So, instead, give that which is inside as alms. And look! Everything is clean for you!
Luke 11: 41
The basic teaching of Jesus that what comes from within a person rather than conforming and acceptable behavior constitutes purity of heart is a familiar theme in the gospels. However, the teaching of Luke 11: 41 poses something of a hermeneutical mystery. In the translation of Luke Timothy Johnson given above, we hear Jesus say to “give that which is inside as alms. And look! Everything is clean for you!” In the New American Bible we read: “But as to what is within, give alms, and behold everything will be clean for you.” In context it is clear that this is the opposite of the hypocrisy and manipulation of the Pharisees. But, what exactly does Jesus mean by giving “that which is inside as alms.”
Over the years I have realized that often I will give something to or do something for another person rather than give my full attention and presence to him or her. If I am part of hosting a gathering, I prefer, or at least preferred in my younger years, to help serving or cleaning up to just being and speaking with the guests. Similarly, I would often realize, in retrospect, how I would much more quickly just give a homeless person some money and move on, rather than engage that person, even briefly, in conversation. In both cases I would be giving alms, but not giving “that which is inside as alms.”
Too much attention to ritual and external behavior arises when we cease to express and offer to each other the unique life we have been given by God. There’s nothing wrong with ritual, or tithing or charitable giving. When any of that, however, loses contact with the life of God in us, with the sharing with others from the fullness that we have received, then it risks becoming a hollow shell that cannot be sustained. Our relationship to each other becomes one of custom, duty, and good manners rather than of mercy and love.
Recently a friend asked me what part of the Mass I most appreciated. His answer was the handshake of peace. As I reflected on his answer, I realized that, in fact, something quite extraordinary happens at that moment. Up to that time, we who are gathered have each been within our own lives and thoughts and concerns, or those of our immediate family surrounding us. Yet, when we turn to each other a certain spontaneity of action and appearance takes over. As I smile and make physical contact with those around me, and in turn receive their smiles and handshakes, I realize that our relationship to each other has changed. We are no longer separate individuals who are to receive the Eucharist, but rather we are now those who have been gathered together to realize the gift of Communion. The experience has been transformed from a personal experience of separate individuals to a shared realization of our shared identity as the Body of Christ. The source of this transformation is the act by which we have each given away to the others as alms something of that which is inside us, as Jesus does in giving himself to us.
The generosity to which the gospels call us is, of course, manifest in how we help each other and respond materially and psychologically to each others’ needs. Yet, it is also so much more demanding than that. We are asked to give as alms to each other our very selves, as poor, little, and insignificant as that often seems to us. In fact, it seems so little to us that we often withhold it for fear of losing “the little that we have.” Yet, as when we smile at and shake the hands of those around us in the church, when we give away as alms what is inside us, we realize that there is always more and more to be given. “What you have received as a gift, give as a gift.” (Matthew 10:8)
If you give up sagehood and abandon wisdom
people will profit a hundred times over.
If you give up Humanity and abandon Duty
people will return to obedience and kindness.
If you give up ingenuity and abandon profit
bandits and thieves will roam no more.
But these three
are mere refinements, nowhere near enough.
They depend on something more:
observe origin’s weave, embrace uncharted simplicity,
self nearly forgotten, desires rare.
Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching, trans. David Hinton, #19