Day 21: Salvation through Almsgiving?
Illustration: Juliana Crownover
Notice, dearly beloved: as long as that widow had oil in her own vessel, it was not enough for her, and she could not pay her debt. It is true, brothers. If a person loves only himself, he does not suffice for himself and he does not pay the debt of his sins; but when he begins to pour out the oil of charity on all his friends and neighbors, and in fact on all people, then he is able to suffice for himself and can free himself from all debts. Truly brothers, such is the nature of holy love and true charity that it increases by being spent and the more it is paid out to others, the more abundantly it is accumulated in oneself…For this reason, beloved brothers realize that the widow was freed from her creditors by nothing else than oil; know also that the…Church has been freed from its offenses by no other means than the oil of God’s mercy. [i]
Caesarius, Bishop of Arles (d. 543)
Opening Prayer (William Nichols)
All powerful God, to whose grace and favor we owe our lives, we thank you that we have this opportunity to address ourselves to you. You have promised, in your holy Word that whatever we agree on shall be done for us in heaven. Relying on your gracious promises, we humbly bring our prayers before the throne of grace that you might grant all that we pray for, especially with regard to temporal matters. We desire, to be granted all necessary knowledge and truths of religion while we live in the world and when we pass to the next, we pray that you would bestow upon us everlasting life, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.[ii]
Old Testament Lesson
The OT Law taught that it was not permissible to lend at interest and that every seven years debts were to be written off. The Law also taught the unassailable obligation of a society to care for its widows and orphans. This was done specifically so there would never be a permanent underclass in Israel. Yet, in this passage, we find a widow who was about to lose her children because of the debts incurred by her late husband. This suggests that debt slavery was becoming a problem as the country grew wealthier under the reign of Jeroboam II.[iii] Elisha acts like a kind of “kinsman-redeemer,” stepping in to aid the widow in her time of distress.[iv] For her part, the widow exercises remarkable faith. Elisha’s method of providing for her forces her to expect abundance even though all signs point to poverty.[v] Christians understand both the widow’s debts and her deliverance as signs pointing to the abundant forgiveness offered in Christ.
2 Kings 4.1-7
1The wife of one of the prophets cried out to Elisha, saying, “Your servant, my husband is dead. And now you know that your servant was one who feared God. And the creditor is coming to take away my two sons to be his servants.” 2So Elisha said to her, “What shall I do for you? Tell me. What do you have in the house?” She replied, “Your maid-servant has nothing at all in all the house except for a jar of oil.” 3So he said, “Go, borrow some containers from those on the street, and empty containers from all your neighbors. Do not let them be few.” 4Then enter in and close the door behind you and your sons. Fill all these containers with oil and put the filled ones to the side.”
5So she went out from him and closed the doors behind her sons and her. They were bringing her the containers and she was pouring in the oil. 6Now it happened when the containers were full that she said to one of her sons, “Bring me another container” But he said to her, “There aren’t any more containers.” Just then the oil stopped flowing. 7So she went and told the man of God and he said, “Go, sell the oil and repay the creditor that you and your sons might live off the profit.”
New Testament Lesson
Sin is not a private matter, according to Jesus, but affects the entire Church.[vi] If God has forgiven us well beyond what we deserve, we are to do the same for our brothers and sisters. Yet, to refuse to respond to offers of reconciliation is to reject the superabundant forgiveness of God. Jesus leaves the Church great authority to “bind and loose” sin. Unlike in Matthew 16 where this authority was promised to Peter alone, here it is given to all the disciples. This passage (together with John 20.23) forms the basis for why Priests and Bishops pronounce the absolution of sins as part of our liturgy. Priests are not granting absolution on their own accord, but are pronouncing what is already true in heaven for those who have expressed genuine contrition and remorse for their sins.
15And if your brother sins, go reprove him, just between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have regained your brother. 16But if he does not listen, take with you one or two others that, by the mouth of two or three, every word might be validated. 17And if he ignores them, tell it to the Church. And if he ignores even the Church, let him be to you as the unbelieving foreigner or tax collector. 18Truly I say to you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven. And whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.
19Again I say to you whatever two of you agree upon on earth concerning any matter which might be asked of my Father, it will be done for them by my Father who is in heaven. 20For when two or three are gathered together in my name, there I am in the midst of them.
21Then Peter came over and said to Him, “Lord, How many times shall I forgive my brother who sins against me? Seven times?” 22Jesus said to him, “No, I say to you, not seven times, but seventy times seven.”
Questions for Reflection
- To what extent are you like Elisha, ready to meet the needs of people around you with the resources God has put at your disposal?
- Do you feel hopeless or financially pressured? We are usually quick to consider practical, technical advice for dealing with our problems. What spiritual resources might you employ?
- To what extent do you have broken relationships in your life? What could you do to be a force for peace and reconciliation?
- Have you ever tried to employ the instructions given in Matthew 18 for conflict resolution? What do you do when someone is obstinate and the church is unwilling or unable to act?
Reflection by Kevin Dodge (email)
Last week, we developed the metaphor of sin as debt. This is most famously reflected in the language of the Lord’s Prayer when we pray, “forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.” Through our sin, we have incurred a massive debt, more than we can repay. We are guilty as charged. But, God, in his mercy, sends His son to take our debt from us by taking it upon himself. His selfless sacrifice on the cross remits our debt by providing an offsetting credit. This credit is so massive in its proportions that it simply swamps the debt that we owe.
This idea of debits and credits with regard to redemption has been uncomfortable for many Christians. Yet its roots are deeply Biblical. Take for example, our OT lesson. The widow has inherited a debt that is more than she can pay. She is clearly obligated, but cannot pay it off. She is about to lose her sons who will be sold into slavery so their labor can satisfy her debt. This presents an untenable situation.
So Elisha plays the role of the ‘kinsman-redeemer’ in the story. However, as a prophet, Elisha doesn’t have money to pay off the debt. So he performs a miracle. The widow’s oil keeps pouring and pouring and never runs out. God comes through in a remarkable way. It is not hard to see how this would eventually be read as a metaphor for the superabundant grace of God.
But let’s return for a moment to the problem of seeing the remission of sin as an offsetting credit. This seems to make it sound like we can do things (like good works) to accrue credits for ourselves. Isn’t this precisely what the Reformers were trying to get away from? Isn’t this what Thomas Cranmer in the 39 Articles wrote that “cannot be taught without arrogancy and impiety”?[vii]
Well, yes, the Reformers were actively trying to get away from the idea that works contributed anything to salvation. But, in so doing, they set aside a large body of teaching which they had inherited and is only recently starting to be remembered again in Protestant circles.
St. Augustine, for example, insisted that almsgiving helped remit one’s debt to God. When Jesus promised “treasure in heaven” to those who give now on earth (Matt 6.20-21), Augustine interprets this as being the mechanism whereby we store up credits to offset our debts.[viii] In the OT, Daniel says it like this (in the Greek translation the early church was using): “Redeem your sins with alms and your injustices by compassion on the poor.” (Dan 4.27, LXX).[ix] In both the Jewish and early Christian traditions, almsgiving remitted our debt because it stored up treasure in heaven.
But what about grace? Is salvation not, from beginning to end, a work of God? Is salvation not by grace through faith? Here’s where it gets tricky and where the late medieval Church, in its corruption of indulgences (which promised less time in Purgatory) took things too far. What started as a sound practice of giving to remit a debt turned into a scam to fund a building project (St. Peter’s in Rome).
Yet grace is not absent in this transaction. We find grace in the calculation that goes into remitting our debts. On its own, almsgiving shouldn’t even make a dent in our debt incurred because of sin. Our debt is just too big. But, because of how God sets up his economy, he gives an unheard of rate of return to our alms.[x] They then serve to offset the debt we’ve incurred. Without grace, none of this is possible.
So were the Reformers wrong to be troubled by the Church they encountered? Not at all. Everyone admits the Church was badly in need of reform. But like many reform movements, many positive teachings were discarded along with the corruptions.
This brings us back to Lent. When we realize the extent to which God has gone in remitting our debts, we should be amazed. He invites us to act, however. Given today’s NT passage, the best way to act is to seek reconciliation not only from God, but also with those from whom we are estranged.
In the lead-up to Yom Kippur, Jews do something memorable. They seek forgiveness from anyone with whom they have a broken relationship. Jews only expect God to forgive their sins if they’ve first taken the step to forgive others. They then express this contrition through almsgiving, through prayer and through repentance.[xi]
We should do the same. If God can forgive our massive debt, we ought to do likewise for others.
Augustine and other church fathers were serious in their belief that alms are an important part of having our sins forgiven. Consider making an anonymous gift to an aspect of the church’s ministry during Lent.
Make an active attempt to reconcile a broken relationship. There are no guarantees to reconciliation – it takes two parties to do so – but working towards peace is the duty of all Christians.
- Be Anointed
Christians have often read the superabundant oil in the OT lesson as a symbol of healing. If you are sick or suffering, ask a priest or deacon to anoint you with oil and receive the healing (in whatever form) that God wants to give to you.
[i] Caesarius of Arles, Sermons, trans. Sr Mary Magdeleine Mueller O.S.F, vol. 2 (Washington, D.C.: CUA Press, 1964), 128.3, p. 225.
[ii] Adapted from William Nicholls, “Paraphrase on the Prayer of St Chrysostom,” in Comment on the Book of Common Prayer (London, 1710).
[iii] John H. Walton, ed., 1 and 2 Kings, 1 and 2 Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther, Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary (Grand Rapids, Mich: Zondervan, 2009), 128.
[iv] Leithart, 1 & 2 Kings, 188.
[v] Ibid., 187.
[vi] Luz, Matthew 8-20, 451.
[vii] The Book of Common Prayer, Article XX, p. 870.
[viii] Peter Brown, The Ransom of the Soul: Afterlife and Wealth in Early Western Christianity (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Press, 2015), 96–97.
[ix] This quote is from the Theodotion version of the Septuagint.
[x] Anderson, Sin, 157.
[xi] http://www.faithstreet.com/onfaith/2011/10/07/yom-kippur-etiquette-guide-forgive-and-be-forgiven/11049, Accessed 12-10-2015.