12:33 Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys.
12:34 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
A Question or Two:
- What is a purse that does not wear out?
- Why is it important to sell your possessions?
- What are alms, anyway?
Some Longer Reflections:
Sell your possessions. Give alms.
We need to consider two words here: “sell” and “alms.”
Sell your possessions:
The Greek word translated as “sell” implies trading or bartering. This would imply a close-knit, unofficial economy. That is an interesting way to speak of selling your possessions. For clarity’s sake it is important to note that this command does not enjoin selling ALL your possessions. Jesus says that elsewhere, but not here. But he does command bartering possessions.
Why use this word? “Barter” implies that this is not an act of “first-world” charity, helping the less fortunate and then going back home to much acclaim for showing such generosity. Barter involves reciprocal acts, the actions of a community taking caring of itself.
This is reinforced by the word ἐλεημοσύνην (translated in the NRSV as “alms”), which plays on the root that means “pity.” In English, pity is a word that works separation between people. “There but for the grace of God…,” I say, glad that I am, in fact, not you. I might even be able to give you a catalog of all the ways I make better choices than you do: I exercise more, I eat better, I made better financial choices. The list goes on. Every item on the list builds a wall between us.
It is different in Greek. As is clear in Aristotle’s Poetics, pity creates connection between people. In fact, one of the words that is translated as “pity” in English means that human beings are linked at the gut. We feel each other’s pain, and we (when we are properly human) know each other’s distress.
That means that Jesus’ command is not just an encouragement to donate to charity. We are told to start acting like human beings: seeing each other and responding to each other.
Eλεημοσύνην has a broad, inclusive implication.
This clearly extends beyond the simple matter of “giving alms.” It goes far beyond simply giving money to meet financial needs. The Greek word ἐλεημοσύνην is much wider than mere money. Money is only one embodiment ofἐλεημοσύνην. “Acts of pity” take place when people discover that they are linked at the gut.
We will carry out this command, therefore, when we feel what it means to raise Black children who will be at real risk during simple traffic stops. It means that we will know in the pit of out stomachs that worry that wives and husbands of law enforcement officers feel when they send their spouse off to work, knowing that this could be the night something awful happens. It means we would know what it means to live with spasticity that people (even presidential candidates) ridicule in public. It means we would know in our heart why the derogatory words we attach to developmental disabilities, sexual orientations, and female body parts are so vicious, why transgendered people are daily in physical danger.
If this sounds as if our hearts will forever bleed, sure.
Why not? Hearts DO bleed.
But if that is ALL that happens, it is of little good. There’s an old song by John Prine, called Billy the Bum. The central character is a bum, a gentle boy who is the butt of the jokes of cruel children. Prine has always been good at noticing such people, and at writing songs that respect them. And he is not much impressed with people who think that “feeling solidarity” with such people is enough. His advice?
Now some folks they wait and some folks they pray
For Jesus to rise up again
But none of these folks in their holy cloaks
Ever took Billy on as a friend
For pity’s a crime
And it ain’t worth a dime
To a person who’s really in need
Just treat ’em the same
As you would your own name
Next time that your heart starts to bleed
Prine knows what “pity” means in American English. He calls for the same thing as Jesus, which is interesting. You heart may very well bleed. But the command is to barter your possessions so that you can act out your community connection to people who have needs, which, finally, is all of us. Therefore, it all starts with “treat[ing] ’em the same as you would your own name.” We all share the same family name, it appears.
Maybe that is the key. In the midst of all the recent killings has come the call to say the names of those who have been killed. All of their names. Say them.
They are all your family name.
Now you can barter. Now you can be merciful.