The Lord said to him, “Now you Pharisees clean the outside of the cup and dish. But your insides are full of greed and wickedness! Fools! Didn’t the one who made the outside also make the inside? So instead, give that which is inside as alms. And look! Everything is clean for you!
Luke 11: 39-41
“Give that which is inside as alms.” As Luke recounts it, Jesus connects inner purity with generosity. The sign of inner integrity and purity of heart is almsgiving. In The Gospel of Luke, Luke Timothy Johnson explains his translation of this sentence in the following way: “This translation follows the conviction that Luke uses possessions language consistently to symbolize internal responses” (p. 189). The way in which we use and relate to things manifests our inner life and dispositions.
One core tension as we live out our lives is between “holding on” and “letting go.” From birth to death, we see that human persons have a propensity for grabbing and holding on. There is a reflex reaction in the tiniest infant that grabs on and holds tight. And there is a bodily reaction at the end of life that struggles to breathe and to maintain its own life. From the beginning of life we learn, when fearful or threatened, to “hold on tight.”
Letting go, on the other hand is a disposition we must learn to cultivate. Anyone who has ever suffered from severe anxiety or a panic attack knows that what leads to the physical symptoms of such an attack is “forgetting” to exhale. We become light-headed and faint because we keep “taking-in” without “letting-go.” What is true at the bodily level is also true of mind and spirit. I often ponder why it is that for so many who are extremely wealthy even their considerable wealth is never enough. To give over or to let go what we take to be ours is a difficult choice for us. Our fear of losing our life confirms Luke’s foundational theme that possessions symbolize for us our “internal responses” to life.
So, we are commanded by Jesus to give alms, not only for the others but, in an existential sense, for ourselves as well. Life is not our possession, and possessions are not our life. In today’s gospel Jesus is teaching us that we must come to learn the truth that God’s gift of life to us is not a finite one that we must hoard, but it is rather an “ever-flowing stream” that replenishes itself the more we give it away.
Johnson’s translation of the verse from Luke, however, affords us another challenge. “Give that which is inside as alms.” As it reads, it calls on us to give that “which is inside” us. The tension between “holding on” and “letting go” grows more intense the more interior and personal the possession at hand. From early childhood, we are taught it is important to share what we have with others. So, if we are given some candy, we learn to offer it to others. If we have a new toy, our parents inculcate in us a willingness to let others play with it alongside us. As children, however, we do not yet have an interiority to share. It is only later in our development that we begin to experience the deeper spiritual tension involved in whether or not to give away who we are at our very core.
Recently a friend said to me that when his work involved doing something he loved, it did not feel like work to him. When our engagement in the world involves our offering of who we most deeply are, we then experience a convergence of work and call. This confirms the view of Adrian van Kaam that our life is “an assignment, a task, a mysterious call.” There are, of course, many obstacles to doing a work that is aligned with who we most deeply are. Many of them are outside of us and beyond our control. For example, we must survive and provide for ourselves and our families, and our societies are not structured in such a way as to apportion work on the basis of the discernment of individual calls. Given this truth, however, why is it that beyond the need to work to live, it is often so difficult for us to use even our leisure time in such a way that we give away “that which is inside as alms.”
One reason is our own pride. For some inexplicable reason, most of us seek recognition for what we are not, rather than for “the gift we have been given.” How often we hear in ourselves and others the claims of “giftedness” precisely for those things that one does not have? We find it much easier to work very hard at those things that require work from a place less than our own deepest interiority. Much of our overwork and even burnout come from a willfulness to do what it is not ours to do, because it is too threatening to do what is ours alone to fulfill.
If, as my friend suggested, there is such a flow when we are doing what we truly love, then why do we do so little of it? Perhaps it is because to “give what is inside as alms” feels like it is so little and insignificant to us. There are always others who have so much more talent, so much more to give in what seems like the same regard as our offering. We judge ourselves and so become ashamed of our own unique calling. So, as Adam and Eve, we hide ourselves, often behind willful exertion and overwork (or underwork for that matter). To be willing and to dare, like the widow who offers the mite, to offer what seems like the little we have is the way to become clean inside, to become one with the Giver of our lives. We do not exist until who we are comes to light in an act of giving ourselves away, as little as that may seem to us.
Lord, teach me to be generous.
Teach me to serve you as you deserve;
to give and not to count the cost,
to fight and not to heed the wounds,
to toil and not to seek for rest,
to labor and not to ask for reward,
save that of knowing that I do your will.
St. Ignatius of Loyola