The Practical Practice of Almsgiving
BY Father Dwight Longenecker
March 10-23, 2013 Issue | Posted 3/10/13 at 10:48 AM
One of the dreariest tasks of a parish priest is to stand up and ask for money.
One can almost hear the moans of the parishioners and hear them thinking, "Here we go again. Father’s always asking for money. All he ever thinks about is money."
This complaint is more accurately aimed at the complainer. Father Frugal — like most priests — loathes asking for money. It is the grudging parishioner — Mr. Cashback — who is always thinking of money; otherwise, he wouldn’t be grumbling about it.
During this season of Lent, we stop and remind ourselves that almsgiving is one of the three expectations for a good Lent — along with fasting and prayer. A request to give one’s money away is most painful because the request for alms is about far more than money.
Money itself is not the issue. It’s not money. It’s what money buys: security, prestige, power, control — and, most of all, power over oneself and one’s decisions.
If we gave up our money, we’d have to trust in God instead of our bank account, and that is the real test.
Father Frugal does not ask for money for himself. He also does not ask for money because the church needs a new roof or the boiler needs to be repaired. He doesn’t even ask for money to feed the hungry, educate the children and clothe the naked.
Yes, indeed, all those things need to be paid for, but the good priest asks for money not for himself or for the church roof or for the school or to feed starving children. He asks for money to save your soul.
It is really quite simple: You cannot get into heaven if you worship some other god; you cannot serve God and money.
This simplest of Sunday school lessons is somehow the one most difficult to understand: If you wish to get into heaven, you will — sooner or later — have to overcome your love of money.
You thought the priest was asking for money so he could have control over you. In fact, the good priest asks for your money not so he can have control over you, but so that your money will not have control over you.
He does not ask for money to enslave you, but to set you free.
When we give sacrificially, we tell our money who’s boss. We take control of the money rather than the money taking control of us.
It is all too easy to be possessed by our possessions and all too easy to forget that if we are possessed by anything other than the Holy Spirit we are possessed by a kind of demon. And the way to exorcise the demon of greed and the false idol called mammon is to give money away.
What we cannot see is that most of us are hooked on money just as certainly and demonically as a drug addict is addicted or an alcoholic is dependent. Drugs and booze make them feel good about themselves and their world. Drugs and booze give them an artificial high.
The same goes with money. It makes us feel good about ourselves and the world, and, like any other artificial stimulant, the high soon fades, and we need more and more and will never be satisfied.
Giving alms is like giving up a drug, and it is just as difficult.
But just like giving up a drug, the practical effect of sacrificial giving is an authentic freedom. When we give alms, we are breaking the chains that bind us, and we not only experience spiritual freedom, but we experience a new freedom from financial worry. Furthermore, in a paradoxically practical way, by giving freely and sacrificially, we end up being more prosperous than before.
The person who gives alms generously does not become poorer; he becomes richer. He becomes richer because he has started to learn the value of everything rather than the price of everything. He becomes richer because he grows in self-respect and honor.
He sees clearly what really matters and what does not matter. When he gives his money away, he also gives away the worldly viewpoint that made him greedy and reliant on the false god of money for his security. Furthermore, he not only becomes rich in real values and honest principles. He also becomes more wealthy: He has more money — not less.
This is how it works: When we give generously — I mean: really generously — we shift our values. Our mind is changed. We come to realize that we do not need so much.
The old car we have will do. Soon, we don’t care so much about the clothes we needed to impress people and the extra luxuries we needed to reassure ourselves and build our self-esteem.
By giving generously, we become more content, and we really do need less. The sooner we realize we have enough, the sooner we have enough. We used to seek happiness in buying stuff. Now we don’t need to.
Consequently, we are not only happy and more prosperous spiritually and mentally, but we also have more disposable income.
Being a disciple of Jesus Christ means that we must leave all and follow him. This is not just a cute Bible story. Neither is it an optional extra. This is not one of many ways to follow him. It is the way to follow him. Sooner or later, in one way or another, Jesus Christ will demand that we leave all to follow him. It’s part of the deal.
Part of leaving all for the first disciples was to leave their livelihoods — their capital investment of their fishing boats and nets and their careers. When we are called to give alms during Lent, this is part of the radical discipleship we are called to.
Until Catholics in the United States learn this lesson, the Church will continue to be ineffectual, weak and complacent. As long as American Catholics continue to rely on cash rather than Christ, the Church will be a sleeping giant.
Finally, every action of sacrifice releases spiritual power into the world. Through sacrifice, God’s grace is poured out, and great things are accomplished.
They are accomplished not just because good people now have the money to do God’s work; they are accomplished because, through the sacrifice of giving alms, human will aligns to God’s will.
Pride and the worship of mammon is broken, and God’s great and loving power is unleashed on a dark and needy world.
Father Dwight Longenecker’s latest book is
The Quest for the Creed. Connect to his blog, browse his books and contact him through his website,
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