Alms and prayer

Anthony Zimmerman
Reproduced with Permission

"Beware of practicing your piety before men in order to be seen by them; for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven. Thus, when you give alms, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by men. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you (Matt 6:1-4).

Christ, who loves us, who wants to reward us in heaven, advises us here to invest our time and effort in the savings bank that is in heaven, not in one that we must leave behind when we die. Giving alms, fasting, and praying just to make a show of yourselves before others does not make us into better people, only into good actors. The word hypocrite comes from the Greek meaning actor or performer. What we will need in heaven is genuine goodness, not a false show of it. The best way to achieve this is to avoid doing these things in order to draw the praise and admiration of others. To really pray people should retreat from public show and cultivate genuine and sincere communication with God.

Jesus here pricked the soap bubble of Jewish religious leaders who sought vainglory by ostentatious prayer, fasting, and alms-giving. They did this on street corners and public places. They listed 613 commandments to keep (International Bible Commentary 1276). Jesus was not only unimpressed. He shot down their pretenses.

Saint John Chrysostom began his 19th Sermon on the Gospel according to Matthew with this comment on the first verse of Chapter 6: "He roots out in what remains the most tyrannical passion of all, the rage and madness with respect to vainglory, which springs up in them that do right." Vainglory is an alloy that does not fit in with genuine good works, he continues. For this reason "It behooved therefore first to implant virtue, and then to remove the passion which mars its fruit."

Do I then become worse if another sees me doing a good deed, asks Chrysostom. He responds that Christ looks here at the intention one has. "The mind that is in thee, and the tone of what thou doest." He does not want that doing it for show will rob us of its eternal value:

And well hath He called them "hypocrites" for the mask was of mercy, but the spirit of cruelty and inhumanity. For they do it, not because they pity their neighbors, but that they themselves may enjoy credit.... It is not, then, the giving alms which is required, but the giving as one ought, the giving for such and such an end.

The saint then tells his people in the main church of Antioch, that if it is an audience they seek when giving alms, they should not be content with showing off to only ten or twenty people, or even a hundred here on earth. They can do it for God Himself who will show you off to the universe: "But if thou take pains to lie hid now, God Himself will then proclaim thee in the presence of the whole universe."

Prayer: Make God to be your Audience

It so happened here in Japan that a religious superior was intending to purchase a piece of land on which to set up a building for a new apostolate. He therefore made a considerable down-payment on it once, and was following up with paying large sums each month. Land in Japan is very expensive. Then the book-keeper of another institution came to him saying: "Look, if you want to buy that piece of real estate, you have to pay the owner. You are paying the wrong party." It turned out that this second party was the real owner, not the first. The payments had been wasted, and he had to start again from the beginning. In the same way, Jesus wants us to do our praying to God who can grant our requests, not waste our efforts by praying for show and so losing everything in the end instead of being rewarded in heaven.

"And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by men. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. "And in praying do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard for their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him (Matt 6:5-8).

Religious leaders of Israel at the time of Christ had the leisure time and the public stature to make a show of their holiness in places of maximum exposure, such as street corners and within synagogues. They were in this sense a scandal to the ordinary laborers and the poor who did not have leisure time for such ostentatious behavior, nor the position to draw the admiration from on-lookers. The fake practice of holiness by the scribes and Pharisees tended to discourage ordinary people from even trying to become genuinely good and holy. John gives us an example of how Pharisees and synagogue leaders considered themselves to be superior in holiness above others. When the man born blind who was healed by Jesus was being interrogated publicly, the Jewish leaders scorned him as a man of no account in comparison with themselves: "They answered him, 'You were born in utter sin, and would you teach us?' And they cast him out" (John 9:24).

Another abuse pointed out by Jesus was the repeated mumbling of religious mantras, the repetition being a kind of invocation of magic to bring about desired results. Jesus advised sincerity in prayer, opening of the heart to the Father:

"And in praying do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard for their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him. Pray then like this: Our Father who art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done, On earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread; And forgive us our trespasses, As we forgive those who trespassed against us; And lead us not into temptation, But deliver us from evil. For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father also will forgive you; but if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses" (Matt 6:7-15).

It is comforting to hear from Jesus that the Father knows what we need before we ask Him in prayer. It is enough that we turn to the Father and make our needs known to Him in all sincerity, confident that He listens and has our welfare at heart. Jesus is not impressed by a multiplication of many words which are often incantations for magic, actions that keep one busy without really turning one's face to look at the Father. Jesus instructs us to pray the Our Father, which is a wondrous raising of our minds and hearts to God.

By praying "Our" Father, we join our neighbor in prayer, and unite ourselves with the Church, with the Mystical Body of Christ, with all of mankind, with all nations, even with the souls in Purgatory and with the angels and saints in heaven. Yes, also with the Jews and Muslims and Arabs and North Koreans, and the Tutsis and the Hutus. Just as we trust our earthly father to be provident, to care for our needs, and most of all to love us as our parent, so all the more do we express our childlike confidence in God by calling Him: Father. We join Christ in prayer, who is the Benefactor of all mankind and is commissioned by the Father to bring all things under His command until the end of time: "And he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all" (Ephesians 1: 22-23).

Who art in heaven: we put our hands into His hands, trusting that He will welcome us home when our life on earth comes to a close.

Hallowed by Thy Name: We pay our respect to Thee. Make me more and more into an image of Thyself so that in me Thou art honored by my worship of Thee; so that Thy name be made known and honored by myself and by the peoples of the world.

Thy kingdom come: May Thy Gospel spread to all the earth, first of all to the members of my household.

Thy will be done on earth as it it is in heaven: I want to obey Thee, make known to me Thy Way. May all on earth adore Thee and give Thee praise.

Give us this day our daily bread: Yeah, our food, our health, our every need as Thou see-est our need. I ask also for spiritual nourishment, to know Thee today, to love Thee, to serve Thee.

And forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us: I have forgiven, Lord, my neighbor. Now I turn to Thee to ask thy forgiveness for my sins, to wipe the slate clean of all my offenses. Make me again brilliant and holy, spotless as new-fallen snow on the mountain side.

And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil: Father, Thou knowest my weakness, the dangers that threaten me, the powers of the wicked one who goeth about seeking whom he may devour. Protect me, protect all of us. "God's response to the faithful seeking deliverance from evil is always the assurance that God will care for them and that the forces of evil will not prevail" (Adrian Leske in International Bible Commentary 1278).

For Thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever and ever. Thou can'st do what we ask because Thou art ruler of the world and Thy joy and glory is to make goodness prevail in all the cosmos. [Surprisingly, Saint Chrysostom, in Sermon 22 on Saint Matthew, adds this final exclamation as an integral part of the Our Father as spoken by Christ. Apparently it was in the manuscripts that he used.]

Mother Teresa helped Japanese people to pray

The prayer of the Our Father is not complicated, is intimate, is as dear as any family expression. While riding on the train with Mother Teresa during one of her lecture tours in Japan I asked what advice for prayer she wants to give to Japanese people who are not of our faith. She said they can best pray short and simple prayers, like those of the Our Father. She frequently helped them to do so during her lectures, and wrote out simple prayers for them to repeat. "Lord help me NOW!" when in danger. "Forgive me Lord for my abortion. I will never do it again." Typically, she began a keynote address to a large audience on April 24, 1981 in Tokyo:

We will say a prayer, for our poor people, for whom Christ came into the world. He came to bring the good news to the poor. So let us pray for the poor.

Make us worthy, Lord, to serve our fellow men throughout the world who live and die in poverty and hunger. Give them through our hands this day, their daily bread. And by our understanding love, give peace and joy.

We will thank God together for this beautiful gift which He has given us, to be together, and to share the joy of loving God and loving Him in each other.

Hunter-Gatherer peoples of Tierra del Fuego also prayed to Our Father

Missionaries who came to hunter-gatherer peoples living on the southern tip of South America, who had never heard of Christ, heard how they prayed, probably remembering the Primeval Revelation that God gave to our Adam and Eve:

"Thanks. My Father was so kind!"
"I am happy with my Father."
"Wonderful! Summer is here for us! Thanks. The winter is gone."
"Ah! He looked after me. He did not take me away today, Watauinewa of the Heavens" (after recovery from sickness).
"Wonderful! My Father was kind to us. Graciously He saved the boat for us. We are happy with My Father." (After danger at sea.)

I like especially this one: "My Father, I am happy with You."