Monday In Holy Week 6th April 2020
Generosity as prayer
One of the effects these social restrictions are having on many of us is they are reconfiguring our relationship to time. I know some people are busier are than ever, certainly our medical professionals and those with additional family responsibilities. But for most of us, even if we’re working from home we’re saving time by not commuting or travelling to meetings and the diary has probably thinned out a bit. Many people, of course, have been furloughed, or laid off. And I’ve spoken on the phone to many retired people for him this time is simply lonely and boring.
For most of us this is all a quite a shock to the system because one of the things that has characterised how we live today has been the intense accountability many of us feel for how we use our time. We work longer hours and we have multiple demands on our leisure and family time. There is an intense pressure on us to be productive and high functioning, certainly at work but increasingly in all areas of our lives.
It’s that pressure that often pushes out time for prayer in the course of our day. Prayer isn't an obviously good use of our time. It doesn't appear that we would lose very much if we allocated the time to something else. Or if we do pray there is a growing trend to regard prayer as some kind of well-being activity that we only do because it enhances our productivity.
This is one symptom of advanced capitalism where time, alongside everything else, has become commodified. Time, as they say, is money. So the mentality that Judas Iscariot represents in today’s Gospel of stringent financial accountability is now pervasive. Mary of Bethany is made to feel she has wasted resources in anointing the feet of Jesus. And we are made to feel that we are wasting time when we too spend time with Jesus in prayer. Jesus responds, in an un-self-aggrandizing way, that he is worth wasting resources on. The anointing is an act of generosity by Mary towards someone who has been generous to her.
I want to suggest that we should think of prayer as an act of generosity too. We can think about that in three ways.
First, prayer is an act of generosity towards others. We instinctively feel that. When we say to people during this pandemic that we will remember them in our prayers, we feel that we are doing something generous towards them and that the recipient is grateful. Praying for someone does not obviously or immediately further their interests. But it is to honour them in our own eyes and to hold them before God in the belief that they are loved and valued. Prayer is an act of generosity to others.
Second, I think we should also think of prayer as an act of generosity to ourselves. I don't mean that in the sense of the well-being activity that enhances productivity. I mean it in the sense that prayer is the activity that most deepens and enriches our own humanity. Prayer is where we remember that we are loved and valued by the God who has purposes for our lives. If we neglect that central Christian identity then we are not bring generous to ourselves. We deny our potential and all that God wants us to be.
And third I believe we can think of prayer as an act of generosity towards God. God does not, of course, need our prayers and anything that we give to God in this world is simply a miniscule return of all that God has given us. But God does not demand that we pray, and like the father of the Prodigal Son, he does not just look on us with compassion but with delight when we return home after days of absence. I like to imagine that God smiles when I finally make time for him in my busy day.
So if prayer is an act of generosity then it's training us to develop a characteristic that our culture has pushed out but which is, right now, in urgent demand. Acts of generosity have been increasingly questioned. We don’t tend to check in on our neighbours because we assume they’d probably rather not be disturbed. We don’t help a homeless person because it seems futile in the face of such an enormous problem? Even in the world of philanthropy the drift towards impact investment and clearly defined deliverables is encouraging us to think that true generosity is really rather reckless and irresponsible.
But in this crisis we’re realizing that acts of generosity are crucial. We need to see if our elderly neighbours need help to get their shopping. We’ve had to address the enormity of the homelessness problem and any small donation to a housing charity will help. Those who are lucky enough to be wealthy need to dig into their pockets to strengthen the assistance government is giving to those whose lives and livelihoods are precarious.
And this is calling Christians back to what we should have known this all along. We believe that generosity is beautiful; it is the essence of the Gospel. “Freely you have received,” Jesus says to his disciples, “freely give.” In his sermons on John's Gospel St Augustine of Hippo has interesting things to say about the anointing at Bethany. The Gospel tells us that “the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume” and Augustine interprets this as the power of generosity in the life of the Christian: “The world is filled,” he says, “with the fame of a good character”.
We have seen a growing culture of ungenerosity over recent years – in our politics, our social media, towards people who are different. So now is the time for Christians to show the way of generosity.
And so if prayer is an act of generosity then I want to suggest that generosity is also an act of prayer. Generosity is a sign of God's grace in the world. It is the power of the Gospel which flows from our hearts into the lives of others. And we learn to do that when we give of our time generously in prayer.