking about giving we get verse 21 turned around.
We imagine that what Jesus said was “Where your heart is, there your treasure
will be also.”
In other words, we get
the idea Jesus wants our money to follow our hearts. So churches and other
organizations raise money by plucking your heart strings. Bring tears to your
eyes with pictures of hungry kids, or homeless puppies. Tell you moving stories
of villages that need clean water or young people longing for a school in their
community. That’s all good. But the idea is to get your heart there and then
your giving will follow.
Jesus said to give first.
Put your treasure where God wants it to be. Put it in the service of heaven’s
work. Then your heart will follow. Give and put what you have where God
wants it. After that you will start feeling in your heart the importance of
what God is doing. Don’t wait for some preacher or fund raiser to move your
heart. Move your money to where it’s needed and your heart will come right
Paul said all this in
our lesson from Philippians 3. He talked about people who never learned to
fast, “whose god is the belly.” “Their minds,” he explained, “are set on
earthly things.” But we Christians, says Paul, know that “our citizenship is in
heaven.” That’s where we are putting our treasure. That’s our eternal
In the Old Testament
language of Proverbs, it wasn’t the heart that moved giving, it was the eye. It
isn’t how you feel but how you see that makes you generous. That’s why verses
22 and 23 fit in here. They aren’t off topic. Jesus was still talking about
giving. In English, Proverbs 23:6 talks about people who are “stingy,” but
literally they are people with an “evil eye.” Likewise in Proverbs 28:22 we hear the word “miser,” but it’s a man whose eye is evil. Conversely, in Proverbs 22:9, the blessing on those who are “generous,” is literally “He who has a good
eye is blessed, because he shares his bread with the poor.”
In light of those
verses from Proverbs, Matthew 6:22 and 23 make perfect sense. A good, healthy
eye, a generous spirit, brings health to your whole being. On the other hand,
an unhealthy, evil eye, a closed-in, selfish spirit, leaves your whole being in
the dark. And the darkness of selfishness, says Jesus, is great darkness.
Verse 24 tells us that
ultimately the question of giving is really about whom we are serving. Is our
master God or is it money? If you can’t walk away from someone or something,
then it has a hold on you. It has power over you. If we can’t let go of our
money, if we can’t give it away, then money is in control of us, whether or not
we know or admit it.
In the end, says
Jesus, the aim for us is to cultivate a spirit, a life in which we let God be
our Master, in which we trust in God by giving away at least some of what we
have rather than trusting in what we have. That’s why the closing word of this
chapter on giving starts out in verse 25, “Therefore I tell you, do not worry
about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body,
what you will wear.”
It can feel really
hard to have the attitude Jesus talks about here, to be like the birds of the air
and the lilies of the field, just trusting God and accepting whatever He does
or does not give us. All kinds of things raise our anxiety, make us worry.
We talked to our
daughter Joanna on Thursday and I couldn’t quite enjoy the conversation because
I was worried about money. She wanted to do her own tax return and I wanted to
make sure she was doing it right. She talked about moving off campus next year
and I was wondering how that would affect financial aid and what it would cost,
not to mention whether it would be safe.
My precious child was
sitting there excited about what was happening in her life, about her upcoming
study in China, about her work this summer, about her relationship with a guy
who obviously cares about her. All I could do was worry about her basic needs.
What I should have
realized then and do now is the truth about God which Jesus taught us through
flowers and birds. If a flawed human being like me cares so much about the
needs of my child, how much more does our perfect and generous heavenly Father
care about us His children? Won’t He take care of everything you and I need and
more? If we can only remember that, then we will be as free as the birds, and
able to give.
It takes practice.
That’s why almsgiving and prayer and fasting are spiritual disciplines. If we
get out of practice, or if we never have begun, it’s harder. I hadn’t played
racquetball for about six weeks. Then I went and played a match on Thursday. I
woke up Friday stiff and sore in muscles I hadn’t used for too long. The
spiritual muscles we use for giving are like that. If your church and
missionaries and those in need seem to ask for you to give all the time, it’s
only because you need to regularly exercise your “generous maximus” if
you don’t want to end up with a stiff and sore spirit every time you open your
purse or wallet for God.
Francis learned and
practiced this lesson his whole life. The biographer tells how even near the
end, when he was sick, he gave away his coat yet again to a beggar. His
followers were worried that he needed it to stay warm. So they went to the
beggar to get it back. Francis insisted that they take money and pay the man to
give back the coat he had received for nothing. That’s a good eye. That’s
seeing life the right way.
You get it, I believe.
Last Sunday you filled up a box with coats and socks and hats for people who
have none. Every Sunday you make offerings that light this room and warm
classrooms where children learn about Jesus. Many of you support missionaries
or Food for Lane County or a child in another country. You know by experience
and practice that it is more blessed to give than to receive. May that blessing
and a deep sense of God’s care for you fill your life as you give.
If you haven’t tried
it, then I invite you to discover what Jesus was talking about, what Francis
found, what many people here have learned. There is a deep and abiding joy in
giving away what you have. It starts by giving your life to Jesus Christ in
trust and faith and it just goes on and grows from there.
G. K. Chesterton told
how St. Francis died. When he knew his time was near, he took off his clothes
one last time and laid down on bare ground to wait for God. And Chesterton
writes that when the stars passed over him dying there they “had for once, in
all their shining cycles round the world of labouring humanity, looked down
upon a happy man.” That happiness, that blessing, belongs to anyone who trusts Jesus and lives a
life like Jesus lived, giving whenever you can.
Valley Covenant Church
Copyright © 2013 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj