Friday, November 25, 2005

Alms Within

After having eaten and drunk your fill yesterday, perhaps you feel guilty enough to give something to the poor (more likely you are concerned enough to have done it anyway—I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt!). Almsgiving is an important part of our Christian way of life, but don’t think you’ve done enough if you already “gave at the office.” Simply to give is not enough. The Pharisees and wealthy Sadducees gave alms, skimming a little off the top of their abundance, and then making a public display of their “generosity.” Jesus, noticing this (He does notice things, by the way), said that a poor widow, who gave much less than they did, actually gave more, because she gave out of her substance and not out of surplus.

There is still more. There is always more if you are a Christian, because Christianity is less about things that you ought or ought not do, and more about the kind of person you ought to be (what you do will flow naturally from who you are). Therefore Christianity requires a life offered in service to God and to humanity, according to God’s manifest will in Scripture and Holy Tradition.

That is why Jesus, when He was reproaching the Pharisees for their hypocrisy, offered them this counsel: “Give for alms those things that are within, and behold, everything is clean for you” (Luke 11:41). That is a literal translation; most simply say “give alms” or something similar, which doesn’t fit the context and entirely misses the point. They would have been more than happy to be absolved of their evildoing by a little almsgiving, but that’s not what Jesus was saying.

Here is the context: “You Pharisees cleanse the outside of the cup and dish, but inside you are full of extortion and wickedness. You fools! Did not he who made the outside make the inside also?” (11:39-40). The Pharisees are concerned only with external observances (including a bit of almsgiving) and with righteous appearances. This is the “outside of the cup.” But the Lord sternly reminded them that they are neglecting the inside, that is, their own inner life, their thoughts, their hearts, from which proceed their “extortion and wickedness,” because that is the kind of persons they had become. That is what has to be dealt with, first and foremost. If they cleanse the inside of the cup, their external observances will acquire a genuineness they never had before, and they will become the kind of persons from whom good deeds naturally flow.

That is why the Lord said to give alms from what is within, that is, make a sacrifice, a gift to the Lord of the renunciation of your sins and bad habits, your hypocrisy, self-aggrandizement, pride, and selfishness. That’s the only way to clean the inside, so He said: “behold, everything is clean for you.”

We have to check and see if we’re spending too much time on the outside of the cup, cultivating an exterior appearance that may be only a veneer over a soiled interior that seriously needs cleansing. First give the interior alms of repentance and conversion, until you become the kind of person who naturally (and supernaturally) does good, who lives the Christian life of sacrifice and service both within and without. When the Holy Spirit dwells in you, and you have given up your sins, behold, everything is clean for you!