An Authentic Response

M. Daniel Carroll
Scripture Press Ministries Professor of Biblical Studies and Pedagogy
Wheaton College

In Caesarea there was a man named Cornelius, a centurion of the Italian Cohort, as it was called. He was a devout man who feared God with all his household; he gave alms generously to the people and prayed constantly to God. One afternoon at about three o’clock he had a vision in which he clearly saw an angel of God coming in and saying to him, “Cornelius.” He stared at him in terror and said, “What is it, Lord?” He answered, “Your prayers and your alms have ascended as a memorial before God” (Acts 10:1-4)

Lent usually is associated with personal sacrifice, with abstaining from something that we feel has become too important in our lives. In addition to that pledge, there is the challenge of fasting, so countercultural in our consumer society. This self-deprivation sets the tone for repentance and serious reflection for Holy Week.

For the salvation gained at the cross we also are grateful. Lent entails, then, outward looking spiritual disciplines, through which we express our thanks tangibly for God’s grace by sharing with those in need. Authentic reverence is inseparable from charity. Almsgiving is an ancient practice that may be new to us. We may find examples of it in surprising places.

This story in our reading is one such example. What impact would it have had on first century readers? Cornelius is a commander of the occupying imperial army! But he was a God-fearer and a generous almsgiver, whose alms pleased God. The text does not say what Cornelius shared with others, but the people spoke well of this Gentile’s liberality. A worthy model to imitate!

This encounter with Cornelius also afforded Peter the opportunity to testify of the Good News. Through almsgiving we provide material necessities, but it also may open doors to confess the One whom we celebrate at Lent. Give and be prepared to be surprised!

Prayer: Father, teach us to be charitable to the needy in the name of the Crucified and Risen Christ. Soften our hearts, loosen our tongues. Amen.

An Act of Justice

Dr. Laura Merwin

He looked up and saw rich people putting their gifts into the treasury; he also saw a poor widow put in two small copper coins. He said, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all of them; for all of them have contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in all she had to live on.”  (Luke 21: 1-4)

Almsgiving is an act of justice: in a world where no goods are equally distributed, almsgiving is an effort to rectify this imbalance.

It is also an act of mercy: the almsgiver does not ask whether the recipient deserves their contribution.

But even the most creative philanthropists and generous billionaires have failed—and will always fail—to establish on this earth true justice and perfect mercy. Only God has this power.

Yet Jesus could not have been clearer in his appeal, his demand, that we care for the poor. In almsgiving, he urges us to emulate—however poorly—the gift of grace that has been given to us. We are asked, in short, to contribute to building the kingdom of God.

I can’t pretend to understand what the widow was thinking when she put her two copper coins in the box. I suspect she was under no illusion as to the ultimate power of her contribution to change her society, to do anything more than briefly relieve one or two lives. But her small act joins her with other almsgivers in her time and ours, and all of us to the ultimate source of justice and mercy. When we pray thy kingdom come, it isn’t a prayer of passivity—it’s a commitment to see, to the best of our limited ability, that the kingdom does come.

Prayer: Dear God, only with your aid and in your name do we dare to take on the task of building your kingdom. Help us to do it humbly and faithfully. Amen,

Prayer-our giving to God

Dr. Carl Schalk

While he [Jesus] was speaking, a Pharisee invited him to dine with him; so he went in and took his place at the table. The Pharisee was amazed to see that he did not first wash before dinner. Then the Lord said to him, “Now you Pharisees clean the outside of the cup and of the dish, but inside you are full of greed and wickedness. You fools! Did not the one who made the outside make the inside also? So give for alms those things that are within; and see, everything will be clean for you. (Luke 11: 37-41)

Many people think of Lent as a time to “give up” something—a favorite dessert or too much television. Such superficial examples usually make little difference in our life. Martin Luther in his Small Catechism suggests “adding” a daily discipline of prayer he calls Morning and Evening Blessing.  Both follow the same outline, are simple, direct, and consist of four points:

  • Make the sign of the cross, invoking God’s name into which we are baptized: “God the Father, Son (+), and Holy Spirit, watch over me. Amen.’”
  • Say the Apostles Creed and/or the Lord’s Prayer.
  • Say the prayer for Morning and Evening Blessing

Luther concludes: “You are to go to your work joyfully” [Morning Blessing] or “go to sleep quickly and cheerfully.” [Evening Blessing].

This spiritual exercise begins with acknowledging the God in whose name we were baptized, leads to confessing the faith of the universal Church, and proceeds to the prayer in which our Lord teaches us how to pray, concluding with a prayer of thanks for the day and /or protection through the coming night. This regular discipline moves us beyond an understanding of prayer as simply asking for things. Instead, it moves us to understand prayer as being shaped to God’s ends and purposes, not something which we use to shape God to our ends.

Luther’s Morning and Evening Blessings may be used individually or as a family devotion. Recited aloud at a modest pace, they allow time for the words to penetrate our thoughts. They are a rich spiritual exercise for Lent or, as Luther suggests, for every morning and evening.

Prayer for morning:   I thank you, my Heavenly Father, through Jesus Christ, your dear Son, that you have kept me this night from all harm and danger; and I pray that you would keep me this day also from sin and every evil, that all my doings and life may please you. For into your hands I commend myself, my body and soul, and all things. Let your holy angel be with me, that the evil foe may have no power over me. Amen.

Prayer for evening: I give thanks to you, my heavenly Father, through Jesus Christ your dear Son, that you have graciously protected me today, and I ask you to forgive me all my sins, where I have done wrong, and graciously protect me tonight. For into your hands I commend myself: my body, my soul, and all that is mine.  Let your holy angel be with me, so that the wicked foe may have no power over me.  Amen.

No Expectations

Gwen Gotsch

Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven. So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell 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 done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. (Matthew 6:1-4)

“Beware,” says Jesus, of “practicing your piety before others to be seen by them.” Let your almsgiving “be done in secret.” There is no heavenly reward for sharing your wealth with others when you do it in a way that’s meant to draw attention to yourself.

What is Jesus getting at? Is it simply that showing off is in bad taste? Or that true piety and true charity are their own reward? I think there’s more at stake here. Jesus is saying something about how we are called to live together in God’s new kingdom.

Giving can be surprisingly complicated. Givers have power, since they have something of value to give, and they may have expectations about how gifts are to be used. Recipients may feel an uncomfortable obligation that can be discharged only by giving something of equal value in return, or by showing deference and respect for the giver. Thus almsgiving (and piety as well) can be weaponized and used to reinforce who’s up and who’s down, who has power and who does not. 

Don’t go down that road, says Jesus. This is not how things work in the kingdom of God. Give your alms in secret. Don’t even make a show for yourself. Just send your gifts on their way to do the work of caring for all, so that all may flourish equally and the dignity of each child of God, have and have-not, is treasured and sustained.

Prayer: Lord of all, help me to be generous and selfless as I serve you and the people of your kingdom. Amen.

Living for Community

This week we focus on almsgiving. This word comes from the Greek eleemosyne meaning “mercy” or “pity.” It is charity given to the needy as an expression of gratitude to our Maker for the gift of grace.  It usually takes the form of monetary or food donations.

Rev. Robert Burke

If there is among you anyone in need, a member of your community in any of your towns within the land that the Lord your God is giving you, do not be hard-hearted or tight-fisted toward your needy neighbor. You should rather open your hand, willingly lending enough to meet the need, whatever it may be. Be careful that you do not entertain a mean thought, thinking, “The seventh year, the year of remission, is near,” and therefore view your needy neighbor with hostility and give nothing; your neighbor might cry to the Lord against you, and you would incur guilt. Give liberally and be ungrudging when you do so, for on this account the Lord your God will bless you in all your work and in all that you undertake. Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth, I therefore command you, “Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land.” (Deuteronomy 15:7-11)

It’s mid-November, in the midst of a spiking coronavirus pandemic, as this devotion is being written. Since mid-March, our usual celebrations of Easter, graduations, national holidays and family weddings, baptisms, confirmations and funerals have mostly been virtual. Thanksgiving and Christmas will have a different feel this year.

To slow down the growth of the virus, we are asked to do simple things: wear a face covering, keep ourselves at least 6 feet from others and wash our hands often—acts of mercy, if you will. These actions will help protect us from others and—perhaps even more important—protect others from us!

Almsgiving—one of Lent’s disciplines—is an act of mercy. “Give liberally and be ungrudging in what you do” says our text. We understand that to include food and money for those who are poor and needy. In the context of the text, that’s true.

The pandemic has seriously affected life all over the planet. I would hope we have begun to learn that I am not the center of the universe. Those around me become the object of my continuing love and concern. What I do for them, liberally and ungrudgingly—whether with food or money, or by considering their physical welfare as a primary concern—is done because I respect the whole community.

Prayer: Lord Jesus, keep my heart open to be liberal and ungrudging in my love and concern for my neighbor in need. Amen


Scott Street

There was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age, having lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped there with fasting and prayer night and day. At that moment she came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem. (Luke 2:36-38)

Fasting is not something that comes to mind for many of us when we consider our spiritual growth.  If we do consider fasting, it is often for personal reasons such as improved fitness or weight loss.

Yet, maybe we should instead consider fasting as a normal part of our spiritual life. Jesus gave us specific instructions on how to properly fast in Matthew, chapter 6. The Bible also gives several examples of lengthy fasting: Moses before God provided the Ten Commandments, Elijah as he sought a new direction from God for his ministry and Anna as she waited in the temple for the Messiah. Both Moses and Elijah used this time of fasting for prayer and supplication at important times in their relationship with God.

We could do the same in this Lenten season as we’re humbled by our overwhelming gratitude for the grace provided by Christ’s sacrifice. Martin Luther says, “It is right to fast frequently in order to subdue and control the body. For when the stomach is full, the body does not serve for preaching, for praying, for studying, or for doing anything else that is good.” During Lent let’s look for the opportunity to deny ourselves food for a meal or for a day.  Instead of eating, let us use that time to pray and study the Bible to further our spiritual growth. 

Prayer: Lord, give me strength to deny myself that which I think is necessary and instead recognize what is truly important, gratitude for your abounding Grace.  Amen

Slow Down

Rev. Marnie Rourke

Then the disciples of John came to him, saying, “Why do we and the Pharisees fast often, but your disciples do not fast?” And Jesus said to them, “The wedding guests cannot mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them, can they? The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast. No one sews a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old cloak, for the patch pulls away from the cloak, and a worse tear is made. Neither is new wine put into old wineskins; otherwise, the skins burst, and the wine is spilled, and the skins are destroyed; but new wine is put into fresh wineskins, and so both are preserved. (Matthew 9:14-17)

Slow down, you move too fast! Earlier Jesus is criticized for eating with tax collectors and sinners. Now he is being challenged because his disciples were not fasting while the Pharisees were fasting, wanting the Messiah to come set them free right nowThe disciples weren’t fasting because their praying fingers were crossed, trusting that Jesus was the bridegroom who would soon save the world. Who knew their time for fasting would begin when the Last Supper was over? Or that it would feel like spiritual starvation standing beneath the Cross?

The crucifixion stops us dead in our tracks. Standing at the empty tomb makes us look back and wonder how everything happened so fast. When we stand at heaven’s gate looking back at our own journeys, we will see why it was that we didn’t have to move so fast. While we wait in faith, let us fast from busyness, slow down, and fast from worrying about tomorrow. Breathe. It is easier to eat less than it is to stop rushing through life. Fast, let go of the need to understand everything, and do it all. Make time to live in the moment, that the Holy Spirit may live in our hearts.

Prayer: Holy Spirit, take away our need to run too fast through life. Help us catch our breath, welcoming Christ’s peace. Remind us that Jesus has already won the race, and that we can always trust the future, because the future belongs to God. Amen. 

Essential Preparation

Rev. Karl Reko

And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. (Matthew 6:16-18)

Of all the acts of worship we will engage in for Lent: Confession, Repentance, Prayer, Fasting, Almsgiving, and Acts of Mercy, fasting is probably used less than the others. We may give up chocolate or some other treat, but few go without food for an extended period as happened in the Bible and in medieval Christianity.

Rather than for religious purposes, when we fast, entirely or in part, it’s more familiar for us to fast as a part of dieting or moderation. But the point for us Christians is that the body is as important as our inner selves in a time of sober spiritual preparation for the greatest event of all, the coming of the bridegroom in the Resurrection.

We fast or diet in order to bring our body into shape for better health.  The same is true for better spiritual health. And yet, distinguishing between bodily and spiritual health still doesn’t entirely make the point. For us Christians, both are preparations for worship and service by our entire selves. Our Creator made us unified beings and wants to welcome us into God’s presence as beloved children in our whole selves.

Jesus promises a reward from the Father for those who don’t cheapen pious acts in order to elicit admiration.  The reward is our coming into God’s presence in worship. Whatever enhances that preparation for worship and service is valuable.

Prayer: Lord Jesus, our coming bridegroom, be with us as we wait for your return in the Resurrection as the bridegroom. Help us to prepare our whole selves that we might use in this Lenten season whatever is helpful in preparation for the time when we welcome you, and the fasting will end. Amen

Fasting for What?

Rev. Troy Medlin

Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” But he answered, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’” (Matthew 4:1-4)

Hunger pangs. As someone who has never had to worry about where my next meal was going to come from or whether I could afford to go grocery shopping when my pantry is getting sparse, the hunger pangs I have experienced have been quite minimal. They have been fleeting. Still, all of us know hunger pangs. We all know what it is like to be hungry.

Fasting as a spiritual practice helps us get outside of ourselves, reminding us of our dependence on God. A reminder that we not only rely on food for our sustenance but on God who provides us our very life and each breath. Fasting frees us to turn our eyes up to God and to spend time focusing on God’s word, which feeds not only our bodies but our souls, too, strengthening us day by day. Fasting can be a refreshing reminder that we do not exist by our own efforts alone.

Fasting-induced hunger pangs for the children of God do not end there. They can also turn us in another direction: toward our neighbor. In baptism we become servants of all, especially the needy ones in our midst. If we fast, we do not fast for our own sake. Our fasting awakens us to the needs of others. We can allow those hunger pangs to draw our attention to those who lack daily bread. Our fasting can empower us to alleviate hunger here and around the world. As one prayer puts it, “May our fasting be hunger for justice.”

Prayer: Living bread, may the hunger pangs of our fasting awaken us to those around us, so that we might desire the food of justice until all have daily sustenance. Amen 

What Matters?

Rev. Dean Lueking

Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to strike with a wicked fist. Such fasting as you do today will not make your voice heard on high. Is such the fast that I choose, a day to humble oneself? Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush, and to lie in sackcloth and ashes? Will you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord? Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin? Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly; your vindicator shall go before you, the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard. Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.  (Isaiah 58:4-9)

Surgeons who perform intricate operations often go nonstop for hours without eating. We don’t think of them as fasting while they go about their crucial work. Of course not; they’re intent on saving lives. Food comes later. 

In these pandemic-burdened days one thinks as well of nurses, retirement home care staff, faithful family members and all who work overtime in caring for others. They’re not fasting. They’re doing what is called for. 

Fasting in the sense of making points with God has been rightly denounced in our Lutheran tradition. But fasting in the Isaiah 58:4-8 sense (“loosing the bonds of injustice, sharing bread with the hungry, housing the homeless poor”) is exactly what is needed here and everywhere. 

Prayer: Blessed Lord, teach us to fast from the sin of self-indulgence so that we may feast upon your grace and not grow weary in well-doing.  Amen