Following the Fifth Precept of the Church

Jul 2, 2017: 13th Sunday in OT

2 Kings 4:8-11, 14-16
Psalms 89:2-3, 16-19
Romans 6:3-4, 8-11
Matthew 10:37-42

The Church is a good Mother, a spiritual mother.

As such, she watches over our spiritual health.

One way she does this is by creating family rules – rules that everyone in the family of the Catholic Church needs to follow in order to stay spiritually healthy. Of course the most basic rules that Church teaches us are those given to us directly by God, the “user’s manual,” if you will, for human happiness. These are the Ten Commandments — the most basic requirements for growth in spiritual maturity, increase in wisdom, and the experience of a fulfilling, meaningful life. The Church also constantly reminds us of the example and teachings of Jesus Christ, which reveal the deeper purpose and meaning behind the Ten Commandments, and the best way to follow them (by developing a friendship with Jesus Christ, of course). Being a good Mother, the Church also gives us some extra help, some family rules that we can use as a litmus test to see if we are really cultivating our friendship with Christ, or not.

We call these the “precepts of the Church.” God did not reveal them directly to us in the Bible. Rather, they are applications of God’s commandments inspired in the Church by the Holy Spirit. Nevertheless, they are still basic responsibilities of all Catholics, the bare minimum, in fact, necessary to help us all keep following the straight and narrow path to spiritual maturity and lasting happiness.

The Catechism lists these five precepts [2041-2043]:
1. You shall attend Mass on Sundays and holy days of obligation and rest from servile labor.
2. You shall confess your sins at least once a year.
3. You shall receive the sacrament of the Eucharist at least during the Easter season.
4. You shall observe the days of fasting and abstinence established by the Church.
5. You shall help to provide for the needs of the Church

In today’s First Reading and Gospel passage, our Lord wants to give us the background behind this last precept – the duty of each member of our Catholic family to help provide for the material needs of the Church.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus speaks about this precept. He promises us that even if we only give a small gift to support the mission of His Church, He will never forget it: “And whoever gives only a cup of cold water to one of these little ones to drink because he is a disciple — amen, I say to you, he will surely not lose his reward.” We do not always experience that “reward” here on earth, but God has given plenty of visible signs throughout history that the reward He promises us is indeed real.

The experience of the woman of Shunem in today’s First Reading is a good example. She convinced her husband to show special hospitality to God’s prophet, Elisha. She did not do it for selfish reasons, nor to look good in the eyes of her neighbors. She did it because she saw an opportunity to glorify God and show her love for the Lord by using her own God-given resources to support one of God’s chosen servants. As she explained it to her husband, “I know he is a holy man of God. Since he visits us often, let us arrange a little room…” She wanted to support his holiness, his mission, his work on behalf of God’s Kingdom. Moreover, God allowed her to see how grateful and pleased he was with her generosity – He gave her and her husband the gift of a child, to which she gave birth at the very time Elisha had predicted.

We never receive in this life the full reward for our generosity to God, but He does give us glimpses of the reward He is preparing for us, the reward that, as He promised, we shall not lose.

Obeying the fifth precept of the Church is an investment with eternal returns.

One reason this precept is so important is that money is so dangerous. St Paul tells us (1 Timothy 6:10) that “the desire for money is the root of all evil.” Money gives the illusion of power and control. It can easily seduce us, making us think that if we have enough of it, we can create paradise on earth. However, that is not true. Money is only a means to an end. Money is a tool, a talent that we are to use intelligently to pursue life’s true purpose: building up the Kingdom of Christ.

Therefore, when we use our resources to support the work of the Church, we are making sure that we do not get seduced, that we keep pursuing our true purpose. There is no better investment for whatever wealth we may have, even if it were as small as a cup of cold water, than to give it to the building up of God’s Kingdom. Moreover, there are few things more tragic then wealth gone to waste. Greed, miserliness, and stinginess can be just as wasteful as extravagance.

A story about a French nobleman in the late middles ages illustrates this. He was extremely wealthy and knew how to continue harvesting wealth from his dependents. He had a secret strong-room made in the foundations of his chateau, where he could keep his money safe. A passage led from a deep unused cellar to the iron door, which would shut automatically with a spring lock. For years, he used to go to the secret treasure room to admire all his silver and gold, unbeknownst to anyone.

One day, having received his quarterly rents, he waited until night and carried the moneybags to his secret treasury, and spent his usual hour admiring and adoring its contents. Turning to go, he found to his horror that he had left the key on the outside and closed the door; he was a prisoner. Shouts and hammerings were of no avail, the strong-room had been purposely made far from sight and sounds. His household made every effort to solve the mystery of his disappearance, but at last, they could only conclude that he had been enticed away and murdered.

Months afterwards an old locksmith in a distant town heard of the Count’s disappearance. He remembered the eccentric strong-room for which he himself had fitted a special lock thirty years before. He went to the chateau with his information, and led the relatives to the secret door where the key was still in the lock. Inside, they discovered the rotting corpse of the miser, lying on heaps of gold that he had evidently embraced in his death-agony.

The Church is a good Mother, and she does not give us the duty of supporting her many good works out of self-interest. No, the fifth precept of the Church has a spiritual purpose. It reminds us of our true goal in life: to build up an eternal Kingdom, and encourages us to keep earthly pursuits in their proper perspective.

One concrete way to carry out this precept is through the practice of tithing. This is a biblical practice with roots in the Old Testament. In consists of deciding ahead of time to give to the work of God a certain percentage of your income – the first 10%, for instance, right off the top. This ancient custom is one of the best ways to assure that we never get seduced by greed, and that we never let the pleasures and problems of our earthly life blind us to our true destination – the Kingdom of Heaven. Tithing is just one possible way of fulfilling the fifth precept. The Church commands us to support her works, but she does not specify how much or in what form. That is up to each one of us to decide, with the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

As we continue with this Mass, we will refresh our faith in God and His Kingdom by praying the Creed and then by bringing to Him our petitions. After that, we will take up the offertory. Then, when we put our offerings on the altar, Jesus will fulfill His promise – transforming our own offerings of bread and wine into a reward that far out-values any gift we could ever give to Him: His own Body and Blood, His very own divine presence.

Today, let’s not take this gift for granted.

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