I have been emphasizing throughout Lent that the spiritual discipline necessary to conform our hearts to the Sacred Heart of Jesus Christ is something of a “three-legged stool.” That is, just as you can’t sit on a stool with only one or two legs but need all three legs to balance, you can’t have a fruitful spiritual life without all three practices of prayer, fasting and almsgiving.
We tend to focus on the first two and ignore the “almsgiving” – beyond maybe giving a few bucks to our favorite charity or to the diocesan appeal. So it is important to note what the Church has in mind when it comes to giving alms.
The goal of almsgiving is not just to share our financial wealth – although that is often a necessary part of it. It is rather to learn to love others as Christ Himself did and to minister to their needs.
Our deepest need is to love God and know that we are loved by Him. However, on the way to getting there – we will certainly encounter many people who are “stuck” in a lower level of need, who won’t be able to advance to that higher level until their physical or emotional needs or met. Many feel forgotten and alone – whether they are in a prison, hospital bed, shut-in in their homes, or other difficult circumstances. Those who are seriously ill often have a hard time focusing on anything more than their physical pain which seems to consume them. For this reason, the Church has from the beginning sought to care for the sick, just as Our Lord Himself did when He walked the earth in His public ministry, as the Gospels relate, healing and ministering to countless sick and suffering.
I am always moved by St. Matthew’s account, for example, of Jesus healing multitudes of the sick:
Great crowds came to Him, bringing with them the lame, the maimed, the blind, the mute, and many others, and they put them at his feet, and he healed them [15:30] The imitation of Christ and His Apostles in this work became a hallmark of early Christianity. In fact, it was the Church that set up the foundations for hospital systems and modern medical care.
Lent is a great time to reflect on the very challenging passages of Matthew 25, the famous judgment parable about the separation of the sheep and the goats, where the crowd ask Our Lord, “When did we see You hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison and not minister to your needs?” to which He responds, “As you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.” (vv. 44-45).
The bottom line then is that almsgiving is far more than just throwing a few pennies into the Catholic Relief Services Rice Bowl (although that’s a great start). It is about having the heart to help alleviate the suffering of others or teach them how to offer that suffering to Our Lord.
Lent is also a good time to pray over the story of Lazarus and Dives (the Rich Man) in St. Luke’s parable (16:19-31). It’s a stark warning parable about the utter indifference of this rich man, dressed in his purple finery and complacently enjoying his sumptuous eating habits while Lazarus lies starving and riddled with sores at his very gate.
These are the kind of Scriptures that should hit us over the head like two by fours when we become self-focused or indifferent to the suffering around us.
The story of Lazarus and Dives was proclaimed at Mass on St. Patrick’s day. The Magnificat devotional magazine has a beautiful reflection on that Gospel by a mid-20th century Cistercian monk, by the name of Fr. Eugene Boylan.
Here are some of his thoughts below on charity and almsgiving from that excerpt. I especially like his reminder that we don’t have to “like” (have a feeling of affection for) all those we serve. Anyone who has worked in soup kitchens, food pantries, or with the homeless and mentally ill knows well that not everyone served is grateful or easy to love!
There can be no true union with God unless we love also our neighbor… Christ delivered himself for each of his members and we, ourselves, cannot be united to Christ unless we share in his love for them….. At first sight this seems to be an intolerable burden and an impossible. But the service of God is a reasonable service, and he himself has assured us that his yoke is easy and his burden light. We should note that though we are bound to love all, we are not bound to like anyone. It is true that our likes and dislikes can be offenses against charity, insofar as they are willful and inordinate; but there are many natural causes which produces a sympathy or an antipathy for which we are not responsible. What we are responsible for is to see that these natural likes and dislikes do not interfere with the discharge of the obligations that justice and charity impose upon us in regard to our neighbor. … We should note [a] double aspect of Christian charity. It should be done by Christ and by us in partnership with him, to Christ and to his members united in him.