Tag Archives: almsgiving

Leaven & Lenten Practice (March 2013 Newsletter Pastor’s Corner)

leaven iconThis articles owes a debt to an article in Touchstone – Dylan Pahman’s The Yeast We Can Do. Unfortunately right now it is behind the paywall. You could always subscribe.

He told them another parable. “The kingdom of heaven is like leaven that a woman took and hid in three measures of flour, till it was all leavened.”Matthew 13:33
Jesus said to them, “Watch and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees.”Matthew 16:6

Yeast or leaven must be one of the most powerful metaphors in the bible. It is used both as a parable for the Kingdom itself, and for the forces that oppose the kingdom. If I were the disciples I might have asked Jesus to stop and tell us which. You can’t have it both ways. Nevertheless, I think there is a common thread in both cases that Jesus was calling to the disciples’ attention. It only takes a small amount of something compared to yeast to make or ruin the entire creation.

Passover, the Jewish festival that Holy Week fulfilled, contains an interesting additional law and practice. The Jews were commanded to eat unleavened bread. We know this from Exodus with the comment that it is bread made in haste. But the standing law given for Passover for succeeding generations was that for seven days they should eat unleavened bread, and on the first remove all leaven from the house. Anyone caught eating leavened bread would not just be ceremonially unclean for the Passover, but would be “cut off from Israel”. (Exodus 12:15) The old housewives’ tale is that this is the origin of “spring cleaning”. The Rabbis, thinking like Eve in the garden and observing the severity of the penalty, have erected even higher walls. To avoid even the slightest possibility of owning leaven under their roof, some Jews will sell their household for a day to a trusted agent buying it back after the Passover. The law always encourages following the letter and not the spirit.

Coming into Christianity, the ritual laws were no longer binding. The Passover week became Holy Week. The Christian’s preparation became the 40 days of lent. And the historic practices of lent were: prayer, fasting and almsgiving. One of the Desert Fathers, Evagrios, made the connection between good leaven and bad leaven. Reflecting on 1 John 2:16 – “For all that is in the world– the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride of life– is not from the Father but is from the world” – he called out gluttony, avarice and pride as the “frontline demons”. These were the bad yeast to watch for. When simple gluttony held sway, it would not be long before lust would follow. The person given to greed is easily swayed by wrath and envy. Whatever you might think of Evagrios’ progression of sin built around the seven deadly sins, the metaphor of leaven makes sense. It is certainly easier to laugh off a small indulgence. It is a lifetime of laughing off small indulgences that builds to greater sins and ruin of the entire life. A lifetime of disrespecting the Word is built upon that Sunday where sleeping in just felt better. A deathbed of terror and not knowing what to say is constructed from a lifetime of neglecting even our bedtime prayers.

Looking at the Sermon on the Mount and specifically Matthew 6, Evagrious countered that bad leaven with what he put forward as the good. Jesus there recommends direct almsgiving in private where the Father issues the reward. He follows that with the teaching of the Lord’s Prayer which in Matthew he precedes with “go into you private closet”. Like yeast, you don’t see this working publically. And following that prayer, Jesus issues the expectation to fast. Also in secret, adding “when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face”. The Lenten practices of almsgiving, prayer and fasting are connected as the small things that counteract those frontline demons of avarice, pride and gluttony. The greedy are called to give it away, the prideful to bend the knee in prayer, the gluttonous to fast for a time.

The Church Fathers were much more comfortable than most Lutheran ministers with directing works. But truth be told, so was Jesus. And there is definitely a way that these things can be made into a new law. When almsgiving, prayer and fasting would become the outward magic that we never let touch our hearts, we are being as pharisaical as selling our possessions for a day. These things become the metaphor for the Kingdom when we allow them to work on us, when that Spirit kneads into our heart the message of the gospel. Because we have received mercy, we are able to be merciful. Because Christ is our mediator, we can call God our Father. Because we have the promise of the Kingdom and the New Jerusalem, this world and its kingdoms’ glory can be turned away. Our abundance and our food comes not from mere bread.

Our faith, our families, our congregations, and our society might seem very brittle because we have not kneaded that lump of dough. We’ve let the leaven of the Kingdom sit on the surface. We’ve foresworn the spiritual practices in our lives. As James says, “be doers of the Word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks intently at his natural face in the mirror. For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like.” (James 1:22-24) Jesus might put it somewhat differently, “some seed fell on hard packed ground where it was quickly devoured”. (Luke 8:5) Working the leaven through the dough, preparing the soil, changing the hard heart is not magic. It is like leaven. It starts small, and then works throughout the dough.

Spiritual Practices #3

When we talk about Spiritual Practices I can think off of the top of my head of at least three different takes on this:
1) Acts of Mercy. Dr. Beck captures this very well here and here. Another way to view these might be the St. Therese’s ‘little way’. If I live a life of mercy, of seeing Christ in those I serve, I am constantly in the presence of God. Not a bad way to live life. The basis here is Matt 25:31-46 which is the scene of the last judgement.

2) Evangelical Counsels. This is a very old Catholic understanding and the basis of monasticism getting its start from Matt 19:21 in what Jesus says to the Rich Young Man. The RYM says he has kept the commandments. Jesus says if he wants to be perfect go sell everything. The counsel taken by the monastics is a life of poverty, chastity and obedience. These are not placed on everyone in Catholic teaching. In Lutheran teaching these are dangerous. The Augsburg Confession in Article 27 on Monastic Vows gives the Lutheran warning and rejection. But, you might hear people putting these forward.

3) Prayer, Fasting, Almsgiving. This is what I’m going to concentrate on. As we’ve developed this it comes from Matt 6 and the sermon on the mount. At this point in the sermon on the mount we’ve been told we are part of the Kingdom in the beatitudes and then we’ve heard the law in its amplified form. Each one of those should send up back to that first beatitude – blessed are the poor. But what is the way forward, or how do we persevere in the sanctified life?

Matt 6:1-4 Jesus talks about almsgiving or charity to the needy. One comment here – you can probably view this in a large sense as a practice of mercy. All of the items in that last judgement scene could be read into the care for the needy which goes above and beyond simple duty. Jesus issues a warning – “beware of practicing your righteousness before others”. First we can take from that warning that he expects us to practice righteousness. Second that righteousness can be practiced in giving to the needy – acts of mercy. The warning assumes a positive.

The warning itself talks about the attitude of our heart. If we are doing the acts of mercy to be seen doing the acts of mercy – we’ve already received the reward. The core of a Spiritual Practice is that it is something that connects us to God; it is in the vertical dimension. For acts of mercy to be communion with God we need to see Christ in those we serve. If our gaze is away from Christ or attempting to see something other than Christ present, we have lost the Spiritual Communion of the practice. Not that the act isn’t a worthy act, but the attitude of the heart is off for a Spiritual Practice.

If the attitude is correct, “your Father who sees in secret will reward you”. The reward is simply the presence of God. In doing these acts out of love for God we are acting in Christ – we are living out of the Gospel. We are persevering, and it is God’s presence that enables that perseverance. We are persevering because this is a fulfilling of the law, a fulfilling of how God intended His people to live.

In the next post I’ll look at Matt 6:5-14 which is Jesus on prayer as a Spiritual Practice.

NPR, IRS, Mormons, Tithing & God…is there a hot point missing

Here is the link to the actual story and the radio version.

This was a great news clip. One thing that kept running through my head was that the Mormon faith in the USA is roughly 3.2 Million people. For comparison the LCMS is roughly 2.5M, Methodist 11M, Baptist 36M, Roman Catholic 57M. How does a group of people who are roughly the same size as the LCMS have such a strong influence on the culture such that two representatives were running for President and their charity is widely known even in the relatively naked public square of NPR?

From the conclusion of the piece…

They would pay a full tithe on the profit when they sold a stock. Yet, if they dumped a stock for a loss, they wouldn’t use the loss to offset and lower the income they tithed on. Unlike taxpayers, the Mormons in the study weren’t big fans of taking deductions so they could send less money to the church.

“They’re worried about being petty with God,” Dahl says.

I asked a Mormon bishop in Salt Lake City if a few more rules defining income might make tithing easier on Mormons or bring in more money for the church. He said all this soul-searching about what you owe God is kind of the point

One of the old christian faith’s practices of lent was almsgiving. That was a practice beyond the tithe. It was direct charity to the less fortunate usually. Ultimately is was a practice that spoke to a recognition of the 10,000 talents. (Matt 18:24) There are plenty of people who would look at the mormon tithe and the question of being petty with God and scream legalism or works righteousness as if they were attempting to buy salvation. Instead it might not be a bad question for lent. In light of the cross, how are we being petty with God? Maybe the LDS are a mirror to our Christian practice. What we give to God doesn’t buy us salvation, but it is a first look at how we value that grace. It is cheap, or costly?