It’s the most wonderful time of year. (Thank you Andy Williams)
And it’s true.
For most, this is a time of joy. The birth of Christ is one of the biggest and joyous celebrations that our church has.
But with great power, comes great responsibility.
This time of happiness can often lead to more in sadness and depression.
For those experiencing that pang of loneliness, it tears into the heart. No matter how hard you try, you aren’t good enough for the life you’re living.
Last year I worked for FOCUS Pittsburgh, an Orthodox non-profit helping those in need attain and maintain a better life. During this holiday season, the clients (as well as our staff) felt the strain of the holiday season.
Money was always short. Crime went up. The homicide and suicide rates even went up.
There was a certain tense air surrounding us during this time.
As someone who gets the annual strain of holiday depression, I related with the people next to me more than usual.
There was one solution to the loneliness and emptiness: community.
For that reason, parishes in the area came through to be with those in need. A Roman Catholic parish came in for their annual coat drive, bringing dozens of families. Every Wednesday, a different local Orthodox parish would come and serve a meal.
A plate of food carried a conversation about past Christmases. A walk up the stairs was a chance to encourage each other to get through the holiday season.
Community is a physical representation of the love of Christ. It’s a real tangible thing, being around people who care, love and find happiness in this unity.
Being with those you love (and you know love you back) is what most of us tend to do each holiday season.
But there is nothing more powerful and strengthening than sitting next to a total stranger and breaking bread together. Nothing.
It just serves as a reminder that Christ loves us. He always has, and he always will. If we genuinely believe that he does, why do we close our doors to our brother who knocks?
A friend of ours told us last week that she listens to and enjoys the podcast. She said that she used to be quite involved with serving those with material needs, but began to question her motives. She felt that God wanted her to step back from some of her service activities, but is thinking that maybe it’s soon time to re-engage. Thanks, friend, for your comments, and for listening to the Lord. Obedience is better than sacrifice, as the Scripture says.
So, just as our friend questioned her reasons for serving, we also wonder about our motives for giving, and for even doing our blog and podcast. This week, we’re going to talk about motives for serving others and giving generously, specifically the issue of doing charitable works to impress others vs. doing them in secret.
There are a few verses that come to mind.
“Take heed that you do not do your charitable deeds before men, to be seen by them. Otherwise you have no reward from your Father in heaven. Therefore, when you do a charitable deed, do not sound a trumpet before you as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may have glory from men. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward. But when you do a charitable deed, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, that your charitable deed may be in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will Himself reward you openly.” (Matthew 6:1-4)
It seems pretty obvious from these verses that it’s wrong to give charitably when you might be seen. It’s better not to serve or give at all than to risk being noticed, right? Well, maybe not quite. Let’s not let the fear of being seen keep us from doing good works.
Indeed, did not Christ say, “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.” Matthew 5:16
St. John Chrysostom addresses this in his commentary on 2 Corinthians, “when you do it not for display before men; though the whole world has seen, none has seen, because you have so done it. For He said not simply, Do it not before men, but added, to be seen of them.”
I heard a lovely explanation of the "do it in secret" mentality on the Tending the Garden podcast on Ancient Faith Radio in their episode about St. Nicholas.
When the hypocrites give, they seek glory from men. They have chosen their reward. I love the way that Christ presents the reward here — there’s really no punishment, God isn’t penalizing anyone. There’s simply a bunch of rewards for good works, and you can choose one.
Some people choose to do good works so that they can have glory among men. And that’s fine — they’ve done a good thing, they’ve received appropriate glory. Done and done. They wanted the glory, and they got it. All is well.
The trouble is that they have chosen a temporary reward. They have chosen glory among men. Now, at best, that could last for your lifetime here on earth. Once you die, that glory is finished really. You can’t collect it anymore. And of course, as we all know, fame and fortune and glory among men are fleeting — the crowd is fickle. One moment, they love you for your generosity, but the next moment, they love the next guy. They might even turn on you if you run out of money or if your generosity dries up. Glory among men is a temporary reward, but if that’s the reward you want, God will allow you to choose it.
So, while it may be better to give in secret, there’s nothing wrong with being seen.
Since in this blog and podcast we talk about the first and second liturgies, it’s also interesting to know that just a few verses later in the book of Matthew, Christ says, “And when you pray, you shall not be like the hypocrites. For they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the corners of the streets, that they may be seen by men. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward. When you pray, go into your room, and when you have shut your door, pray to your Father who is in the secret place; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly.” (Matthew 6:6) With the development of the cycle of liturgical services, corporate prayer is kind of a big deal. Do we stay home from liturgy because we don’t want people to see us praying outside of our closed room? In the same way, we shouldn’t stay away from public acts of charity when we have the opportunity to do so.
St. Paul ran into the topic of motives for the preaching of the Gospel. He wrote, “Some indeed preach Christ even from envy and strife, and some also from goodwill: The former preach Christ from selfish ambition, not sincerely, supposing to add affliction to my chains; but the latter out of love, knowing that I am appointed for the defense of the gospel.What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is preached; and in this I rejoice, yes, and will rejoice.” Philippians 1:15-20
So, perhaps we don’t need to wait until our motives are 100% pure before doing any good deed, whether praying, preaching, or doing works of charity.
St. Paul, in his famous letter to the Corinthians, wrote, “And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor... but have not love, it profits me nothing.” (I Corinthians 13:3)
I’ve always read this verse to mean that it would be useless for me to do any charitable works if I wasn’t positive that I was doing it out of love. However, there’s a twist to this verse that I noticed recently. Maybe there’s a different meaning in the Greek (and I welcome the scholars to help us out to better understand this). The verse ends with “if I have not love, it profits me nothing.” So, in order to profit, I need to have love. But if I am doing it in a way to make sure I profit, doesn’t it then become about me rather than love for God and the one I am serving?
Let’s wrap this up with a quote from St. Ambrose of Optina, “If you find that there is no love in you, but you want to have it, then do deeds of love, even though you do them without love in the beginning. The Lord will see you desire and striving and will put love in your heart.”
So, let’s obey the commands of Christ to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the sick and the prisoners; let’s sell what we have and give to the poor; let’s love our neighbors as ourselves, whether or not we feel like we have achieved 100% love and even if we have some doubt about our motivations.
Let’s strive for love!
Final thought: I guess the only time we shouldn’t give and serve charitably is in the situation of our friend who we mentioned earlier, when the Lord asked her to step back from certain activities for a time.
In Sunday’s gospel, we heard the story of the blind man who shouted out to Jesus for mercy (Luke 18:35-43). Our priest then delivered a sermon on this story. The crowds of people rebuked the man, telling him to be silent. Why? His outcry was, in the words of our priest’s homily, “gumming up the works” of the throngs who were on their way to Jerusalem. These people were headed there, because it was where they supposed that Jesus was soon going to be crowned king. Now wasn’t the time to be distracted from their important procession, especially by a loud and obnoxious beggar trying to get their attention. The crowds had more important things to do. But Jesus heard the cries for help, recognized the human need, entered into a conversation with the man, and healed him.
As our priest said, before we come down too hard on the crowds, consider how many times we are too busy to take notice and help a homeless person on the corner, or to rake leaves or shovel snow for a neighbor in need. How many times do we march on with our plans, shushing the voices of the marginalized crying out for help?
And what happens when we choose to avoid areas where there is great human need? It’s easier to drive through the nice neighborhoods, select school districts that aren’t brought down by poverty, build our churches in safe suburbs. If we move far enough away from the shouts, we might successfully be able to pretend that need doesn’t exist. Not to mention that many people living in need have already been shushed and no longer know how or where to turn. Maybe there are people (with obvious needs or not) who have attended our churches whose voices (shouting or not) weren’t heard or welcomed, and have been shushed.
Like the four friends who ripped off a roof and lowered their hurting friend down to Jesus for healing, sometimes we need to be the advocates for those who can’t get close because of the crowds. We can be the ones to stop the mad rush of busyness and misplaced priorities. We can stand next to the blind man and join him in shouting to get the attention of those who can help, “Have mercy!” Sometimes we need to gum up the works.
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We love hearing from you! We recently received a question from one of our listeners:
“I'm enjoying your podcast and especially as new convert to Orthodoxy would be interested in resources to deepen my understanding and practice of actively caring for the poor. Are there certain books or other resources that you recommend? Thanks for all your efforts to educate and stretch us toward compassion.”
This is an excellent question and one that we are asking all of our readers and listeners to help us answer. We’re planning to add a Resources section at our website, and ask you all to send us your suggestions. What books and other resources have encouraged and challenged you to active compassion for those with materials needs? Use the contact form at our website, www.thesecondliturgy.com, or contact us via Facebook or Instagram. Thank you!