Give Alms or Bust
Daily Gospel Reflection for Luke 11:37-41
The readings for today can be found on the USCCB website.
Today’s Gospel feels like Jesus is giving me the side eye, knowing that I’m reading it.
It’s easy to take this reading and put it onto a shelf labeled ‘moral teaching,’ knowing intellectually that Jesus is calling out a type of hypocrisy in the Pharisee’s attitude: judging Jesus for physical uncleanliness (which amounts to spiritual uncleanliness by not following the Law) when the Pharisee is unclean in his heart according to how God has called the Israelites to live the Law.
Instead of telling the Pharisee to turn to God, or go and sin no more, he specifically says, “But as to what is within, give alms, and behold, everything will be clean for you” (vs. 41). I became curious - what did Jesus mean by ‘give alms’? How could giving money to the poor so simplistically, even superficially, be enough to make everything clean?
I must be understanding this wrong. So I searched what alms would have meant for Jewish people in the first century. And, like many, many times, I was wrong.
Jesus is comparing how the Pharisee has let minute matters of the Law take precedence over one of the two central tenets of the Law: love of neighbour. As one of the two central matters, if this is wrong from the start it has a ripple effect on all other observances.
Our term of alms has its meaning from the Greek term for ‘mercifulness,’ which was a particular term used to denote charity out of compassion. The Hebrew word ẓedaḳah (from which it was based upon), however, meant something more than charity out of compassion: “According to the Mosaic conception, wealth is a loan from God, and the poor have a certain claim on the possessions of the rich; while the rich are positively enjoined to share God's bounties with the poor.”1 All wealth comes from God. Though it was not distributed equally, the Israelites were commissioned to share it according to the right of the poor to also have a share in God’s wealth. This was justice and uprightness of the heart.
Over time the emphasis on the responsibility to share wealth as a mode of justice for the poor to enjoy their portion of God’s wealth was diminished, and “the giving of Alms out of mere pity and without regard to the permanent relief of the recipient, became a meritorious practise.”2
This is what Jesus is addressing: the disconnect between providing material needs for the poor and needy and actually caring for them because they have a divine right to be cared for, materially and as humans. The Jewish Encyclopedia goes on to quote Psalm 41:1, “Happy are those who consider the poor; the Lord delivers them in the day of trouble,” and says that the Psalm does not say happy are those that give: “This is an admonition to us to take personal interest in him and not simply to give him Alms.”3
Jesus seemed to believe that the Pharisee had half of the Law right- he loved God. He needed to follow that up with loving his neighbour, for then all the deeds flowing from these foundations would be made clean.
Jesus’ side-eye to me still remains. If I cannot take a personal interest in the poor and needy, my giving to them is not God’s glory but my own. If I cannot take an interest in my neighbour, especially those in need, and care for who they are even if I disagree with them, then no action I do, however reverently, can be counted to God’s glory, but only my own.
If I don’t get this right, as St. Paul admonishes the Corinthians, I’m only a noisy gong or clanging cymbal; I am nothing and I have gained nothing (1 Cor 13:1-3).
I must love my neighbour.