The prophet Joel calls us to return to God, which implies that we are at a distance from God. Does his call address itself to us? Is his call as relevant to us as twenty-first century Americans, as it was to his own people long, long ago?
The call does address itself to us. It is relevant to a people who live in a time and place in which vast numbers of people are ignorant of God. Let’s talk about three reasons. The first is biblical illiteracy. The Bible continues to be respected as a classic. It is still acknowledged to have had a deep influence on social mores. New translations and versions are still published and bought by many. But the discipline of personal bible study and meditation has declined. In the twenty-first century, the pace of life has accelerated. Newer technologies bring ever faster lifestyles and crowded schedules. New products, opportunities, and messages compete for our attention through digital media. This leads to constant distraction and the loss of the ability to concentrate. Time and quiet for reflection, not to mention for Bible reading and meditation, are extremely scarce. The Bible may still be an icon in our culture, but fewer and fewer people know what’s in it, let alone have even a basic understanding of it. It sits on our shelves.
The second is spirituality. At first glance, it seems ironic to cite spirituality as a reason why vast numbers of Americans are ignorant of God. One would assume that a person who regards herself as spiritual would seek to know God. In any event, it is certainly the case that many people apply the term “spiritual” to themselves. The last thirty years have seen the increasingly popular if unspecified use of the word, cutting across confessional, religious and ideological boundaries. But to be “spiritual” is not necessarily to belong to a faith tradition. That is to say, to be spiritual is not necessarily to be Christian, Jewish or Muslim. More and more people say today: “I am spiritual, but not religious.” They see the institutional and collective character of religion as an obstacle to the cultivation of their spirituality. For them, what is important is not necessarily the God one worships, what this God has done and is doing for them, or even whether this God is involved in this world at all; what is important is to be spiritual. “I don’t believe what the church teaches,” I once overheard a college student say in a coffee shop, “but I am a very spiritual person.” There is a rise of “spirituality” and a decline in institutionally-based religion. Many who are looking for spiritual meaning in life do not expect to find it in church. We Americans no longer think that spiritual experience is restricted to those with a faith commitment; we accept rather that it is widespread among the secular population.
The third is science. Today the natural sciences, including biology and medicine, as well as the human sciences, including psychology and economics, provide alternative interpretations of the human experience. The experts in these professions are the new priests that mediate to us meaning and the promise of peace and fulfillment. They have largely displaced the pastors and teachers of the church. Biblical meanings and values are not considered in their totality as useful. They are not adequate in helping and guiding people in adapting to this life and its challenges. Economics teaches us how to achieve prosperity. Medicine keeps us focused on enhancing our health and extending our life, as if the extension of life is the answer to its meaning; psychology teaches us what it means to be whole, integrated, and happy.
These cultural currents are strong. They keep us at a distance from God. But the prophet calls us to return to God. How do we break the hold they have on us, so that we can listen to the voice of the prophet and return to God?
When we turn to our gospel lesson, we learn about almsgiving, praying, and fasting. Before we talk about each of these practices, we should first clarify that to give alms means charitable giving. It refers to giving a portion of what we earn to institutions and agencies that help the poor and the needy. Now that we are clear about almsgiving, we can ask about them all together. So what are we to make of these three practices?
Let us first note that we often take them as things to be done to soothe our consciences. When we hear about them, it occurs to us that we’ve been rather neglectful lately of our religious duties. Writing a check to that charity or giving up something for Lent momentarily satisfies that need to be more dutiful. It relieves the burden of conscience and gives us permission to think of ourselves as practicing Christians.
But is this consistent with what the gospel really has to teach us here? It is worth pointing out that the Pharisees whom Jesus is criticizing here are dutiful in precisely these three practices. They are giving alms, they are praying, and they are fasting. And yet Jesus tells us that they reap no benefit from doing these things.
Maybe we shouldn’t practice them at all. After all, if they are external obligations imposed on us, what good can they do for us? That is, if we don’t find it within ourselves to practice them sincerely and spontaneously, wouldn’t it be better to abstain from them altogether? But that is not consistent with what the gospel has to teach us either. It assumes we are already doing these things; it only wants to be sure that we do them for the sake of our relationship to God, whether anyone is watching or not.
We said earlier that one of the reasons we are ignorant of God is because we do not have time for God. Whatever value the practices of almsgiving, prayer and fasting may or may not have for us, we can at least acknowledge that they have the potential to open up undistracted time in our schedules. Only insofar as we have time for God, can we come to know God.
What about almsgiving? How does almsgiving open up time in our schedules? In the Bible money is called a master. And it is a cruel taskmaster. Once we decide to make money our master we have to be prepared to give ourselves totally to it. A young man tells of his first year working in the investment banking profession. He claimed that 90-hour weeks were the norm. He recounted a saying that circulated in his office. “If you aren’t willing to work on Saturdays, there won’t be a job waiting for you on Sunday morning.” The pursuit of money squeezes out time that we could otherwise use to get to know God.
Rob West is a Christian financial advisor, who has his own radio program called Moneywise. He appeals to the biblical concept of firstfruits when he counsels people who ask him for his wisdom about handling money. In the Bible, the firstfruits was the first part of the harvest the people of Israel brought to the priest in acknowledgement of God’s provision. The firstfruits is the first and best part of the work of our hands. God’s people acknowledge God as the generous provider of all they have by giving the firstfruits back to him. West tells his clients that before they do anything else with their earnings, they are to set aside money to give to God. West insists that this breaks the power money has on our lives. If it no longer has power, then it cannot be our master. We are free to give ourselves totally to God, trusting in him to make our work profitable and productive. We will discover that God is a much kinder master than money.
What about fasting? This is a spiritual discipline by which we prove to ourselves that we are more than our bodily appetites. When we refuse to satisfy our appetites when they make their demands on us, we show that we transcend them. We develop the virtue of self-control and increase our will power. In the Bible, fasting is often paired with petitionary prayer. When God’s people are in distress, when they are in great need, they will refuse to eat, and pray to God. For example, when David’s son, the child of his adulterous affair with Bathsheba, was ill, he refused all food and prayed to God to spare the child’s life. To cite another example, when the disciples of Jesus were unable to expel a demon from a boy, and later asked Jesus why, Jesus replied that this kind comes out only by prayer and fasting.
In the Bible, fasting means to abstain from food. But it is a practice that has a wider application than refusing meals. One Christian songwriter recently told the world about her thirty-day fast from social media. Obviously, the secondary gain derived from fasting is time. Imagine the time freed up for prayer and communion with God by a thirty-day fast from social media!
Then there is prayer, which, if we can practice the preceding two disciplines, we now have more time for.
If we make time for God, if we spend quite and undistracted time in his presence to meditate on a Bible passage, if we pray to him, asking him to show more of himself to us, then over time we will overcome more and more our ignorance of God. And those three reasons that keep vast numbers of people ignorant will no longer apply to us. We will no longer be biblically illiterate. And to the extent to which we develop wisdom and discernment through our own meditation on the scripture, we will be able to distinguish a Christian spirituality from all other spiritualities. And finally, as we grow closer to God, we will come to realize that science cannot answer all the questions that we human beings pose about our life in this mysterious universe. And at the same time, we will grow in our gratitude to God for the gift of science and see its advance as a responsibility which God has entrusted to us.
Let us then return to God by making time for God during this Lenten season. If the practice of the three Lenten disciplines serves this purpose, by all means, let us employ them. However we do it, let us be sure that we are setting aside time during Lent for entering into deeper communion with our God through prayer and Bible reading.