“While he was speaking, a Pharisee asked to dine with him; so he went in and sat at the table. The Pharisee was astonished to see that he did not wash before dinner. And the Lord said to him, ‘Now you Pharisees cleanse the outside of the cup and of the dish, but inside you are full of greed and wickedness…give for alms those things that are within, and behold, everything will be clean for you.'” (Luke 11:37-41 RSV)
I’ve always been a little confused about this passage. First, Jesus says that the Pharisees are full of terrible things inside (“greed and wickedness”; some translations say “extortion and evil”), and then he turns around and tells them to give “the things that are within” as alms!. Why in the world would that be charitable?
“Alms” is an old fashioned word which we don’t tend to hear much these days. It’s derived from a Greek root word which means, “pity or mercy”. Almsgiving, otherwise called “charity”, is representative of that generosity that is God: his great, great mercy and goodness that pours forth unceasingly from his Heart of love for all of his creation, especially for his own sons and daughters. The torrent of gifts which Jesus spoke of as “rivers of living water” (John 7:38), and “a spring of water welling up to eternal life” (John 4:14) are the very nature of God, the Holy Spirit given to us when we are incorporated into Jesus the Christ.
These “alms” gifts of charity, of love, are not simply material gifts, though they are that, certainly. They are also gifts of care, of attention, time, focus, energy, presence. These are the actual “stuff” of unselfish charity, of almsgiving. Yet often when I look “within” myself for what I have to give others, I discover inside myself distressing things: selfishness, greed, envy, pridefulness – all kinds of brokenness. The transformative grace of God is surely needed in order to change me if I am to be “clean” of the pollution of self inside, for I cannot do it myself.
If I am to become like my generous Savior who gives so generously and unselfishly, I must begin to imitate him in my actions. As I choose to do so (always aided by his grace of course), his very Life begins to transform me from within, where his Spirit dwells. As my outward choices and actions confirm an inward change of heart, I start to become more generous and more aware of others, not just myself. I move away from selfish acquisition, the clutching of my own “stuff”, and rely more and more on God’s supply in my life. Like those jars of oil and meal that sustained the widow of Zarephath in Elijah’s time (see 1 Kings 17:7-16 for that amazing story), my “supply” re-fills as I give it away. And I discover there’s enough for me and plenty for others as well – time, attention, focus, energy and financial resources! The “filth” within becomes actual gifts to others as I seek to obey my Savior, to become more like him.
In Luke 10, Jesus gives us the parable of the Good Samaritan, that one who “showed mercy”. At the end of the story, Jesus asks, “… which proved to be neighbor to the man who fell among robbers?”. His listener responds, “the one who showed mercy”. Jesus responds affirmatively, and adds, “…Go and do likewise.”. In other words, do mercy, do almsgiving, that giving of yourself, the “inside of the cup”. Only in doing so will all become “clean” within.