Fr. Timothy Lowe turns to Matthew's Gospel which critiques our motivations surrounding Black Friday and Giving Tuesday in light of Christ's Sermon on the Mount.

Show Notes

Reactions to Black Friday and Giving Tuesday range from enthusiasm to disgust. Many just feel conflicted with the commercialization of the holidays which is intended as a time for thanksgiving, spending time with loved ones, and extending acts of mercy and generosity as the Lord graciously offers His Son for the salvation of all. 

How do business and nonprofit leaders who strive to serve the Lord respond to the pressure of these events?  How do consumers and patrons respond in light of their baptism in Christ?  Fr. Timothy Lowe turns to Matthew's Gospel which critiques our motivations surrounding Black Friday and Giving Tuesday in light of Christ's Sermon on the Mount.

What is Doulos?

The Doulos podcast explores servant leadership in an Orthodox Christian context.

Hollie Benton 0:04
You are listening to Doulos, a podcast of the Ephesus School Network. Doulos offers a scripture daily bread for God's household and explores servant leadership as an Orthodox Christian. I'm Hollie Benton, your host and executive director for the Orthodox Christian Leadership Initiative. And Father Timothy Lowe, retired priest and former rector at the Tantur Ecumenical Institute in Jerusalem joins as co-host. Greetings and salutations, Father Timothy.

Fr. Timothy Lowe 0:32
Well, thank you, Hollie, nice to be back with you.

Hollie Benton 0:34
With you as well. Today, we record after last week's Thanksgiving holiday and the growing phenomena of Black Friday, Cyber Monday, and Giving Tuesday promotions that surround this American holiday. I suspect that many of us have conflicting thoughts and emotions, even behaviors surrounding the commercialization of the holidays that we still try to value for giving thanks, spending time with loved ones, and extending acts of mercy and generosity to our neighbors and those less fortunate. I think what feels kind of gross is when businesses and organizations try to use these values of giving thanks, family, and charity to market and sell their own products or services. As though I should feel good about buying this Bluetooth speaker because not only can I show my daughter how much I love her by giving her this gift, but a portion of the proceeds will go to the poor and I get a 25% discount on top of all of this in this one transaction. Now we can all pat each other on the back and feel good about ourselves, right? Fr. Timothy, I hope your day of Thanksgiving was a good one. How did you survive the Black Friday and Giving Tuesday?

Fr. Timothy Lowe 1:47
Well, I was with our large family, which was a blessing that all 20 of us could be in the same place. Some of them did actually go out to Black Friday. And it was another version of hell, it took over a half hour to get out of the parking lot. And they went only as an act of charity just to be with someone who wanted to go. It was pure pain and suffering. So yes, how did I survive? I stayed home and watched a grandchild. Everybody else, the guys went out and played Disc Golf. So there you go. They enjoyed the outdoors. Some of the ladies suffered. And I read Black Friday sales were beyond imagination, over 9 billion that day. So that's why it's Black Friday, commercial enterprises get to make most of their money for the year. And now, as we're going to see, when we read Matthew, this contrasts. You know, Giving Tuesday, we're all of a sudden, we piggyback on the guilt of all the materialism going on by getting bombarded by endless, endless and now I'm speaking endless Orthodox institutions, ministries, looking for our other dollars that we didn't spend on Friday. It exhausts me, Hollie, I must admit, it exhausts me. So I ignore them both. I'm shameless about it. I ignore Black Friday, and I ignore Giving Tuesday. I delete every, systematically every request for money I got. Not to negate any of those. But no, I'm a non participant. I am responsible. I will give to the charities or other people. And I think we're going to discuss this in a second. Do we give to institutions even doing ministry work? I mean, the church, for example, national church doing its Stewardship Sunday the week before, etc, etc. It's endless. It's endless, but I think it's missing something. But it doesn't cost anything to send out an email does it? And I used to have to beg for money too, I use the word beg, you know, request, you know, donations and whatnot. It was part of the schtick as a parish priest and running other institutions and so on. And it was, you know, I always had to find a way to fund yourself. At my last parish we had a festival where in three days, it would gross over $300,000. The profit was only about two hundred. But they knew how to do festivals, so I give them credit. If you're gonna do one you might as well do it right.

Hollie Benton 4:16
Do it up big. And you rely on it, right?

Fr. Timothy Lowe 4:18
Mostly, yes, yes, yes. We were not completely funded by tithing. So when your insurance for the facility ran 25 grand a year, just to be covered. It's just what happens when you have a beautiful building and exquisite iconography and it all has to be ensured. Right?

Hollie Benton 4:38
So that's the question for today. How do leaders of these businesses, nonprofits, and even churches - I'm seeing some churches beginning to leverage GivingTuesday campaigns. If we strive to be a doulos tou theou, a servant or slave of God in his household, how do we navigate this? I mean, if you work in retail, like you said, you certainly feel the pressure of Black Friday because all those who work in your business depend on those sales. If you're a nonprofit, you're expected to prepare a Giving Tuesday campaign and your organization really depends on this season of giving. And then think of all of us as consumers or patrons, if we too, are striving to be faithful servants in the Lord's household, how do we navigate this? What's the message we're sending to our own children? It's a messy business to be in the world but not of it. Father, you suggested we look to the Gospel of Matthew today, just a few verses from the Sermon on the Mount. Anything that you'd like to say about the context here before we read it?

Fr. Timothy Lowe 5:38
Well, you know, a few weeks back, we had another snippet from what I call the instruction on the mountain and I gave the background information relating this as not a sermon, but as commands, things we must follow, the new rule of faith, things expected of us, similar to Moses and the 10 commandments and the giving of the law. And so it's something that is not optional, not casual, we need to hear exactly what it's saying and heed it, because it ultimately are the words of life. And as Matthew is one to say, in the same sermon, later on within what we're going to read today, is the way that leads to life is long and narrow. And then the scolding, scolding words, few are they who find it. Which, if that doesn't shake us in our bones, absolutely nothing will. That is just so confronting, and so powerful, and it breaks immediately all our assumptions about ourselves, our values, the values of our country, the idea of mass production, of religion, mission. You know, we are in a season of Advent, it's time to sober up if we haven't sobered up, and to stay sober. And once again, listen to what Matthew is teaching us through the instruction on the mountain.

Hollie Benton 6:58
So let's hear that instruction. "Beware of practicing your piety before men in order to be seen by them. For then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven. Thus, when you give alms, sound no trumpet before you as a hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by men. Truly I say to 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 in secret, and your Father who sees in secret will reward you."

Fr. Timothy Lowe 7:33
So Hollie, I'm going to take our hearers on a little bit of a translation journey. Okay? These are four very simple verses, very short, even the sentences are short. Everybody, I'm sure has read this many times. Okay, so the first thing I want to point out is where the English translation, to me, is off. And therefore sometimes maybe we're missing in a more precise and therefore powerful way, the message that is being sent to us. So "beware," we see this word all the time. And usually it means something scary. But the Greek word really means give your full attention to, take heed, pay attention, right? Now, this word, "practicing." Sports teams, they practice. Musicians, they practice. I took piano for 10 years, you probably didn't know that about me. You know, something that we do on the side to prepare for something, but no, it's pay attention, give full attention to when you are doing. Greek word "to do" okay, it's an action. And then all of a sudden, we come to a word that just makes me crazy. This translation has "piety." Now, we're Orthodox Christians, most of us probably listening to this podcast, when we use the word piety, very specific things at least come into my mind, and I'm projecting them, assuming it's like everybody else. We think of outward expressions of reverence, you know, lighting a candle, kissing an icon, doing a prostration, making the sign of the cross. It's related to somehow an act of worship. And this is not at all what the Greek word means. So I have no idea why it's piety. Because the Greek word comes from the root word for righteousness. And righteousness in the Bible is a technical term deeply rooted in Old Testament Hebrew. And it's related to doing the commandments of God, you want to be righteous, the only thing you have to do is do His commandments. And then He will declare you righteous after He has examined you for a good defense at the dread judgment seat of God. The only defense is having done the commandments and then God will declare, faithful ones, the righteous ones. So it's technical. It's a legal term. And so it has nothing than to do with acts of piety. It is doing acts of righteousness. He digs us one more time, by saying, "do not do these acts of righteousness in order to be seen by others." In other words, what's motivating you to keep the commandments? The singular problem that God has in the biblical text with the human being, is his arrogance, and his egotism, he's motivated by the wrong reasons. And so we have to do the acts of righteousness, not acts of piety. As a young convert, I was a pious person, as an old priest, piety is out the window, that's just me. And I'm not judging because it makes no difference. It's what am I actually doing day to day, and we had this conversation a few weeks ago, when we talked about being perfect and loving your neighbor, that it's a command, we do not have a choice. So Christ expects us to do these acts of righteousness, and expects us not to ever think in terms of referencing other people, do they see it? not see it? It has nothing to do with that. And the caution here, the warning is, do not be motivated by the wrong reasons. We must do the acts of righteousness, we must keep the commandments of God, not optional. Piety, as I said, in terms of our understanding, it's completely optional. Oh, the priest is not very pious, and the answer is true, he's not, but but we don't want to scandalize anybody for any reason. So this is the punch line, "in order to be seen by them." That's the punch line for the first part. So let's understand the first part. We're not talking about piety. We're talking about acts of righteousness, doing them, but not worrying about it, doing it anonymously, if we possibly can. Because the reference, the motive has to be love of God, love of neighbor, and heeding and obeying what we are commanded to do by the Lord Himself, not showing off in front of others, not to satisfy our ego, seek their approval, or even to put them to shame because I'm more pious. No, it has nothing to do with that. And it makes me sick, so often, when you look at the headlines, you know, the next billionaire gave away a fortune, or a professional athlete, you know, it's Thanksgiving, right, it's helping the poor, all of which is wonderful. But then why do we splash it on the sports page? But we're obsessed with this and the warning is, Oh, well, so much? you lost your reward. Now, let's go on to the next verse. It says, "Thus when you give alms, sound no trumpet before you as the hypocrites do." Now, what is interesting, this word for alms is the word that we say for mercy. "Elios" which means, once again, we're focusing on doing acts of mercy, not practicing piety, or giving alms, acts of mercy. We say, Lord have mercy, so many times in our liturgy, right? So, this Sunday, you know, you're the choir director and Fr, Marc or the Deacon says, "In peace, let us pray to the Lord." And you have the choir systematically say, "Lord, have piety, Lord, have alms." My point is, acts of mercy is what we are supposed to be about. So whenever you do acts of mercy, again, the warning is do not sound a trumpet. Okay? Now a trumpet is a herald, right? You know, someone great is coming through the crowd, and they're trumpeting and announcing it as if you're a king or a royalty. No, we don't call the reporters, we don't do news articles. Christ then uses this word "hypocrite," which, of course, is a stage actor, someone who's wearing a mask pretending to be someone they're not. The issue is we do it so as not to receive glory. Now we use the word praise, but the Greek word actually is glory, which is another technical term in the Bible. Glory comes from the word, which means something that is heavy, weighty, the glory of God is something that sits on you, but it's an action that happens when you do something great, when you are victorious in battle, right? So when the Red Sea comes back on the Egyptians, and it says God has gotten glory, in other words, he's destroyed his enemies. He's been victorious. My point is, is that when we hear these technical terms that we need to pay attention to them, and the fact that we desire the glory that other people can shower on us, "Oh, he's great. He's wonderful. He's generous." Again, and I like how Matthew here smacks us and says very simply, "Do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing," which is an impossibility, right? It's the idea of making an exaggeration that's impossible to get to the point that you cannot let your left hand know what your right hand is doing. Meaning this should be completely in secret, unknown, anonymous.

Hollie Benton 15:22
I love how the gospel writer brings "not letting your left hand know what your right hand is doing" come full circle in Matthew 25. Because on that Day of Judgment, when the Lord welcomes those in who were faithful, "You fed me when I was hungry, you gave me drink, when I was thirsty, you clothed me when I was naked, you visited me while I was in prison." They're scratching their heads saying, when did we see you? It's as though they did not know what their left hand was doing from the right hand. Somehow they did these acts of mercy in secret.

Fr. Timothy Lowe 15:57
Only God sees in secret, only God does. Now, what I like about Matthew is that he doesn't use the generic word for God. In this section, the word "Father" is used most extensively here than in the entire Bible. In chapter 6, twelve times he's talking about God as Father, "Your Father who sees in secret will reward you." Now, the problem with this word "reward" also is a little bit difficult. In other words, he is going to pay you back in full at a point in time, not monetarily. You see, it's the gift of the kingdom, in being good and faithful. Always "Your Father will reward you," "Your father sees in secret," "Your Father knows what you need." Again, this brief moment, and it happens in Matthew, of referencing God as our Father. Usually we are His servant, but God is our Father. And I just really want to say this last thing about this word, Father, it comes from a Greek word, which means one who nourishes, one who protects, one who upholds you. All the things that we look for when the world is going crazy, our personal lives are falling apart, the future looks bleak. We may not be able to know how we're going to survive financially, or we may have ill health or worse our children have ill health and we're looking for the comfort, for the provider to nourish you, the one who is to protect. This is a father, it's functional. We can have progenitors who are not fathers, but Christ is introducing to God as our Father, not ontologically, not simply as creating, clearly daily function in our lives that we have to put our trust in. It's a promise of faith. It's a command to do. And that's it.

Hollie Benton 17:50
That's it.

Fr. Timothy Lowe 17:51
Sounds simple. On the one hand, it is simple. Be at peace, be faithful, and the rest is up to the Father.

Hollie Benton 17:59
Thank you, Fr. Timothy, thank you for digging deep into the translations, creating an important correction in our understanding of these verses filled with the richness of God's instruction and His mercy towards us. May we be ever mindful of the Lord's mercy and the mercy that we're asked to extend to others through the giving of alms. Thank you, Fr. Timothy.

Fr. Timothy Lowe 18:24
You are most welcome.

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