March 2022

March 2022

The Lenten Disciplines: Almsgiving, Prayer, and Fasting

Every Ash Wednesday, we read from St. Matthew’s Gospel, Chapter 6, which is a selection from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. There, Jesus warns against hypocritical fasting. The reason this Gospel Lesson is read at Ash Wednesday is that, historically, the season of Lent, which begins on Ash Wednesday, was kept as a time of special, rigorous fasting, and the church leadership wanted to be sure that such fasting was done in the right Christian spirit.

But fasting is only a part of the special Lenten discipline, and Jesus’ section on fasting is only a part of His larger discourse on Christian disciplines. Before speaking about fasting, Jesus speaks in Matthew 6 about almsgiving and prayer. Let’s consider each of these three disciplines in light of what Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount, all under the guidance of Jesus’ introductory statement: “Beware of practicing your righteousness before men in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven” (Matt. 6:1). As we consider these disciplines, note how Jesus uses the same phrasing for each topic: “When you ___,” don’t do it “like the hypocrites,” because the reward they’re looking for is to be admired by men, but the reward you should be looking for is to please God.

Almsgiving. In Matthew 6:2–4, Jesus warns, “When you give to the needy [KJV: when thou doest thine 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 received their reward. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”

Almsgiving means giving to the poor. It comes from the Greek word for “mercy.” Almsgiving is distinct from the regular church offering. Our offerings go to support the ministry of the Word in our midst and involves things like providing for our pastor and maintaining our building. Almsgiving is support for those in need. The historical standard was to give ten percent of your income each for your offering and for alms. My own recommendation is that you maintain your own household “alms fund,” so that when opportunities to give arise, you will have funds at the ready and won’t have to scramble to find something to give. That way, you can truly give without your left hand knowing what your right hand is doing. The idea is for your almsgiving to be completely selfless, so that the only benefit you derive from it is the commendation of your heavenly Father.

Prayer. In Matthew 6:5–6, Jesus warns, “When you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and on the street corners, that they may be seen by men. Truly, I say to you, they have received 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.”

Prayer should be a regular part of the daily Christian life, but during Lent, we have the opportunity to focus on starting new habits or deepening the ones we already have. I encourage that you maintain a written list of people you’re praying for, and update it as their conditions develop. Set aside a special time every day for such prayer. It doesn’t have to be fancy. Consider simply reading the names before God and concluding, “Lord, have mercy.” The Holy Spirit will prompt you to add more if that is what God desires of you.

Fasting. In Matthew 6:16–18, Jesus warns, “When you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by men. Truly, I say to you, they have received 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.”

In many historic Christian churches, fasting means abstaining from certain kinds of foods, particularly meat or desserts. But in antiquity, including during Jesus’ earthly life, fasting meant forgoing all food altogether. I would encourage you this Lent, if your health allows, that you set a day each week to skip a meal. I myself do pretty well not eating breakfast, so it works to delay eating until a simple supper late in the day. Whatever you do, don’t tell people that you’re doing it, unless you’re looking for advice or support. Your goal is to train your body to do without earthly goods and recognize the importance of the spiritual goods that God gives in His Word: “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matt. 4:4, quoting Deut. 8:3).

Note finally that each of these disciplines are things that Jesus expects us Christians to be doing. He says not, “If you give alms, pray, or fast,” but “When you give alms, pray, and fast.” Let’s take advantage of this Lenten season to practice these forms of divinely approved righteousness, so that we will be better able to perform them in the right Christian spirit all year round.

God's Blessings!

Pastor Neuendorf

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