On Tuesday 16th October 2007 the lectionary reading from Luke's Gospel was chapter 11:37-41.
Verse 41 is both interesting and challenging!
From the RSV: 'But give for alms those things which are within;
and behold, everything is clean for you.'
The context is Jesus at dinner having not washed his hands beforehand according to Jewish custom. The gist of the verse is clear enough, real cleanliness does not consist in washing with water. But the precise meaning of the verse is unclear. Questions which arise include these:
- is Jesus saying that almsgiving cleans a person ritually?
- is Jesus saying that almsgiving cleanses a person of their sins?
- what alms are to be given, i.e. what do 'those things that are within' mean? (Within a person? Within a dish (see Matthew 23:26)? Note the way the verse reads fairly well if we omit 'those things which are within', so: 'But give for alms [...]; and behold, everything is clean for you')
What is a preacher to do? Here are some possibilities:
- find a commentary or two on Luke's Gospel, read what is said, and weigh up the conclusion drawn
- carefully read through Matthew 23 (which is an inexact parallel to Luke 11:37-54)
- think about Luke's emphasis on the themes of money/possessions and riches/poverty: does this (for example) support us thinking that for Luke 'alms' means money/possessions and not something non-material such as 'love' or 'kindness'?
- consider the implications of the material aspect of 'extortion' in Luke 11:39: is Luke simply saying 'getting greedily and illegally can be undone by giving away generously'?
(Supposing we have wrestled our way to a conclusion of these 'exegetical' labours) our next challenge is then to work out what message comes from this verse, how this message fits with what we will say about the remainder of the passage, and what 'overall message' will be the focus of our sermon.