Right hand, left hand

February 18th, 2015 by Karen

ashesToday is Ash Wednesday. It is probably one of my most favorite of the Catholic Holy Days because every year, we get to hear Matthew 6. Something about this particular chapter has always rung with supreme truth for me. It’s a road map for every day living.

Don’t act holier than thou just to attract attention in public.
Give charitably, but do it in secret. No one else needs to know what you do for others.
Pray in the quiet of your heart, privately as a close conversation with a loved one.
Prayer is not for babbling on and on in order to try to sound important or holy.
Forgiveness is a two way street.
Fasting should be done in secret and without complaint.
Worry less about material goods and more about those intangible gifts of the spirit.
You cannot follow both God and money.
Worrying will not prolong your life or bring you material goods.
Concern yourself only with today’s worries, tomorrow will come in its own time.

I’ve always been kind of a wallflower, and maybe that’s why I latched onto this Bible chapter as a child. This is the first time I heard “it’s ok to not be the center of attention”. As a shy kid with a speech impediment, I would much rather quietly observe and participate in activities and that carries through to this day. I still struggle with being noticed…whether it’s speaking in public or receiving a compliment, I often find it very uncomfortable. Also I admit, I worry too much about a vast variety of things and probably too little about some things that should be more cause for concern, but my propensity for worry is something that I recognize as a challenge to undertake. I’m a work in progress.

Now that I’m an adult though, the biggest meaningful part of this excerpt for me concerns charity. But when you give alms, your left hand must not know what your right is doing; your almsgiving must be secret, and your Father who sees all that is done in secret will reward you.” Matthew 6:3-4 My discomfort at being noticed likely dovetails into this a bit, but I truly do prefer to give something to someone quietly, quickly and without recompense. I’ve always found that small things mean so much more than something impersonal. Could I write a check and make a donation somewhere? Sure. However, a loaf of homemade bread will feed someone physically and spiritually today. A couple of bags of hand-me-down clothes will take care of my friends’ child and ease her worry over where she’ll find the budget to buy new things for her growing child. A hand made hat or scarf will keep someone warm, not just today, but next year and the year after that. A cup of coffee bought for the person next in line at the drive-through will brighten their day and hopefully they in turn will pass that joy on to another person in their life. These are things given with thought and with love, privately and without need for fanfare.

Does this mean that charity should never be public? No, of course not. When a community rallies to a cause that is crucial to the well being of the community at large, that camaraderie is important in that it supports all involved. There is nothing wrong with participation…it’s when we twist it to glorify ourselves individually and our individual contributions that we go astray. Charity should be undertaken simply because it is the right thing to do.

Last year, I was blessed to have been able to attend the Bar Mitzvah for the son of a wonderful friend of mine. As someone who had never had the opportunity before, I found the Temple services stunning. Catholic Mass follows so closely to its predecessor (remember, Jesus and the disciples were all Jewish!) that I was nearly brought to tears several times. It was a beautiful experience. During one of the services, the Rabbi brought up the Jewish tradition of tzedakah, the concept that righteousness and fairness is an actual obligation. We are obligated as followers of God to aid those in need, despite our own financial standing, and to do it without being asked. This is why in Luke 21, Christ points out the donation of the Jewish widow at the Temple: “When he looked up he saw some wealthy people putting their offerings into the treasury and he noticed a poor widow putting in two small coins. He said, “I tell you truly, this poor widow put in more than all the rest; for those others have all made offerings from their surplus wealth, but she, from her poverty, has offered her whole livelihood.”

No one asked the widow to donate to the Temple. No one was standing there enforcing a 10% tithe of her income. No one was standing there keeping track of who gave money to the treasury or withholding services if they did not give. Despite her poverty, the widow was still called to donate what she could to help others in the community who were less fortunate. She simply did what she felt was necessary. This is the true meaning of charity; giving what you are called to give in support of those who are in need.

One other aspect of tzedakah that the Rabbi mentioned was that it is also an obligation of the giver to ensure that funds entrusted to an organization for the good of the community are properly managed and spent effectively and wisely. How often do we just give blindly because “eh, it’s for charity” or “it’s a good tax write off”. This sort of blasé indifference is something we all fall into from time to time. It can be a difficult question to ask, but finding out just where your donations are going can be a real surprise. You may find that while you thought a donation was going to feed the poor, it in fact was used to buy a sign. Or that you believed you were helping cancer patients, but in fact you essentially lined the pocket of some CEO. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t give at all, in fact it’s the opposite. It’s an admonishment to give fully but that you should do your homework first so what you give is used properly. Being informed makes us all better stewards of the resources available in our communities and ensures that help is given to those who need it most.

On Ash Wednesday, it’s traditional to “give up something for Lent”. I’ve always thought that was rather odd…as kids we were encouraged to give up sweets, or soda, or television, but I never found that spiritually satisfying. How does my giving up chocolate glorify God? (Side note, giving up cake when your birthday always falls during Lent is a real drag. Only made that mistake once.) For the past several years, rather than giving something up and refraining from something, I’ve made the conscious choice to give something UP…to try to do something every day that glorifies God.

I’m not going to tell you what it is; that defeats the purpose. I would however encourage those who are reflecting on this season to find a fulfilling way to mark this period of penitence with something with spiritual meaning.

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