The Cheerful Giver is the Righteous Human

24319325696_77e0508aea_nIn the Epistle lesson of 2 Corinthians 9:6-11, St. Paul describes the generous giver, which turns out to be for him identical with a truly righteous person.   His words are something for all believers to consider, for often Christians think of the righteous person as an upright person who avoids sinning and chooses a virtuous way of life.  St. Paul reminds everyone that to truly be righteous one needs to know how to be charitable, generous and cheerful about the giving.  St. Paul’s words are to a large extent him quoting, paraphrasing and/or echoing Old Testament texts.  It is in the Scripture he uses that we really see how St. Paul is describing that the righteous person is a generous person.  Below are St. Paul’s words with the Old Testament texts interspersed to who what he had in mind:

But this I say: “He who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and he who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully.” So let each one give as he purposes in his heart, not grudgingly or of necessity; for God loves a cheerful giver.

Proverbs 22:8-9 in the Septuagint reads:
God blesses a cheerful and generous man . . . He who has compassion over the poor will himself be nourished, because he gave his own food to the poor.

And God is able to make all grace abound toward you, that you, always having all sufficiency in all things, may have an abundance for every good work. As it is written: “He has dispersed abroad, He has given to the poor; His righteousness endures forever.

While God is able to make all grace abound, St. Paul quotes a text (Psalm 112) that refers not to God but to the righteous person:

Praise the LORD. Blessed is the man who fears the LORD, who greatly delights in his commandments! His descendants will be mighty in the land; the generation of the upright will be blessed. Wealth and riches are in his house; and his righteousness endures for ever. Light rises in the darkness for the upright; the LORD is gracious, merciful, and righteous. It is well with the man who deals generously and lends, who conducts his affairs with justice.
For the righteous will never be moved; he will be remembered for ever. He is not afraid of evil tidings; his heart is firm, trusting in the LORD. His heart is steady, he will not be afraid, until he sees his desire on his adversaries. He has distributed freely, he has given to the poor; his righteousness endures for ever; his horn is exalted in honor. The wicked man sees it and is angry; he gnashes his teeth and melts away; the desire of the wicked man comes to nought.

The Lord is gracious, merciful and righteous, but the righteous person is the one who “deals generously and lends“, who gives freely to the poor and needy.  The righteous is not just interested in avoiding sin, the truly righteous is like God in being generous, kind and merciful.  The righteous person isn’t the one who gnashes his teeth when thinking about sinners, but rather is benevolent and hospitable to those who lack clothing, food, or who are homeless or exiles or strangers or refugees.  It is the person who gives to the least of Christ’s brothers and sisters, not the person who judges sinners.

mercytoChrist

Now may He who supplies seed to the sower, and bread for food, supply and multiply the seed you have sown and increase the fruits of your righteousness,

The Prophet Isaiah proclaims (55:6-12) :

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Seek the LORD while he may be found, call upon him while he is near; let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts; let him return to the LORD, that he may have mercy on him, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon. For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, says the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts. “For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and return not thither but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes forth from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and prosper in the thing for which I sent it. “For you shall go out in joy, and be led forth in peace; the mountains and the hills before you shall break forth into singing, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.

God is abundantly merciful and forgiving – God’s mercy are the seeds Go plants in us to accomplish God’s own will.  God’s Word, in Orthodoxy that surely means Jesus Christ, comes into our lives to change us into the human beings God wishes us to be.  Christ tells us to love others as He has loved us.  We are not just to hold onto Christ’s teachings to purify ourselves, we are to bring forth the fruits of repentance, to be able to offer back to God an abundant harvest through our imitation of Christ’s love and mercy.

while you are enriched in everything for all liberality, which causes thanksgiving through us to God.

Proverbs 11:24-28 offers us this wisdom:
One man gives freely, yet grows all the richer; another withholds what he should give, and only suffers want.  A liberal man will be enriched, and one who waters will himself be watered. The people curse him who holds back grain, but a blessing is on the head of him who sells it. He who diligently seeks good seeks favor, but evil comes to him who searches for it. He who trusts in his riches will wither, but the righteous will flourish like a green leaf.

Those who are generous, charitable, hospitable, benevolent, merciful and kind are the very people who are rich in God and will receive the Lord’s blessings – becoming enriched by God.  Not gathering in more possessions, but being blessed in giving all the more.

34358292054_143cd83080_nAnd Jesus said to them, “Take heed, and beware of all covetousness; for a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.” And he told them a parable, saying, “The land of a rich man brought forth plentifully; and he thought to himself, ‘What shall I do, for I have nowhere to store my crops?’ And he said, ‘I will do this: I will pull down my barns, and build larger ones; and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; take your ease, eat, drink, be merry.’ But God said to him, ‘Fool! This night your soul is required of you; and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ So is he who lays up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God.”  (Luke 12:15-21)

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The Gospel or a Prosperity Gospel?

Jesus taught:  “If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you.  If you were of the world, the world would love its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you.  Remember the word that I said to you, ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will persecute you; if they kept my word, they will keep yours also.  But all this they will do to you on my account, because they do not know him who sent me.”  (John 15:18-21)

Biblical scholar Morna D. Hooker comments:

“Contrast with this the promise of one of the [TV] evangelists who is well known to those who are familiar with the North American phenomenon known as “electronic religion”, who every week assures his audience on television and radio: “Something good is going to happen to you today – spiritually, physically, financially.’ It is fairly  easy to see that something is wrong with this message, for what have promises of financial success to do with the Christian gospel? Why should Christians expect material benefit from the gospel? Such promises of physical and financial benefit are crude appeals to self-interest; religion is being sold to viewers as a way to success. Religious men and women will do well because God will reward them. What sort of a gospel is this? Christ died – and I am cured from my cancer. He became poor – and my bank balance gets steadily healthier. He was hung up on a gibbet – and I am a great success.

Now of course this is a travesty of religion – so much so, that we find ourselves amazed that anyone is taken in by it. But perhaps the travesty is only an extreme example of an attitude which is much more marketed in this way, then the Church has totally succumbed to the values of the outside world. Religion is being sold like any other commodity, and the vital question is “What do I get out of it?” But what sort of values should Christians be maintaining – in a world which esteems self-reliance and applauds success? What sort of values should they be maintaining in a world where millions have no hope of being self-reliant or successful?

Christians are no more likely than anyone else to find the solution to problems of inflation and unemployment, injustice and famine. What they can do is to show the relevance of the Christian gospel to all those problems. When the world is divided between rich and poor, prosperous and starving, those with jobs and those without, strong and weak, where should Christians be found? Looking for something good to happen to them, spiritually, physically and financially – or concerned about the welfare of others? Maintaining the rights of the strong, or standing up for the weak? Enjoying the success that has come to them through their own efforts or through good fortune – or identifying with those who have no hope of ever experiencing anything good? (From Adam to Christ, pp. 68-69)

There are many ways we can help victims of the recent hurricanes and earthquakes as well as provide support for future needs of people.  Many organizations do wonderful charitable work to help victims of disasters.  We can help others by donating to  International Orthodox Christian Charities.

Charity: Path to the Kingdom

A worldling who led a very devout life came to see Abba Poemen; there were other brothers there too with the elder, asking to hear a saying. Abba Poemen said to the faithful worldling: “Say something to the brothers,” but he excused himself saying, “I came to learn.” But at the elder’s great insistence he said: “I am a worldling, a greengrocer and a merchant. I buy wholesale and sell retail; I buy cheap and sell for much. I certainly do not know how to speak from Scripture but I will tell you a parable. Somebody once begged his friend, saying: ‘Since I have a desire to see the king, come with me.’

The friend said to him: ‘I will come halfway with you.’ To another friend he said: ‘Come on, you take me to the king,’  but he said to him: ‘I will take you as far as the king’s palace.’ He spoke to a third friend: ‘Come with me to the king,’ and he said: ‘I am coming; I will go to the palace; I will stand and speak [on your behalf] and I will usher you into the king’s presence.’” “What is the meaning of the parable?” they asked him, and he said: “The first friend is spiritual discipline, which leads you halfway; the second is purity, which gets as far as heaven; the third is charitable alms-giving, which brings you confidently before God the king”–and the brothers went their way edified.

(Abba Poemen, Give Me a Word, pp. 245-246).

Charity: The Lenten Discipline

Three great Orthodox saints and teachers offer thoughts that can help us keep Great Lent.    

“Do not consider your riches as belonging to yourselves alone; open wide your hand to those who are in need; assist those in poverty and pain, comfort those who have fallen into extreme distress, console those who are in sorrow or oppressed with bodily maladies and the want of necessities.”  (St. Cyril of Alexandria)

The worst kind of selfishness is not to give transitory things to those who live in poverty.  .  .  .   If you help a poor person in the name of the Lord, you are making a gift at the same time granting a loan. You are making a gift because you have no expectation of being reimbursed by that poor person. You are granting a loan because the Lord will settle the account. It is not much that the Lord receives by means of the poor, but He will pay a great deal on their behalf. They who are kind to the poor lend to the Lord’ (Prov. 19:17).”  (St. Basil the Great)

“Lift up and stretch out your hands, not to heaven but to the poor; for if you stretch out your hands to the poor, you have reached the summit of heaven. But if you lift up your hands in prayer without sharing with the poor, it is worth nothing…Every family should have a room where Christ is welcomed in the person of the hungry and thirsty stranger. The poor are a greater temple than the sanctuary; this altar the poor, you can raise up anywhere, on any street, and offer liturgy at any hour.” (St. John Chrysostom)

(The Pearl of Great Price: The Wisdom of the Fathers of the Holy Orthodox Church, pp. 58-59)

 

 

 

Lenten Images

GOD‑BEARING APOSTLES, CHRIST WHO IS THE VINE BROUGHT YOU FORTH AS CLUSTERS OF GRAPES 

GIVING THE WORLD THE NEW WINE OF SALVATION!

THEREFORE, I ENTREAT YOU, DELIVER ME FROM THE DRUNKENNESS OF SENSUAL PLEASURES; GRANT MY SOUL TEARS OF COMPUNCTION ON THIS HOLY DAY OF THE FAST, THAT I MAY GAIN LIFE AND SALVATION!

The hymns above and below are taken from the Triodion from Thursday, 2nd Week of Great Lent.  Above, the hymn stays with a theme – vine, grape clusters and wine versus drunkenness which are metaphors for Christ, the apostles and salvation/sacrament versus sensual pleasures.  There is a beautiful and natural gift from God to us for our salvation, or we can choose like Adam to use God’s gifts for selfish pleasure rather than for communion with the Creator.

Below the hymn puts forth a theme not overly stressed during Great Lent in the Orthodox Church: repentance isn’t attained only by enumerating our sins in confession.  Rather we can apply ourselves to doing good deeds as a sign that we have repented of our self-centeredness.

IF WE SET OUR HANDS TO DOING GOOD, THE EFFORT OF LENT WILL BE A TIME OF REPENTANCE FOR US, A MEANS TO ETERNAL LIFE, FOR NOTHING QUITE SAVES THE SOUL AS MUCH AS GIVING TO THOSE IN NEED.  ALMS, INSPIRED BY FASTING, DELIVER MAN FROM DEATH. LET US EMBRACE THIS, FOR IT HAS NO EQUAL; IT IS SUFFICIENT TO SAVE OUR SOULS!

The hymn has very strong words in it:   “nothing” does more for our soul than giving charity to the needy!  Rather than obsessing over food during Lent, we should be striving to give to those in need.  We should spend more time and energy on providing for the needy than merely denying ourselves food.  Alms-giving is to be inspired by fasting, but it is the charitable giving not the fasting which deliver us from death for this is true love and obedience to Christ’s commandments.  Giving to charity saves our souls by being the sign we really have turned away from spending money on selfish pleasure and wish rather to love the neighbor in need as the Lord teaches us in the Gospel.  This is the purpose of Great Lent!

Lenten fasting isn’t achieved by providing gourmet Lenten meals or buying more expensive organic foods.  It is rather achieved by spending less time and money on our selves and instead giving that money to the poor.  If you are spending more money on groceries during Lent or spending more time preparing meals, you might have missed the point of Lent:  Spend time and money on the needy.

Caring for the Poor: Lending to God

If, because of one man’s trespass, death reigned through that one man, much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ. Then as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to acquittal and life for all men. For as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so by one man’s obedience many will be made righteous. Law came in, to increase the trespass; but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, so that, as sin reigned in death, grace also might reign through righteousness to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.  (Romans 5:17-21)

Adam, Eve and Jesus
Adam, Eve and Jesus

In Western Christianity there has been endless debate about justification, especially between Reformers and the Roman Catholics but also between various Protestant denominations.  Righteousness and justice are grouped as synonymous terms, often interpreted in a juridical way.  But righteousness can also mean holiness more than legal justice, which seems to me how it is interpreted more in the Orthodox tradition.  Righteousness can also be equated with salvation.  When the first generation of Lutheran Reformers approached Orthodox Patriarch Jeremias to discuss theology, they changed the language in their documents to read “salvation by faith” rather than “justification by faith.”  They were savvy enough to realize this would sound more theological correct to the Orthodox.

Apparently at one time in Judaism, righteousness/ justice was also  used to mean almsgiving/ charity.  Certainly if one reads the New Testament substituting almsgiving for righteousness  we get a totally different view of God and salvation [Try it in the quote above from Romans 5:17-21)].  Biblical scholar Nathan Eubank writes:

“The Ancient rabbis used to tell the story of King Munbaz of Adiabene, a first-century C.E. convert to Judaism, who emptied his storehouses to feed the hungry during a time of famine.  The king’s brothers were outraged and demanded that the king explain why he would throw away the family’s great wealth.  In response, the king argued that by feeding the hungry he had acquired a greater, longer-lasting fortune.  He cited Psalm 89:15 to prove his point: ‘Justice (tsedeq) and judgment are the foundation of  your throne.’  The rabbis commonly understood ‘righteousness’ when it appears in the Hebrew bible to mean ‘almsgiving.’ Read in this light, the psalm seemed to promise that possessions given to the poor would earn treasure in heaven, under the very throne of God.

Jesus speaking with the rabbis
Jesus speaking with the rabbis

 King Munbaz explained: ‘My ancestors stored up treasures below, but I have stored up treasurers above . . . in a place where the hand cannot reach’ (Tosefta Peah 4.18).  According to the rabbis who recorded the tale, this Gentile king learned that the best way to prepare for the future is to give to the needy and be rewarded by God, if not in this life then certainly in the life to come.  The belief that God faithfully repays good deeds has deep roots in the biblical tradition, going back well before the birth of Christianity.  As Proverbs 19:17 puts it, ‘Whoever cares for the poor lends to the Lord, who will pay back the sum in full.‘”  (“The Repayment of Good Deeds in Matthew’s Sermon”, THE BIBLE TODAY, January/February 2017)

The notion that God receives every gift of alms we give to the poor and stores it up for us in heaven was widely believed and taught in the early church and is common sermon fare among the Cappodician fathers.   Whether or not they were familiar with this Jewish tradition, I don’t know, but obviously they came to the same interpretive conclusions about what the Scriptures taught about the importance of charity.

Sometimes philosophers work so hard to get a word to mean  only one thing, so that they can use that word in one and only one way.  Sometimes, to understand the Word of God, we have to move in a different direction, realizing the depth and layers of meaning found in a word or phrase.  Read again St. Paul in the text below putting in almsgiving/ charity where the text says righteous/righteousness.  We begin to hear another message about God which is consistent with the theology that God is love.

Jesus and Moses
Jesus and Moses

But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from law, although the law and the prophets bear witness to it, the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction; since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, they are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as an expiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins; it was to prove at the present time that he himself is righteous and that he justifies him who has faith in Jesus.  (Romans 3:21-26)

Lenten Wisdom

As we continue our sojourn to the Feast of the Nativity of Christ, here are some words from the Old Testament Scriptures for us to consider about how to keep the lenten season.  In America we are moving through the season of family gatherings, dinners, Thanksgiving and Christmas parties, festal baking, spiked eggnogs and punches.  So what should we Orthodox in America be thinking about?

Prayer with fasting is good, but better than both is almsgiving with righteousness.  A little with righteousness is better than wealth with wrongdoing.  It is better to give alms than to lay up gold. For almsgiving saves from death and purges away every sin. Those who give alms will enjoy a full life, but those who commit sin and do wrong are their own worst enemies.  (Tobit 12:8-10)

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Nevertheless, be patient with someone in humble circumstances,
and do not keep him waiting for your alms.
Help the poor for the commandment’s sake,
and in their need do not send them away empty-handed.
Lose your silver for the sake of a brother or a friend,
and do not let it rust under a stone and be lost.
Lay up your treasure according to the commandments of the Most High,
and it will profit you more than gold.
Store up almsgiving in your treasury,
and it will rescue you from every disaster;
better than a stout shield and a sturdy spear,
it will fight for you against the enemy.   (Sirach 29:8-13)

 

Destruction’s Abundant Possessions

And he said to them, “Take heed, and beware of all covetousness; for a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.” And he told them a parable, saying, “The land of a rich man brought forth plentifully; and he thought to himself, ‘What shall I do, for I have nowhere to store my crops?’ And he said, ‘I will do this: I will pull down my barns, and build larger ones; and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; take your ease, eat, drink, be merry.’ But God said to him, ‘Fool! This night your soul is required of you; and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ So is he who lays up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God.”  (Luke 12:15-21)

 

St. Gregory Palamas comments on our heart’s desires:

“We are presupposing a kingdom free from war, which is impossible on earth.  […]  Brethren, I entreat you, let us not prefer darkness to light, the devil to God, that pleasure which is the servant of death and hell to eternal divine joy. Let us not choose destruction’s abundant possessions, which, as the Lord showed us through the parable of the Rich Man (Luke 16:19), are fuel for the flame which eternally burns those who acquired wealth in an evil way, rather than the love that enriches. Instead, let us live as He did, and as He showed and taught us when He was made man. Let us take up our cross and follow Him (Matt. 16:24), having crucified the flesh with its passions and desires (Gal. 5:24), that we may be glorified together with Him (Rom. 8:17), and rise up with Him, and after our resurrection be taken up to Him, as He was taken up today to the Father.” ( Homilies, pp 182-183)

Beginning the Nativity Fast

8062388600_ec433942c7_nNovember 15, 40 days before the Feast of the Nativity of Christ, we Orthodox begin the Nativity Fast.  We find in the Book of Tobit the following wisdom about charity, which is an essential part of any fast, and is much in the spirit of the Christmas season.

“Revere the Lord all your days, my son, and refuse to sin or to transgress his commandments. Live uprightly all the days of your life, and do not walk in the ways of wrongdoing; for those who act in accordance with truth will prosper in all their activities. To all those who practice righteousness give alms from your possessions, and do not let your eye begrudge the gift when you make it. Do not turn your face away from anyone who is poor, and the face of God will not be turned away from you. If you have many possessions, make your gift from them in proportion; if few, do not be afraid to give according to the little you have. So you will be laying up a good treasure for yourself against the day of necessity. For almsgiving delivers from death and keeps you from going into the Darkness. Indeed, almsgiving, for all who practice it, is an excellent offering in the presence of the Most High.” (Tobit 4:5-11)

 

The Church’s Mission is Mercy

 

“Just as God has reached into the heart of death and pain that is part of the human experience of being alive, and has offered its redemptive transfiguration in love through the Cross of the Lord, so too the church, following in the steps of its Lord, is called to meet human suffering with personal courage and communal philanthropy and alleviate the pains of suffering in whatever way it can: physically, morally, or emotionally. This is why the church’s involvement in the social institutions of mercy (hospital and schools) or suffering (prisons and places of enslavement) is a primary element of its mission. Relieving the suffering caused by natural disasters and chronic disease constitutes a major element of the church’s necessary response: a major way of manifesting among society its belief in the glory of the human being as the radiant image of God.”(John Anthony McGuckin, The Orthodox Church, pp 192-193)