Prayer, Fasting, and Almsgiving Spiritual Practices That Draw Us Closer to God
Prayer, Fasting, and Almsgiving Spiritual Practices That Draw Us Closer to God Kevin Perrotta
Copyright © 2012 Kevin Perrotta All rights reserved. Published by The Word Among Us Press 7115 Guilford Road Frederick, Maryland 21704 www.wau.org 16 15 14 13 12 1 2 3 4 5 ISBN: 978-1-59325-197-0 eISBN: 978-1-59325-435-3 Nihil Obstat: The Rev. Michael Morgan, Chancellor Censor Librorum November 9, 2011 Imprimatur: Most Rev. Felipe J. Estévez, STD, Bishop of St. Augustine November 9, 2011 Scripture texts used in this work are taken from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Catholic Edition, copyright © 1989 and 1993 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the USA. All rights reserved. Used with permission. Scripture texts marked “NAB” are taken from the New American Bible, revised edition copyright © 2010, 1991, 1986, 1970 Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, Washington, D.C., and are used by permission of the copyright owner. All rights reserved. No part of the New American Bible may be reproduced in any form without permission in writing from the copyright owner. Cover and text design by David Crosson No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means—electronic, mechanical, photocopy, recording, or any other, except for brief quotations in printed reviews—without the prior permission of the author and publisher. Made and printed in the United States of America. Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data Perrotta, Kevin. Prayer, fasting, and almsgiving : spiritual practices that draw us closer to God / Kevin Perrotta. p. cm. ISBN 978-1-59325-197-0 (alk. paper) 1. Spiritual life—Biblical teaching. 2. Spiritual life—Christianity—Textbooks. 3. Prayer-Biblical teaching. 4. Fasting—Biblical teaching. 5. Christian giving—Biblical teaching. I. Title. BV4501.3.P467 2011 248.4’6--dc23 2011037611
Contents Welcome to The Word Among Us Keys to the Bible
Introduction Seeking God through the Spiritual Disciplines
Session 1: A Woman of Faithful Kindness Ruth Had Nothing but Herself to Give
Session 2: A Community of Sharers The First Christians Let Go of What They Had
Session 3: A Prophet Running on Empty In the Silence, Elijah Heard from God
Session 4: God’s Sons and Daughters We Pray with Christ, in the Spirit
Session 5: Those Who Fast Well Real Fasting Involves Meeting Others’ Needs
Session 6: Missionaries Seeking Direction They Fasted for God’s Guidance and Help
Practical Pointers for Bible Discussion Groups
Sources and Acknowledgments
Welcome to The Word Among Us Keys to the Bible
ave you ever lost your keys? Everyone seems to have at least one “lost keys” story to tell. Maybe you had to break a window of your house or wait for the auto club to let you into your car. Whatever you had to do probably cost you—in time, energy, money, or all three. Keys are definitely important items to have on hand! The guides in The Word Among Us Keys to the Bible series are meant to provide you with a handy set of keys that can “unlock” the treasures of the Scriptures for you. Scripture is God’s living word. Within its pages we meet the Lord. So as we study and meditate on Scripture and unlock its many treasures, we discover the riches it contains—and in the process, we grow in intimacy with God. Since 1982 The Word Among Us magazine has helped Catholics develop a deeper relationship with the Lord through daily meditations that bring the Scriptures to life. More than ever, Catholics today desire to read and pray with the Scriptures, and many have begun to form small faith-sharing groups to explore the Bible together. We designed the Keys to the Bible series after conducting a survey among our magazine readers to learn what they wanted in a Catholic Bible study. We found that they were looking for easy-to-understand, faith-filled materials that approach Scripture from a clearly Catholic perspective. Moreover, they wanted a Bible study that could show them how they can apply what they learn from Scripture to their everyday lives. They also asked for sessions that they can complete in an hour or two. Our goal was to design a simple, easy-to-use Bible study guide that would also challenging and thought provoking. We hope that this guide fulfills those admittedly ambitious goals. We are confident, however, that taking the time to go through this guide—whether by | Prayer, Fasting, and Almsgiving
yourself, with a friend, or in a small group—will be a worthwhile endeavor that will bear fruit in your life.
How to Use the Guides in This Series The study guides in the Keys to the Bible series are divided into six sessions, each dealing with a particular aspect of the topic. Before starting the first session, take the time to read the introduction, which sets the stage for the sessions that follow. Whether you use this guide for personal reflection and study, as part of a faith-sharing group, or as an aid in your prayer time, be sure to begin each session with prayer. Ask God to open his word to you and to speak to you personally. Read each Scripture passage slowly and carefully. Then take as much time as you need to meditate on the passage and pursue any thoughts it brings to mind. When you are ready, move on to the accompanying commentary, which offers various insights into the text. Two sets of questions are included in each session to help you “mine” the Scripture passage and discover its relevance to your life. Those under the heading “Understand!” focus on the text itself and help you grasp what it means. Occasionally a question allows for a variety of answers and is meant to help you explore the passage from several angles. “Grow!” questions are intended to elicit a personal response by helping you examine your life in light of the values and truths that you uncover through your study of the Scripture passage and its setting. Under the headings “Reflect!” and “Act!” we offer suggestions to help you respond concretely to the challenges posed by the passage. Finally, pertinent quotations from the Fathers of the Church as well as insights from contemporary writers appear throughout each session. Coupled with relevant selections from the Catechism of the Catholic Church and information about the history, geography, and culture of biblical times, these selections (called “In the Spotlight”) add new layers of understanding and insight to your study. Welcome |
As is true with any learning resource, you will benefit the most from this study by writing your answers to the questions in the spaces provided. The simple act of writing can help you formulate your thoughts more clearly—and will also give you a record of your reflections and spiritual growth that you can return to in the future to see how much God has accomplished in your life. End your reading or study with a prayer thanking God for what you have learned—and ask the Holy Spirit to guide you in living out the call you have been given as a Christian in the world today. Although the Scripture passages to be studied and the related verses for your reflection are printed in full in each guide (from the New Revised Standard Version: Catholic Edition), you will find it helpful to have a Bible on hand for looking up other passages and cross-references or for comparing different translations. The format of the guides in The Word Among Us Keys to the Bible series is especially well suited for use in small groups. Some recommendations and practical tips for using this guide in a Bible discussion group are offered on pages 126–129. We hope that this guide will unlock the meaning and value of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving and make you eager to engage in these spiritual disciplines as a way of drawing closer to Christ our Lord. The Word Among Us Press
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Introduction Seeking God through the Spiritual Disciplines
few years ago at a convention, physical fitness expert Bill Phillips had an unpleasant surprise. “Hundreds of men and women who introduced themselves as avid followers of my magazine came up to shake my hand and chat,” he said. “What struck me most about the entire experience—what absolutely floored me— was how strikingly out of shape most of these people were.” Those at the convention were not just reading Phillips’ materials; they were following his advice. But Phillips could see that although they felt better—they were happy to meet him and thanked him for his magazine—few of them were getting the benefits that he had intended. On his flight home, Phillips agonized over this discovery. He didn’t want people just making the right moves; he wanted them to shed pounds, get stronger, and become healthier. In the weeks that followed, he reformulated his fitness program, giving it a new focus and pacing. That the subject of our book—prayer, fasting, and almsgiving—can be compared to a physical fitness program is, I suppose, fairly obvious. The three practices are often called “spiritual disciplines.” The term highlights their similarity to physical disciplines that build strength, cardiovascular function, flexibility, balance, and coordination. There is also a parallel between Bill Phillips’ readers and those who set out to practice the spiritual disciplines: You can go through the motions without deriving major benefits. Sure, you might feel better after praying or writing a check to a charitable organization. But an emotional boost falls short of the goals of these practices: spiritual health, wholeness and holiness, and fulfillment as the persons God created us to become. Introduction |
None of us wants to waste our time, effort (fasting hurts!), or money. If there’s not much gain, why suffer the pain? So before we begin our Bible readings about the spiritual disciplines, it is appropriate to ask what makes the difference between success and failure. For the answer to this basic question, we can look to our “spiritual fitness trainer,” Jesus. He wants the spiritual disciplines to work for us, and he does indeed direct our attention to the crucial issue.
The Sermon on the Mount Jesus speaks about the spiritual disciplines in his Sermon on the Mount. This sermon is his keynote teaching (Matthew 5–7), and he puts prayer, fasting, and almsgiving at the center of it (6:1-18). Clearly, he considers these practices to be very important. And right off, he indicates the crucial consideration for practicing them successfully: intention. His introductory statement consists of this warning: “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” (6:1). When you pray, fast, and give alms, Jesus says, ask yourself: What am I aiming at? What am I trying to achieve? Whom am I trying to please? If your intention is to get other people’s attention, you may succeed at that, Jesus says. If people see you praying, they may think you’re a devout person. If they see you giving, they may think you’re a generous person. If they see you fasting, they may think that you have great self-control. But your prayer, fasting, and almsgiving won’t really be successful. You won’t experience the outcome that these practices are designed to achieve. They are designed to draw you closer to God, your heavenly Father, so as to receive from him the love that he has for you. If you practice the spiritual disciplines to impress other people or please yourself (fasting helps to lose a few pounds), then nothing much is going to happen in your relationship with God. The core issue, then, concerns the heart: What do I really want? Do I desire God? Do I love God? Do I want to love him more? | Prayer, Fasting, and Almsgiving
I called Jesus’ statement a warning, and it is: “Beware . . . for then you have no reward.” But the warning is just the negative side of a promise: Practice these spiritual disciplines for your heavenly Father, and he will reward you. Jesus repeatedly makes the promise explicit: “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 6:3-4) “Whenever 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.” (Matthew 6:6) “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 6:17-18) The spiritual disciplines work, Jesus assures us. The program will not fail to have its effect if you approach it the right way. The spiritual disciplines are ways of seeking God, and Jesus affirms that those who seek God are never disappointed. “Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for bread, will give a stone? Or if the child asks for a fish, will give a snake? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him!” (Matthew 7:7-11)
In this Bible study, the readings from Scripture will help us reflect on the root issue that Jesus raises—on the question of intention, of purpose, of the orientation of our hearts.
A Different Order Jesus speaks of the spiritual disciplines in a different order from the one we generally use: not prayer, fasting, and almsgiving but almsgiving, prayer, and fasting. This is not a random variation. Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount is carefully structured. He puts the three disciplines in a meaningful order. Most important, he puts prayer at the center. This carries a simple message: Prayer is central! Prayer lies at the heart of the spiritual disciplines—indeed, at the heart of the Christian life. Jesus’ teaching about prayer here, which includes the Our Father, stands at the center of the whole Sermon on the Mount. The spiritual disciplines are supposed to draw us closer to God, and prayer is the most direct way of doing that. Almsgiving and fasting become ways of drawing close to God only if we are drawing close to him in prayer. Without prayer, they go astray from their purpose. Why does Jesus put almsgiving first? I suspect it is because it gets us moving away from ourselves and toward other people. This is the direction in which our growth lies: We find fulfillment and happiness by shedding self-concern and growing in love for God and other people. Almsgiving—generosity to others—expresses the genuineness of our intention to cooperate with God as he heals and changes us. By dealing with fasting last, Jesus puts it in a subordinate position. This makes the point that fasting, which has a negative function—a refusal to indulge ourselves—is meaningful only within the overall positive purpose of the spiritual disciplines. By fasting, we work to gain the inner freedom to pay attention to God’s voice and to other people’s needs. We empty our stomachs, not because emptiness is a value, but because it enables us to receive what God has for us. | Prayer, Fasting, and Almsgiving
While the title of this book reflects the customary way of listing the spiritual disciplines, in the sessions within the book, we will follow Jesus’ sequence: almsgiving, prayer, fasting.
Why These Readings? You may wonder what criteria I used in selecting the six readings from Scripture. That is a good question, since the Bible contains a great wealth of passages on one or other of the spiritual disciplines. For each of the three practices, I have chosen one Old Testament and one New Testament text in order to provide a variety of perspectives. Most of the readings I selected are from narrative portions of the Bible because these enable us to view the spiritual disciplines in action in people’s lives. It would be impossible to find six passages that sum up all that the Bible has to say about almsgiving, prayer, and fasting; our six readings are merely a sample. They do, however, confront us with some of the most important aspects of these practices. While the readings do not show or tell us much about how to pray, fast, or give alms, they do communicate a great deal about why we do these things. As a volume in the Keys to the Bible series, this book is designed to provide help for exploring six passages from Scripture. This means that we are not going to be reading six parts of a single treatise on the spiritual disciplines but rather excerpts from six different biblical books. In order to understand each excerpt, we will have to do a little work in each session to consider its context in the biblical book from which it is taken. In each session, the pages that follow the scriptural text will help to provide this background. Our first reading in Session 1 deserves a special word of introduction. Strictly speaking, the word “almsgiving” means giving money to someone in need. But the biblical concept signified by this word is broader; it means showing mercy or demonstrating compassion in any way. It is instructive that our English word “alms” comes from the Greek word meaning “mercy”—a word you may Introduction |
be familiar with because it is occasionally used in the Mass: Kyrie, eleieson, “Lord, have mercy.” In this larger sense of almsgiving, the “sheep” in Matthew 25:31-46 could be taken as models of giving alms because they demonstrated compassion by feeding the hungry, welcoming the stranger, and clothing the naked, even though they did not give money. In fact, while Scripture does speak about almsgiving and provides examples of people giving alms—as we will see in our second reading in Session 2—almsgiving in the sense of sharing money was not possible during much of the Old Testament period because money was not yet in wide circulation. People bartered. In those days, if a person was going to give a needy neighbor material help, it had to be in the form of goods or services, not money. That’s why our first reading on almsgiving, from the Old Testament, does not depict almsgiving in the strict sense of giving money. The reading is about almsgiving in the broader sense of acting out of compassion to help a person in need. And perhaps a word is in order regarding our last two readings in Sessions 5 and 6 on fasting. We often think of fasting as a discipline for certain times—Lent, above all. But in both our Old Testament and New Testament readings on fasting, we see people doing it not as part of a seasonal custom but ad hoc, spontaneously, for a particular reason. While both readings can be helpful in reflecting about fasting during Lent, they also spur us to think about using fasting as an aid to prayer at other times. This raises a final question about the readings and this book: Is it designed for reading and reflection during Lent? The answer is yes if it happens to be Lent, but no if you happen to be reading it at another time. That is to say that the biblical passages will work very well for reflection during Lent—or just before Lent when you are thinking about what to do during that season. But they will work equally well as a basis for reflection at any season or in any situation.
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Our Part and God’s Part Before we begin our readings, it is helpful to notice another parallel between training for physical fitness and the spiritual disciplines. With physical fitness there are limits to what is under our control. While we can force weight loss by simply not eating, we cannot make ourselves supple, coordinated, strong, or healthy. For example, lifting weights does not directly build muscles; it only stresses and strains our muscles so as to stimulate the cellular processes that produce an increase in muscle tissue. Similarly, working out and playing sports can spur our bones to add density or our heart and lungs to maintain their capacities, but we cannot make any of this happen simply by our own efforts. All we can do is cooperate with the natural forces that were created in us. The harder and more determinedly and more wisely we cooperate, the better the results are likely to be. But in the end, growth comes by working with nature, not by our efforts alone. This is a kind of parable of our situation with regard to the spiritual disciplines. The goals—to draw closer to God, to become more the person he has created us to be—are inaccessible through our own direct efforts. We can approach God only as he draws us to himself. We can become men and women of faith, hope, and love only as God supplies the faith, hope, and love. We can’t make ourselves holy; only the Holy Spirit can. But we can spur the Spirit to help us. That is what almsgiving, prayer, and fasting are—ways of seeking the Holy Spirit’s help, ways of beginning to cooperate with his work in us. We should be careful not to draw too close a parallel between the physical and spiritual disciplines. Unlike the natural forces in our cells, the Holy Spirit is not an impersonal force but a divine Person, the Spirit of God. But the analogy does help make the point that practicing the spiritual disciplines is not a matter of becoming more and more disciplined by the application of more and more willpower (“I will fast more, I will pray more”). Rather, the spiritual disciplines are the disciplined, steady, appropriate ways of cooperating with the Spirit’s work in us. Introduction |
And remember, when we engage the Spirit’s help by almsgiving, praying, and fasting, we are not really taking the initiative, although it may seem so to us. We seek God’s help only because he has inspired us to do so. Always the initiative is all with God. A final suggestion: Before beginning the first session, read through Jesus’ brief but fundamental instruction on almsgiving, prayer, and fasting in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 6:1-18). Read it as though it is Jesus’ personal word to you about how he would like you to pray, fast, and do acts of kindness—because it is! Kevin Perrotta
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Ruth³Had³ Nothing³but³ Herself³to³ Give
an, who is the only creature on earth that God willed for itself, cannot fully find himself except through a sincere gift of himself. —Second Vatican Council, Gaudium et Spes
In the days when the judges ruled, there was a famine in the land, and a certain man of Bethlehem in Judah went to live in the country of Moab, he and his wife and two sons. 2The name of the man was Elimelech and the name of his wife Naomi, and the names of his two sons were Mahlon and Chilion; they were Ephrathites from Bethlehem in Judah. They went into the country of Moab and remained there. 3But Elimelech, the husband of Naomi, died, and she was left with her two sons. 4These took Moabite wives; the name of the one was Orpah and the name of the other Ruth. When they had lived there about ten years, 5both Mahlon and Chilion also died, so that the woman was left without her two sons and her husband. 6 Then she started to return with her daughters-in-law from the country of Moab, for she had heard in the country of Moab that the Lord had considered his people and given them food. 7So she set out from the place where she had been living, she and her two daughtersin-law, and they went on their way to go back to the land of Judah. 8 But Naomi said to her two daughters-in-law, “Go back each of you to your mother’s house. May the Lord deal kindly with you, as you have dealt with the dead and with me. 9The Lord grant that you may find security, each of you in the house of your husband.” Then she kissed them, and they wept aloud. 10They said to her, “No, we will return with you to your people.” 11 But Naomi said, “Turn back, my daughters, why will you go with me? Do I still have sons in my womb that they may become your husbands? 12Turn back, my daughters, go your way, for I am too old to have a husband. Even if I thought there was hope for me, even if I should have a husband tonight and 1
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bear sons, 13would you then wait until they were grown? Would you then refrain from marrying? No, my daughters, it has been far more bitter for me than for you, because the hand of the Lord has turned against me.” 14Then they wept aloud again. Orpah kissed her motherin-law, but Ruth clung to her. 15 So she said, “See, your sister-in-law has gone back to her people and to her gods; return after your sister-in-law.” 16But Ruth said, “Do not press me to leave you or to turn back from following you! Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God. 17 Where you die, I will die— there will I be buried. May the Lord do thus and so to me, and more as well, if even death parts me from you!” 18 When Naomi saw that she was determined to go with her, she said no more to her. 19 So the two of them went on until they came to Bethlehem. When they came to Bethlehem, the whole town was stirred because of them; and the women said, “Is this Naomi?” 20She said to them, “Call me no longer Naomi, call me Mara, for the Almighty has dealt bitterly with me. 21 I went away full, but the Lord has brought me back empty; why call me Naomi when the Lord has dealt harshly with me, and the Almighty has brought calamity upon me?” 22 So Naomi returned together with Ruth the Moabite, her daughter-in-law, who came back with her from the country of Moab. They came to Bethlehem at the beginning of the barley harvest. | Session 1
ur story concerns three women. The men in their lives have died, leaving them without means of support.
Naomi, the older woman, acts decisively to deal with this untenable situation. She sets out for her home country, where harvests have improved and she has at least some distant relatives. Naomi has no resources to help her daughters-in-law, but she does what she can for them. She urges them to go back to their families and look forward to new marriages—and she gives them her blessing. Naomi expects her daughters-in-law to do the sad but sensible thing: say good-bye. Orpah is sensible and sad. But Ruth rejects her mother-in-law’s advice. She commits herself to Naomi and leaves her homeland and family behind. Centuries earlier, in response to a command from God, Abraham uprooted himself from his native land and extended family (Genesis 12:1-4). But as far as we know, Ruth has not heard God’s voice calling her away from homeland and home. Why, then, does she make an Abraham-type break and venture out into the unknown? It seems that for Ruth, God’s summons has come not in the form of a message but in a person—her mother-in-law. Abraham went forth with a promise of blessing by God ringing in his ears. Ruth has no such divine assurance, and as she speaks with Naomi, her thoughts are on the uncertainty of events (“Where you lodge”—Ruth 1:16) and the certainty of death (“where you die, I will die”—1:17). In the short run, Ruth can be reasonably certain about the price she will have to pay for her decision to stick with her motherin-law. Instead of a new husband, she will have Naomi. She probably knows Naomi well enough to foresee difficulties, and they start in immediately. Naomi doesn’t welcome Ruth’s commitment. It’s not that she doesn’t love Ruth. Rather, out of concern for her, she holds A Woman of Faithful Kindness |
her at arm’s length. Widow Naomi has no resources; neither does widow Ruth. Ruth’s presence only adds a layer of anxiety to Naomi’s neediness. Thus, Ruth’s declaration of loyalty evokes no expression of gratitude from Naomi. When she sees that Ruth can’t be dissuaded, she simply stops talking to her. We may picture the two women walking the two or three days’ journey to Bethlehem in silence. When they arrive, the women of the town are glad to see Naomi again, but she cuts them short. “I went away full,” she tells them, “but I’ve come back empty.” Naomi’s name means “pleasant, delightful.” “Don’t call me that anymore,” she says. “Call me Marah”—“bitter.” Obviously, Naomi has not come through her losses unscathed. It seems that on top of bereavement and impoverishment, Naomi’s theology is adding to her problems. She believes that God rules over everything; therefore, all good things are gifts from him, and they are withdrawn only with his permission. Her husband and sons were gifts from God—and God allowed them to die. Up to this point, Naomi’s reasoning is sound. But she goes a step further. By allowing her menfolk to die young, God seems to be punishing her: “The Lord has pronounced against me” (1:21, NAB). Naomi feels like God is treating her as though she were guilty of grave sin. But guilty of what, she wants to know. Naomi sounds like Job: He, too, was angry at God for his seeming injustice, although unlike Job, Naomi does not make long speeches. In any case, her interpretation of her situation has clouded her relationship with God. Although she still believes that God is faithful and kind— she hopes he will show his faithful kindness to her daughters-in-law (Ruth 1:8)—she doesn’t see faithful kindness in God’s dealings with her. The rest of the story will show that Naomi’s vision of God is too small. God will demonstrate his faithfulness to Naomi, first through Ruth and then through a man in Bethlehem named Boaz. | Session 1
At the same time, God will show his faithfulness to Ruth. Unknown to Ruth, who is not even an Israelite at the beginning of the story, her kindness to her mother-in-law is a participation in God’s faithful kindness. And as she participates in it, she will experience it. It’s a touching story. But how does it connect with our theme of care for the needy? The story certainly isn’t about almsgiving. No money changes hands. Would we have done better to read about the woman who put her last two coins in the poor box at the Temple (Luke 21:14)? Jesus remarked that she gave all she had—literally, “her whole living.” But isn’t her whole living, in the sense of her whole life, what Ruth gives Naomi? If Jesus admired the poor woman in the Temple for giving all she had, what must he have thought of Ruth? Ruth’s care for her mother-in-law takes us to the heart of meaningful help to those in need. She gives of herself, in a direct way, to a particular person. This is where kindness begins. Necessarily, many forms of help are impersonal. The world is large. We cannot know all those who need our assistance. Making contributions to help strangers has been a part of Christian life from the beginning (Acts 11:27-30; 2 Corinthians 8–9). But kindness starts with caring for people we know. It arises from the movement of love in our heart for a person in need that leads us to put our own interests aside and be with that person. Only if our love begins face-to-face will our almsgiving to strangers be an expression of real kindness rather than an acquiescence to social pressure, a salve for our conscience or our self-indulgence, or a means to advance our reputation as a humanitarian. When people have material needs, showing kindness naturally includes material support. But we all need more than material resources; we A Woman of Faithful Kindness |
need each other. By becoming Naomi’s companion on the road to Bethlehem, Ruth becomes an image of what we all need and are all called to be: companions on the road of life. The story reminds us that just because someone has needs, it doesn’t mean they are easy to get along with. Naomi wasn’t. But apparently Ruth wasn’t looking for thanks. And as the rest of the story unfolds, Ruth shows that she can look beyond Naomi’s abrasiveness. Ruth is a woman of faithful kindness. Her story serves to remind us that it is faithful kindness, not our money, that God is concerned about. God’s goal, quite simply, is to make us into persons of faithful kindness. He wants us to learn to meet others’ needs because that is the way our own deepest need can be met: our need to become like him. He wants each of us to find the joy of becoming a person of faithful kindness—the person he created us to be.
Understand! 1. To grasp the point Naomi is making in Ruth1:12-13, it is helpful to know something about the culture of the time. If a married man died without fathering a son, his brother was expected to marry the widow and father a son in his dead brother’s name. Look at the presentation of this duty in Deuteronomy 25:5-10. For a story that illustrates it in action, see Genesis 38. So, what point is Naomi making to her daughters-in-law? 2. “Why should you come with me?” Naomi asks Orpah and Ruth, and she offers them good reasons to go back to their own families (Ruth 1:11). Yet Ruth clings to Naomi. What motivates her to do this? Are there any clues in the text regarding why Ruth decides to stay with Naomi?
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3. Orpah and Ruth are Moabites, a group of people that lived on the opposite side of the Jordan River from the Israelites in Canaan. Moabites worshipped their own gods (Ruth 1:15). Yet Naomi thanks these younger women, worshipers of false gods, for their faithful kindness to her and to their late husbands (1:8). In fact, Ruth makes an extraordinary act of faithful kindness by staying with Naomi in her situation of need. What is remarkable about this is that faithful kindness is a prime characteristic of the true God, the God of Israel (see “In the Spotlight,” pages 30–31). What conclusions would you draw from this? 4. In making a commitment to Naomi, Ruth commits herself to Naomi’s deity—the God of Israel (Ruth 1:16-17). Is this an insignificant by-product of her commitment to Naomi? How much or how little has Ruth thought through these words of commitment to Naomi’s God? Whatever is your view, what are your reasons for it based on the text? 5. Naomi tells the women in Bethlehem that she went out “full” (Ruth 1:21), but how accurate is her description? Consider Ruth 1:1. What is distorting Naomi’s picture of the past? What kinds of experiences can cause us to have a mistaken picture of the past?
³³ In the Spotlight
What’s in a Name?
In the conversation between Naomi and the women in Bethlehem, everyone knows that Naomi’s name means “delightful, pleasant.” So they understand her when she tells them to call her not Naomi but Mara, which means “bitter.” This might lead us to wonder whether the names of other characters are also meaningful in terms of the story. Neither the author nor the characters in the story say anything that directly indicates this. But a couple of
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the names may be implicitly significant, above all, Ruth. “Ruth” is a form of a word that can mean “satisfaction, satiety.” Another form of the word can be applied to giving drink or refreshment, and is used in Psalm 23 to speak of a cup that “overflows” (23:5). Thus, Ruth’s name is certainly appropriate for her in terms of her character. She turns out to be a source of satisfaction and refreshment for Naomi and for many others, including ourselves (see Ruth 4:17-22 and Matthew 1:5-16 and connect the dots). Naomi’s husband’s name, Elimelech, means “My God is the (Divine) King.” It is a profession of faith in God, but whether it has special meaning in the story seems doubtful. The two sons’ names are not used elsewhere in the Bible, and their meaning is uncertain because there is little good evidence from related languages. Scholars have debated various possibilities without reaching agreement. The meaning of Orpah’s name is likewise uncertain. “Orpah” is, in fact, the legal given name of Oprah Winfrey. Her family chose to pronounce her name with the consonants reversed—and that is how she is known to the world. Ruth will marry a man named Boaz, which seems to mean “in strength,” that is, in the strength of the Lord. They will have a son who will be called Obed, meaning “servant”—obviously, servant of the Lord.
Grow! 1. How do you think Ruth felt about the way Naomi treated her after she had decided to stay with her (Naomi’s silence and her declaration that she had returned “empty”—Ruth 1:21)? When have you provided care for someone who did not express thanks for your help? What have you learned from that experience? 2. Have you ever been really hungry and uncertain where your next meal was coming from? If so, how has this experience affected | Session 1
you? If not, is there anything in your life that helps you understand such experiences? How does an insight into such experiences affect your generosity to those who are hungry? 3. When things go wrong, many people follow Naomi’s line of reasoning, taking it as a sign that God is displeased or angry with them. Why would a person draw this conclusion? To what degree are you buying into this way of thinking? How does it affect your relationship with God? What bearing do Luke 13:4-5 and John 9:1-3 have on this issue? 4. Serving others’ needs can be burdensome. When have you found joy in helping another person? What can make it a source of joy? Whom do you know that devote themselves to serving others? Are they joyful? If so, what are the secrets of their joy? 5. Ruth stayed with her mother-in-law when Naomi was alone. Among your family and friends and among people in your neighborhood and parish, which ones are lonely or alone in their struggles? Recall that Ruth had no resources or solutions for Naomi’s situation, but she stayed with her and helped her deal with it. Do you view your presence to another as a form of almsgiving? Why or why not?
³³ In the Spotlight
Hesed: A Word That Describes God
A friend of mine grew up in a very poor family. His parents had virtually no formal education. A social worker once made a visit to their home to arrange for some assistance. She struck up a friendship with my friend’s mother and also became a mentor to his oldest sister. With this woman’s coaching, the sister finished high school, went to college, and eventually became a teacher.
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That set a pattern for the younger siblings. All of them graduated from college and went on to professional careers. The social worker’s relationship with my friend’s family is an example of what the Old Testament calls hesed. She started out doing a good job, being kind in a professional way, but went far beyond what was required and offered friendship and support to a degree that no one would have expected. Hesed (the “h” has a harsh, breathy sound and the accent is on the first syllable) is an act of kindness that a person performs in a relationship in which there is some degree of obligation to help, but the act of kindness exceeds what the person was obliged to do. Thus, hesed is two-dimensional: There is a faithfulness dimension and a kindness dimension—exceptional kindness. God reveals his hesed throughout the Bible. By making a covenant with the Israelites, he commits himself to care for them, but then he goes way beyond caring for them. When they rebel against him, he forgives them and renews his relationship with them (see Exodus 32–34, especially 34:6: “Steadfast love” is hesed). The greatest demonstration of God’s hesed is the Father’s gift of his Son to us and the Son’s gift of himself to the Father for us on the cross. The Bible portrays God’s hesed in the overarching story of his relationship with the people of Israel and the entire human race. But if you want to see hesed in operation at the personal level, you can’t do better than the Book of Ruth. As Naomi’s daughter-in-law, Ruth would be expected to be kind to the older woman. But Ruth goes far beyond what is expected and does something very unexpected: She commits herself to Naomi, and she stays with her in her time of need. That’s hesed. Naomi recognizes that Ruth has already shown hesed to her and to her family (translated as “deal kindly” in Ruth 1:8). Later in the story, in Ruth 2:11, a man named Boaz recognizes Ruth’s hesed to Naomi, although Boaz does not use that word. Then
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in Ruth 3:10, Boaz recognizes her hesed to him (translated as “loyalty”). Boaz also turns out to be a person of hesed. One of the charming features of the story is that Boaz and Ruth end up together as husband and wife. One can only think that the marriage of these two people of hesed must have been a happy one.
Reflect! 1. Read Jesus’ parable of the good Samaritan and consider the questions below. Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.” But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and A Woman of Faithful Kindness |
when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’ Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.” (Luke 10:25-37) At the sight of the man who was beaten and left to die, the Samaritan felt pity—a normal human response. When was the last time you noticed someone who was suffering and in need? How did you respond? The priest and the Levite did not feel pity for the man. Perhaps they even looked away so as not to feel pity. Why would men so deeply involved in religious activities have acted in such an inhumane manner? What lesson do you find for yourself in their behavior? 2. In the First Letter of John, we are told: “Those who say, ‘I love God,’ and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen” (4:20). Why is it impossible to love God if you are not loving other people? Why is loving people an essential element of loving God? What is the connection between loving people we see and loving people we do not see? Whom do you see who could benefit from your help?
3. Here are two more Scripture texts worth pondering: “Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back.” (Luke 6:38) And God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance, so that by always having enough of everything, | Session 1
you may share abundantly in every good work. (2 Corinthians 9:8)
³³ In the Spotlight
Elisabeth Leseur’s Humble Almsgiving
If chronic poor health had not prevented her, Elisabeth Leseur, a French woman who died in 1914 at the age of forty-eight, would have devoted time and talents to service of the needy. As it was, she was largely limited to life at home with her husband, Felix, their relatives, and her husband’s considerable circle of friends (the couple never had children). Elisabeth decided to make the best of her limitations. While she did some literal almsgiving, she determined to make her main almsgiving the gift of herself as a kind and cheerful person to the people around her. In her Lenten plans for 1911, she wrote: Almsgiving, of a little money, but also of my time, my heart, my prayers, and my suffering. To place in my heart or, rather, with the help of divine grace, to cause to descend into it by prayer and the sacraments, a boundless charity, a charity that is sweet, tender, strong, always active and directed toward everyone, more perhaps toward those who do not humanly attract me. The following Lent her almsgiving resolution was to give “through the gift of my money, my time, my heart, first for those closest to me, then for the neighbor who is farther away.” She resolved to go through Lent with “more lightheartedness, kindness, friendliness, joy, remembering that our Savior wants a cheerful face and a radiant joy in times of fasting.” After her death Felix remembered Elisabeth as a thoroughly cheerful person. Of course, any husband might recall his wife’s A Woman of Faithful Kindness |
appealing qualities after her death. But here’s the thing: While Elisabeth was a devout Catholic, Felix was a determined, even “evangelistic,” atheist. Elisabeth found herself mostly surrounded by Felix’s friends and associates, who generally shared his rejection of religion—a situation that she often found wearying. Her response was to show kindness and cheerfulness to all those around her, socializing when she would rather have time alone and talking with zest about things that she had little interest in—out of love. After Elisabeth died, Felix discovered Elisabeth’s journals. They revealed to him the hidden source of her unfailing friendliness and kindness: her experience of God’s love and her giving of herself to God in response. Recognizing the reality of God in Elisabeth’s life brought Felix to faith. Within a few years of her death, he entered the Dominican order and was ordained a priest. Elisabeth’s humble almsgiving in the form of kindness and joyfulness bore fruit in her husband’s life.
Act! What thoughts has the Scripture reading stirred up in your mind about how God is inviting you to show kindness and steadfast love? Take a few minutes for silent reflection. Ask for the Spirit’s guidance. Listen to your heart. Then decide to take action. Keep in mind that it is better to make a small decision and do something about it today than entertain a grand plan that can’t be put into operation until next year.
³³ In the Spotlight
Spurred to Act
Some years ago Fr. Jim Hewes read a newspaper article about poor people outside Manila, in the Philippines, who existed by scavenging through a seven-story-high mountain of garbage at | Session 1
a municipal dump. The heap of trash, loosened by rain, had collapsed, flattening a hundred of the shanties next to the dump. Then, ignited by stoves in the huts or a fallen power line, the mass of garbage burst into flames. Hundreds were killed—men, women, and children. Fr. Hewes, a pastor in upstate New York, was stunned. “I had never in my life heard of such inhumane living conditions,” he said. “Rats live better than that. In my thirty-five years as a priest, nothing had affected me so deeply. I just couldn’t let it go.” Through research, Fr. Hewes learned that there were 140,000 people living in the community of garbage pickers—called Payatas, which means “promised land”! Because the residents had no access to running water, they paid exorbitant prices to have water trucked in. Fr. Hewes also discovered an organization that helps the community—the Congregation of the Religious of the Virgin Mary (RVM). They, in turn, are supported by Catholic Charities of Edmonton, Canada. To aid the sisters, Fr. Hewes launched a campaign in parishes in his area. He did it mostly on his own, by writing letters and e-mails and enlisting the support of as many people as he could. To his amazement, he collected $40,000. The money went to buy two water trucks, run by a cooperative overseen by the RVM and Catholic Charities, supplying water to the people of Payatas at reasonable prices. Later Fr. Hewes teamed up with parishioners who had experience recording music to produce a CD, with the proceeds going to help Payatas. The CD isn’t sold commercially; it’s given to people who donate money for the people of Payatas. So far, donations have totaled $150,000. For Fr. Hewes, the entire experience has been “a reminder to me of God’s grace, working in ways that I could never have imagined.” To learn how to make a donation to the people of Payatas
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and receive the CD Songs for the Promised Land, e-mail Father Jim Hewes at email@example.com.
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