While Jesus was speaking, a Pharisee asked him to dine with him, so he went in and reclined at table. The Pharisee was astonished to see that he did not first 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. You fools! Did not he who made the outside make the inside also? But give as alms those things that are within, and behold, everything is clean for you. (Luke 11:37-41 ESV)
I don’t know if it’s every church, but the one’s I’m most familiar with have problems in that the people don’t tithe. So, the pastor and elders and leaders all work to persuade people to tithe. We use various means, but typically it boils down to their devotion to God is reflected in their giving (guilting them into it). But I think I’ve found a different approach in this passage.
As you read through this dinner party where, again Jesus seems to make His host and other guests uncomfortable, He also throws in this strange statement in the middle. It’s weird so it’s easy to miss: “But if you give as alms those things that are within, and behold, everything is clean for you.” The problem I have with it is that Jesus attaches several elements together that I find difficult to connect.
Giving those things that are within makes some sense, if those things are good. Of course if I give those things that are within as “alms” I suppose that would necessitate those things be good. What sort of heart would produce something to give to others as “alms” if it wasn’t good, or striving to be good. But Jesus connects those things that are within with “alms”. How do I give what is within as alms?
Those things that are within are what? My love (as God understands it). My compassion? Mercy? Perhaps the ability to overlook negative judgments of others, what they look like, dress like, or smell like; how they talk. Maybe what I can give as alms from within is my time, or a smile. Perhaps a conversation, not trying to fix them, but getting to know them. I honestly don’t know what it will or should look like, but these are possibilities.
But whatever the interior alms look like, giving them has a very unexpected effect. The context of this statement has to do with washing the hands before eating a meal. The statement Jesus makes is that the effect of giving alms from the interior is that “everything is clean for you.” How does one affect the other? How does what I give to others from those things that are within have anything to do with the cleanliness of what I eat? Does Jesus even refer to the cleanliness of what I eat? The context suggests that, and it would definitely be on the heart and mind of a Pharisee and lawyer (it probably never left their mind). But how do the two connect?
I honestly don’t know. I’m wracking my brain to get my head around this concept, and I’m really struggling. Cleanliness of what the Jews ate is way too often rooted in safety or in health reasons. I think most of the “Holiness Code” of Leviticus was more defining the Jews as distinct from those around them. There may have been a practical side to the laws in that code, but there was one common thread that transcended “wisdom”. It was simple obedience. What truly made the Jews distinct was their whole devotion to the rules of God. Sure some of those rules kept them safe from dangerous food and difficult laundering problems, but some were simply inexplicable as pragmatic rules. I think it was supposed to come down to devotion to God.
In that case, what one eats is less important than devotion to God. Therefore, perhaps Jesus is prioritizing the law of loving your neighbor over don’t eat certain animals. Later on in this passage Jesus says, “These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others.” I think that also applies here. The Pharisees and lawyers were focusing on those rules that showed strict adherence to certain laws that made them look good to others. But avoided adherence to those laws that actually cost them in their dealings with others. They strove to merely look good to others rather than be good before God.
In that case, we, I, are just like them. Churches are full of these people. Superficiality is easier than true devotion. Devotion to God really is inconvenient and disruptive to our lives, our activities, our work, what we do for fun, and our schedules. My wife and I made the decision to search for a house that would enable more ministry. God directed us to one that fit our budget and was more home than we imagined within our budget. But it requires more work to keep up. It requires more time to keep it available to ministry. It means having to sacrifice our personal space. Hospitality isn’t mine or my wife’s gifting it has become more our “calling”, so it doesn’t come easy.
But really that’s easier than others around me to make even greater decisions to inconvenience themselves for the Kingdom of God. What we’ve done helps us feel better about having a nice house, but truly we benefit tremendously from it. Others have made decisions to be devoted to God in ways that hurt their business, endanger their work life, and possibly endanger their families. We haven’t done that. But we know enough of inconvenient devotion to God to know that we, even as limited as we have been, are weird in church. We should be on the bottom of the devotion ladder, not near the middle or top. That’s just embarrassing, or should be. I believe Jesus is calling these Pharisees and lawyers to be authentic with their beliefs. But what they heard was Jesus tearing down their practices. He wanted them to be real Jews, but they heard Him try to remove their distinction from Gentiles.
So I suppose the question for you is, “What do you hear Jesus saying to you?”