Our first two Lenten challenges have addressed prayer (praying for our enemies) and fasting (fasting from our Snooze button). Let us now turn to the third Lenten discipline of almsgiving. All of our Lenten practices have as their goal making us less focused on ourselves so that we can focus more on loving God and our neighbor. But our prayer and fasting can sometimes be done with somewhat selfish motives, seeing how they can help us personally in our lives. I am not saying that it is bad for us to grow personally – Jesus commands us to become holy, as He is holy. But our holiness will never be complete until it bears the fruit of extending loving mercy to others. In the judgement scene from St. Matthew’s Gospel (Mt. 25:31-46), Jesus makes it quite clear that our salvation depends in large part on our willingness to serve Him in our brothers and sisters, especially the least among us. It is from this passage that we get the Corporal Works of Mercy. The practice of almsgiving that the Church invites us to engage in can be understood in a broad sense as undertaking these Corporal Works of Mercy, not simply giving alms to the poor, though that is in fact important.
This week’s challenge is going to be a little more abstract, but nevertheless fruitful if you choose to accept it:
Challenge: Learn about the Corporal Works of Mercy then make a specific resolution to perform one of these works during Lent
Fruit: Continuing to grow more merciful
A simple Google search will bring up many resources on the Corporal Works of Mercy. You can also open the Catechism to paragraphs 2544-2547 on Love for the Poor. The USCCB has a webpage with the works listed along with some suggestions on how to practice those works (just search “USCCB Corporal Works of Mercy” and it should be at the top of the list).
Getting back to the point I was making at the beginning of this article, the Lenten discipline of almsgiving really moves us in the direction of turning away from selfish motives to motives of mercy toward others. However, even almsgiving can be done for self-centered reasons. Some people practice generosity for the tax advantages. Some people practice generosity to feel better about themselves. Some (sadly) practice generosity so that they can be seen by others as being generous. All of those things may be true, but they cannot be our primary motive when performing works of mercy. Jesus’s strong words on Ash Wednesday speak to that:
When you give alms, do not blow a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets to win the praise of others. Amen, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right is doing, so that your almsgiving may be secret. And your Father who sees in secret will repay you.” (Mt 6:2–4)
With that in mind, as you form your resolution to practice some work of mercy, it can be helpful to ask yourself this question: “Am I doing this for me? Or am I doing it for my neighbor?”