Archive for December, 2015
God’s Presence in Charity
Rev. Dr. David J. Fekete
December 13, 2015
Zephaniah 3:14-20 Luke 3:7-22 Isaiah 12:2-6
Our readings this morning are about God’s presence with us. In Zephaniah, we read that God is in our midst and therefore, not to worry. And in Luke, we read about John the Baptist baptizing and Jesus is baptized with the crowd.
John the Baptist warns the people that the time is at hand—any tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. So the crowds anxiously ask what they are to do. I find John the Baptist’s answer most interesting. He instructs them to perform their tasks honestly,
And the multitudes asked him, “What then shall we do?” And he answered them, “He who has two coats, let him share with him who has none; and he who has food, let him do likewise.” Tax collectors also came to be baptized, and said to him, “Teacher, what shall we do?” And he said to them, “Collect no more than is appointed you.” Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what shall we do?” And he said to them, “Rob no one by violence or by false accusation, and be content with your wages” (Luke 3:10-14).
Everyone is told to do what is appropriate for them—the crowd, the hated tax collectors and Roman soldiers.
John the Baptist tells the crowd if they have much to share with those who have little, “He who has two coats, let him share with him who has none; and he who has food, let him do likewise.” The tax collectors are not told to rebel and give up their position. Rather, they are told to only collect what is fair. And the Roman soldiers are told not to rob by means of violence and to be contented with their wage.
I find two things striking about this passage. First, there is room for everyone in God’s kingdom—even tax collectors and Roman soldiers. What is striking about this is that tax collectors are usually grouped with the sinners in the New Testament. But they can be saved too, if they do not collect more tax than is appropriate. And the hated Romans, who were in control of the Jews, are also let into the kingdom.
Second, people are told to do their function in society honestly in order to enter the kingdom. John the Baptist does not say anything about accepting Jesus as your personal Savior. Luke tells us that Jesus was baptized along with the crowd. And John the Baptist also says that Jesus is coming and that He will baptize with the Holy Spirit,
“I baptize you with water; but he who is mightier than I is coming, the thong of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie; he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. 17 His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor, and to gather the wheat into his granary, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire” (John 3:16-17).
But to enter the kingdom, we are told to act justly in all our affairs.
This is how Swedenborg characterizes charity, or goodwill, as it is translated in the New Century Edition of his works. Swedenborg distinguishes between the essence of goodwill, or charity, and acts of kindness, which are not essential to goodwill. The acts of kindness are voluntary, and they are seen as acts of kindness. By the acts of kindness, Swedenborg means the kind of thing that most people think are the real essence of charity—giving to the poor, building hospitals, helping in soup kitchens, and the like,
It is a common belief that goodwill consists solely of giving to the poor, helping the needy, caring for widows and orphans, and making contributions to build, enhance, and endow hospices, hospitals, hostels, orphanages, and especially church buildings. Many of these actions, however, are not integral to the exercise of goodwill; they are extraneous to it (TCR 425).
Now John the Baptist does say that this kind of giving is at the heart of the Gospel,
“He who has two coats, let him share with him who has none; and he who has food, let him do likewise.”
And even in this, I think that John the Baptist is quite moderate. He doesn’t say that we are to go through hardship in order to give to needy. He says that those who have two coats should share with him who has none. He doesn’t ask us to give from our own needs. I take this to mean that the rich should give back to the less fortunate. In fact, I knew a wealthy man who said that you have to give back or you are a thief. We praise Bill Gates for doing just this kind of thing. We praise him because he doesn’t have to be the philanthropist that he is. It is his choice. Steve Jobs, didn’t feel compelled to give back in the same way. So Swedenborg says of this kind of charity,
They are called acts of kindness because we are free to do them as we please, and when we do them, the recipients see them as kindnesses and nothing else (TCR 425).
But for Swedenborg, and for John the Baptist, the essence of Christian charity is performing your works in society with integrity. I think that’s what Luke is telling us,
Tax collectors also came to be baptized, and said to him, “Teacher, what shall we do?” And he said to them, “Collect no more than is appointed you.” Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what shall we do?” And he said to them, “Rob no one by violence or by false accusation, and be content with your wages” (Luke 3:12-14).
Swedenborg claims that his theology is based on the Bible, and not made up by him. I think he’s right about that in the case of charity, or good will. I think that he follows the essential spirit of Luke when he talks about charity,
Goodwill itself is acting justly and faithfully in our position and our work, because all the things we do in this way are useful to the community; and usefulness is goodness, and goodness in an impersonal sense is our neighbor (TCR 422).
When we do our social tasks with integrity, faithfully, and honestly, we become charity. Our actual character is formed into a charitable form. We have goodwill written on our hearts.
This is goodwill itself because it can be defined as follows: goodwill is doing good to our neighbor daily and constantly—not only to our neighbor as an individual but also to our neighbor collectively. The only way to do this is through practicing goodness and justice in our position and work and with the people with whom we have any interaction, because these are things we do every day. When we are not doing them, they still stay in our minds all the time; we think about them and intend to do them.
People who practice goodwill in this way become better and better forms of goodwill. Justice and faithfulness shape their minds and the practice of goodwill shapes their bodies. Over time, because of their form, they get to the point where everything they want and think about relates to goodwill. In the long run, they become like the people mentioned in the Word who have the law written on their hearts [ Jeremiah 31:33] (TCR 423).
I don’t think that this is hard to do. The way to heaven is not beyond human abilities. John the Baptist and Jesus and the Bible in other places say as much—as does Swedenborg, too. So Deuteronomy says,
This commandment which I command you this day is not too hard for you, neither is it far off. It is not in heaven, that you should say, ‘Who will go up for us to heaven, and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who will go over the sea for us, and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’
But the word is very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it (Deuteronomy 30:11-14).
And Jesus says,
Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28-30).
Then there’s Swedenborg,
It Is Not So Hard to Lead a Heaven-Bound Life as People Think It Is (HH 528).
Rather, it is a life of thoughtfulness, a life of behaving honestly and fairly in every duty, every affair, every task, from our deeper nature and therefore from a heavenly source. The source of this life is within us when we act honestly and fairly because doing so is in accord with divine laws. This life is not hard . . . (HH 535).
Lord, we give you thanks for giving us your wise rules to follow. We know that if we follow the rules you have given us, we will be happy, blessed, and that we will find our way to your kingdom. Your rules are not too hard to follow. You have not given us tasks that we can’t do. No. You have given us rules to follow that are in our reach, within our grasp, and in our power to accomplish. We are happy, because your rules give us company with you forever. When we follow the path you have set out for us, we come into eternal blessedness, and we live with you forever. You have given us the guidance to do this, and you have given us the power to accomplish these works. We trust not in our own power, but in the saving grace of you, our Lord and God.
And Lord, we pray for the sick. May they experience the power of your healing love. Fill them with the grace of your healing power. Comfort their family and friends. We pray for the grace of your healing power for all who are ailing in body or soul.