Tuesday, June 14, 2016

PRAYER, ALMSGIVING, FASTING


Homily for June 15th, 2016: Matthew 6:1-6, 16-18.

          Continuing his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus speaks in today’s gospel reading about almsgiving, prayer, and fasting. Traditionally associated with Lent, these religious practices are spiritually profitable at all times – provided (and this condition is essential) that they are done for God, and not to obtain human recognition and praise. The Roman stoic philosopher, Seneca, a contemporary of Jesus, makes the same point when he writes: “Whoever wants to publicize his virtue labors not for virtue but for glory.” Jesus says the same with his thrice repeated statement, “they have received their reward.” The reward he is referring to is human recognition and glory – and beyond that nothing. To receive a reward from God (and Jesus never tells us to be indifferent to rewards, provided they come from God) our good deeds must be quiet, if possible anonymous. Then, Jesus says, “your Father who sees in secret will repay you.”

          Similarly with prayer. Jesus is speaking here not about public worship; he himself took part in such worship in the Temple and in synagogues. He speaks about private prayer: “When you pray, go to your inner room, close the door, and pray to your Father in secret.” The 4th century bishop of Milan, St. Ambrose, explains that Jesus is not talking about “a room with four walls separating you physically from others, but the room that is within you, where your thoughts are shut up, the place that contains your feelings. This room of prayer is with you at all times, wherever you go it is a secret place, and what happens there is witnessed by God alone.” (On Cain and Abel B 1:34)

          Fasting too must be secret, Jesus says. There are two reasons to fast. First, to strengthen our wills. Voluntarily denying ourselves food and drink that we may legitimately enjoy helps us to say no to pleasures that God’s law forbids. And the sacrifice which fasting requires strengthens our prayer for the things, people, and causes for which we pray. The Lord who sees in secret recognizes that the intentions for which we pray are so important to us that we are willing to forego hunger and thirst that they may be granted.