“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.”
Luke 11: 39-41
Luke Timothy Johnson offers a quite unique translation of Luke 11:41: “Give that which is inside as alms. Johnson explains his translation as follows:
This translation follows the conviction that Luke uses possessions language consistently to symbolize internal responses. Thus, internal qualities such as righteousness should be expressed by the sharing of possessions This reading matches the “inner wickedness” of the Pharisees being described as “greed.” (The Gospel of Luke, p. 189)
From this perspective the alms that we give, the possessions we offer to others, are a symbol of our internal generosity and love. We are, thus, giving away what we have received from God. Our outer words and actions mirror our inner dispositions of heart. It is the gift that we have received that we offer.
The source of generosity and kindness is a heart formed in appreciation and gratitude. The problem with the Pharisees of whom Jesus speaks is that they are trying to make their insides clean by compulsively cleaning “the outside of the cup and dish.” In an attempt to hide what is in their hearts under cover of ritualistic practice, they become only more and more self-alienated and, inevitably, judgmental and violent.
Why is it that so often “religious people” seem to have so little compassion and appreciation for the “humanity” of others? Quite simply, it is because they lack appreciation and gratitude for their own life as it is. Despite the attempted veneer of niceness or religiosity, those who despise themselves will ultimately only project their disgust for themselves on to others. If we do not reckon with our own propensity to self hatred, we shall always need scapegoats on which to release it.
As a young person, I suffered from a persistently anxious disposition. At times it would manifest itself acutely in quite severe symptoms, for example panic attacks. Much of the time, however, it consisted in a more pervasive social anxiety. Social situations were always, and to a degree still are, quite emotionally taxing, as I would work overtime to be present in the way I felt was called for, to accommodate to the demands of the others and the situation, lest they realize how different and, as I saw it, deficient I was. To have something of this or comparable experiences makes us realize how exhausting life can be. The sense of being deficient, even when we are not, is enough to engage us in a presence to others that is sheer work and performance.
In relatively recent times we have become aware of a phenomenon that we term “burnout.” When we are constantly trying to perform, to care for, to be of help not out of who we are but out of whom we think we have to be or should be, we wind up with a severe case of what Adrian van Kaam calls “social presence depletion.” Before too long at all, we truly feel burnt out. When we are attempting to give what we think we should give but what we have no sense of possessing ourselves, we are alway anxious — and tired.
Jan van Ruusbroec writes, “If one responds well to what one has received from God, then God will give one the spirit of kindness and generosity.” We “respond well” to what we have received from God, that is our very life and all that is part of it, when we receive it with appreciation and gratitude. As long as we mistrust the gift of who we are and so depreciate it, we shall remain anxious, restless, and compulsive. No matter how “good” we try to be on the outside, we shall not experience rest. For Ruusbroec rest is both a result of love that we receive from God and a prerequisite for true love of others. When I am attempting to be kind and generous out of willfulness and self-depreciation, I will only generate unrest and anxiety in my field of formation. When I exude from a place of true rest kindness and generosity, then I bring to others the very rest in which I am dwelling.
Ruusbroec says that as we deepen in our rest in God we acquire “more depth and breadth in the practice of virtue than was previously the case.” In my anxious way of being, I can do lots of things for people, but I cannot offer them a space in which to rest with me. I can do for, but not be with. The depth of virtue broadens and widens when we are able to so rest in God and in the gift that God has given us that we can invite others to share it.
This is precisely why a loving family or loving community is such a witness to the love of God. It is not a witness that is merely observable from a distance, rather it is a shared life that is generously open for anyone to share. As the Fundamental Principles say:
Cultivate a sincere friendship
and a warm affection for your sisters and brothers,
for it is in the manifestation
of honest concern and love for each other
that you and they will show
you are daughters and sons of Ryken and disciples of Jesus.
In The Reasons of the Heart, John S. Dunne, relates an experience from the writings of T. E. Lawrence. Lawrence relates how in his travels he encounters in the desert a solitary, who speaks to him only the following words: “The love is from God, and of God, and goes back to God.” This is a description of all creation, and of the small but significant part of it that each of us is. We “respond well” to the gift as our appreciation and gratitude for it increases. That appreciation and gratitude is our way of experiencing and knowing the love of God. It is also the source of true compassion, kindness, and generosity.
Often in life and history, religion can become more an obstacle to, rather than a condition for, such gratitude and compassion. This happens when religion becomes primarily a matter of the ethical. While we must have ideals, those ideals must not become the causes of dissociation and self-depreciation in us. When they do, then our “beliefs” become a bludgeon with which we smash those we see as the sinners and the impure. Our fear and rejection of our own sinfulness and impurity become the motivation of a false “kindness” that is precisely the opposite of true compassion and empathy. The more vehemently we work at cleaning the outside of the cup, the further and further we find ourselves from a spirit of appreciation and gratitude.
As long as we remain distant from ourselves, we shall never come to “respond well to what we have received from God.” We shall attempt to do good, to purify the world while continuing to hate and resent it. We shall always be on the verge of burnout because we are not doing what we love and loving those we serve. We strive and exert ourselves, but we are unable to rest in the truth of who we are. It is what we are inside that we truly have to give. To give it, however requires that first of all we receive it and respond well to it with appreciation and gratitude.
If one responds well to what one has received from God, then God will give one the spirit of kindness and generosity. In this way a person becomes generous of heart, merciful, and kind and so becomes more full of life and more like God. One feels that one is resting more deeply in God and acquiring more breadth and depth in the practice of virtue than was previously the case. As one becomes more like God, one also finds more savor in this likeness and in one’s rest.
Jan van Ruusbroec, The Spiritual Espousals, IV, B