What Does It Mean to Give as Alms those Things that Are Within You?

The Pharisees are much more like us than we might care to admit, and we have the same tendency to clean the outside of the cup.

I spend a fair amount of time thinking about the Pharisees in Jesus’s day and who the Pharisees of our day might be. Jesus was pretty tough on them as a group. It seems that maybe we should pay attention.

They were religious leaders, of course. The Oxford online dictionary defines a Pharisee as “a member of an ancient Jewish sect, distinguished by strict observance of the traditional and written law, and commonly held to have pretensions to superior sanctity”. The word, Pharisee, has become synonymous with a self-righteous person or a hypocrite.

I think it’s easy to write them off as a particularly unenlightened, archaic clique of religious leaders who completely missed the boat when God became man and walked among them. I also think it’s dangerous for us to dismiss them so offhandedly.

Pharisees weren’t the only religious leaders in the First Century. The Sadducees were the other “party” of religious leaders in that time. Like Democrats and Republicans today, the two groups were in conflict with each other over politics and theology.

The Sadducees were more elite and upper class than the Pharisees. They were also more conservative, at least in the sense of recognizing only the written Torah, rejecting the “oral Torah” (along with the Prophets and the idea of resurrection of the dead).

The Pharisees were more trusted by common folks. While the Sadducees incorporated the influence of Greek culture and thought, the Pharisees opposed it, remaining more “pure”, emphasizing Mosaic Law alone.

The word, Pharisee, means “set apart, separated”. Though we know of no Sadducees who followed Jesus, more than a few Pharisees were believers, including Nicodemus (John 3:2), Joseph of Arimathea (John 19:38), an unknown number of “those of the party of the Pharisees who believed” (Acts 15:5), and Paul, of course.

The Pharisees were the trusted religious leaders of the common people, and they had the most interaction with Jesus, perhaps, because they interacted more with the common people than did the Sadducees. The Sadducees were more politically aligned with the Romans and enjoyed more privilege and position.

The Pharisees, as I have come to see them, are a lot like many of our religious leaders today. They were earnest in their effort to remain true to the Mosaic teachings, to honor God and to live lives devoted to God.

They were also misguided, of course. They missed the proverbial forest for the trees. God became man and walked among them, and they didn’t recognize Him. They clung too tightly to their ideas of who the Messiah would be and what he would be like (they clung too tightly to to their doctrines) to recognize the Messiah when he showed up.

In this tendency to cling to traditional ideas, to be dogmatic about doctrine, to focus too much on particulars and, thereby, miss the big picture, I see possible parallels to the Christian world of today. I don’t claim to know exactly how that parallel applies, but I think we need to take that possibility seriously.

Some scholars say that Jesus grew up in the tradition of the Pharisees and had more in common with them than the Sadducees (and the Essenes and Zealots who were the other religious groups of the time). To that extent, I think we err dangerously to assume that the Pharisees were wholly unlike us today.

I think the Pharisees are much more like us than we care to admit or consider. Most devout believers are more in danger of being a “Pharisee” than a heathen, for instance. If we are going to fall into error, it will likely be on the side of the Pharisee.

The Pharisees weren’t necessarily wrong (or weren’t all wrong) in their theology. It was more in the application. They focused on the letter of the Law, but they failed to understand its “spirit”. They focused more on how they appeared to others than how God saw them.

They knew their Scripture. They knew that the Messiah would come from Bethlehem, from the house of David, so they rejected Jesus because he was from Nazareth. They “knew” nothing good came from Nazareth (more of a cultural reality), but they failed to keep an open mind. If they had, they would have discovered that Jesus did come from David’s line and had ties to Bethlehem.

Dogmatic thinking that “locks in” certain interpretations of Scripture and the expectations that grow out them is as much a danger for us today as it was for the Pharisees in the First Century.

The Pharisees were very much concerned about making sure people behaved in certain ways that were acceptable and were quick to denounce actions that were out of step. They also tried hard to conform their own actions to those expectations. In doing this, they were focusing on outward appearances.

Jesus took challenged them in their assumptions, their traditions, their dogmatic adherence to their theology and doctrines and in their practices:

“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. But woe to you Pharisees! For you tithe mint and rue and every herb, and neglect justice and the love of God. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others.'” Luke 11:39‭-‬42 ES

This reminds me of the faith and works tension that we wrestle with as Christians. We should know, better than the First Century Pharisees did, that we are not saved by our outward actions. We are not saved by merit and what we can do. We are saved by grace alone, which we perceive by faith.

Yet, we have the tension that faith without works is dead. A tree is known by its fruit. We also care deeply how other people perceive us. We have no less pressure to conform our actions to expectations. How, then, should we live?

Continue reading “What Does It Mean to Give as Alms those Things that Are Within You?”

The Church and the Reality of the Immigration Crisis for the Strangers Who Come to US

I previously wrote about how the current immigration crisis in the US involves the Church on both sides of the border. Here, I will share the experience of John Garland, a San Antonio, TX pastor who juggles cooperation with the government authorities and Christ’s call to welcome the stranger, feed the hungry, and minister to those in need.

From Garland’s perspective, the Church (capital C””) is at the center of the immigration crisis. The Church is involved on both sides of the border, as most of the people attempting to enter the US are Christians. Meanwhile, the Church on this side of the border is torn about how to respond.

In the previous article, I discuss the three issues that characterize the public focus on immigration, and I address each of those narratives from a biblical, Christian perspective. In this article, I want to put a human face on the immigration crisis, as told by Garland, and invite the Church on this side of the border to wrestle with the immigration crisis from a biblical position.

Matt Soerens, who works with World Relief, reports that only twelve percent (12%) of evangelicals polled by World Relief have developed a view on immigration that is informed by Scripture. That figure is not speculation. It is the self-assessment of evangelicals who were polled on the subject.

For people of the Word of God, this is disheartening news. It suggests most that most Evangelical Christians’ views on immigration are shaped by the news media and politics, not by Scripture.

For this reason, I believe that Evangelicals have a critical need to ground their views on immigration in God’s Word, as Paul urges:

Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.” (Romans 12:2)

In my previous article, I provided some quick Scriptural responses to the three concerns that characterize the public narratives (focusing on the law, lack of resources and resistance to change). I have already written extensively on immigration through a Scriptural lens, therefore, I am not going to try to restate or expand much on what I have already written.

Rather, I want to implore the church from the heart as I filter the immigration crisis through the eyes of John Garland on the front lines. I want to dig deeper into the Christian principle of rendering unto Caesar what is Caesar’s without failing to render unto God what is God’s.

I want to parse out what it means to give our priority attention to the weightier matters of the law, unlike the Pharisees who tithed their dill, comin and mint, but neglected to do justice and love mercy.


He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?

This is the word of God through the prophet Micah (Micah 6:8)

Continue reading “The Church and the Reality of the Immigration Crisis for the Strangers Who Come to US”

Church: Caught in the Middle of the Immigration Crisis

The southern Mexican/American border at San Antonio, TX

Preston Sprinkle recently interviewed John Garland and Dr. Rebecca Poe Hays on the subject of immigration in episode #95 of Theology in the Raw. John Garland pastors a church in San Antonio Texas where he is immersed in ongoing immigration issues. Dr. Poe Hays is Assistant Professor of Christian Scriptures at Baylor University.

The San Antonio area is home to several immigration prisons. Being in San Antonio means the immigration crisis is a daily reality for Pastor Garland, and his church has embraced its position in the world. For that reason, the media often comes to him for stories they can publish on immigration.

When they interview him, he says, they usually are looking for a story that fits a particular narrative. Garland says that most people doing stories on immigration have already developed their narratives when they come to him for an interview. Thus, they are typically looking for a story that fits that narrative.

That characteristic of the media is true on both sides of the political fence. Because of the media focus on certain narratives, Garland estimates that only about 5% to 10% of what we read in the news on immigration describes an accurate picture of what is happening.

Most news stories on immigration are developed according to prefabricated narratives.

One story that the news media doesn’t tell is that it involves the Church. In Garland’s personal experience, the Church is on both sides of the immigration crisis, and the Church is caught in the middle.

When there is crisis, there is often confusion. Soldiers talk about the confusion in the “fog of war”. When we experience crisis in our personal lives, we often lack the clarity, need the clarity that comes from counseling from others who can provide us perspective.

That clarity often comes from people who “have been there” and have wrestled deeply with the struggles we experience. John Garland is someone who “has been there”.

We don’t see in most media reports that the majority of the people coming across the southern border are Christians. Garland speaks from personal experience when he says,

“[The immigrants] are our Christian brothers and sisters, and 85% of them over these last seven years are evangelical Christians…. They sing the same songs as we do.”

The people that Garland and his church serve at the border read Scripture with each other and pray together every night. They worship and serve God. They seek a better life for themselves and their families. They seek safety and freedom.

Garland says that the immigration crisis is very much a 21st century version of the exodus of freedom seekers to the New World.

“This is not a political story, really. That is happening on the news…. It’s a story of the pilgrim church and how we, as a church in America, are receiving the pilgrim church, a persecuted pilgrim church.”

Garland has experienced this reality on both sides of the border. He has spent time in Central America where he watched Christian leaders being driven out by violence and persecution.

In San Antonio, his church is receiving pastors, social workers and Christian community leaders escaping the dangerous and volatile environments they have left behind as a last resort. Garland says,

“This story doesn’t fit into any of the prescribed political narratives that you are generally going to get from the news.”

In the remainder of this blog piece, I will relate the narratives that Garland has categorized in his dealings with the media. He says they boil down to three categories that are reflected in the questions he is asked over and over again.

Continue reading “Church: Caught in the Middle of the Immigration Crisis”

Coming Out of the Shadow of the Law and the Mystery of Parables into the Light of the Gospel

What does it mean that the Law is only a shadow of things to come?

I just posted an article imagining a modern parable: The Kingdom of God Is Like an Autostereogram. Today, I am going to write about actual parables that Jesus told. Matthew 13 contains a bunch of them, and they individually and collectively tell a story about the kingdom of God.

Interestingly, Jesus ties the teaching of the law into becoming a disciple of the kingdom of heaven. (Matt. 13:52) We don’t normally associate the precision of a code of laws with the imprecision of parables. It’s almost like a left brain/right brain kind of association.

We tend to categorize and distill things down into neat packages, like a code of laws, but parables don’t seem to fit into our neat packages. Laws and parables seem, at first blush, to be polar opposites, but they aren’t. In fact, the Mosaic Law, which informs the Judeo-Christian tradition, isn’t (perhaps) what we think it is.

We think of the Law of Moses as a code of laws, a list of prescriptions, of do’s and don’ts that must be followed precisely. The Pharisees in Jesus’s day also viewed the Law that way, but Jesus took them to task for it:

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! You tithe mint and dill and cumin, but have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. These you ought to have done without leaving the others undone (Matt. 23:23)


Woe to you Pharisees, because you give God a tenth of your mint, rue and all other kinds of garden herbs, but you neglect justice and the love of God. You should have practiced the latter without leaving the former undone. (Luke 11:42)

The Mosaic Law wasn’t (isn’t) simply about following a prescription or recipe to achieve eternal life. The Law was meant to point to something, to point beyond it to God and His purposes.

Jesus said the Law (and the Prophets) “testify” about him! (John 5:39) On the road to Emmaus after he rose from dead, Jesus explained to some of his followers how Moses (the Law) and Prophets were written about him. (Luke 24:27) (Wouldn’t you like to be a fly on that wall?!)

Wait a minute! Does that mean we don’t need to follow the Law? What about the Ten Commandments? Why did God get so angry at the Israelites for not following the Law?

Jesus told the Pharisees they should do both: follow the Law and not neglect the “weightier matters” of the Law (justice and mercy and the love of God). What does that even mean? Why would he say that?

I will give you “my” answer – the way I understand it – informed by the totality of Scripture. In the process, we will see that the Law and the parables Jesus used are really more similar than dissimilar.

Continue reading “Coming Out of the Shadow of the Law and the Mystery of Parables into the Light of the Gospel”

The Kingdom of God is like an Autostereogram

Autostereograms and the inability to see the image within the image remind me of the teaching of Jesus on the kingdom of God

If Jesus was walking the earth today, as he did in the 1st Century, he might have said, “the kingdom of God is like an autostereogram.” Or maybe not. Who knows what an autostereogram is? He probably would have used more common words and, perhaps, pointed to an image demonstrating what he was saying.

The image above is an autostereogram. It appears like a repeating pattern of two-dimensional, abstract, interconnected design, but it “hides” a three-dimensional image. It isn’t really hidden, but we must “look beyond” the two dimensional image to see it. Can you see the three-dimensional image? (Look to the end for a clue.)

Our eyes don’t naturally pick up on the three-dimensional object “hidden” (in plain sight) in the abstract image. We have to “strain” to see it. In truth, I wouldn’t say that strain is the right word; it’s rather like we need to relax to see it.

I usually have to stare and stare at an autostereogram to see the three-dimensional object, and sometimes I give up impatiently. When I finally do se it, the image emerges, or even pops, out at me. Some people who have certain eye conditions can’t see the three-dimensional images because of a lack of eye function.

One web page on autostereograms provides the following instruction:

  1. Concentrate at a point in the middle of the 2D picture. Try not to get distracted by looking around the picture.
  2. Let your eyes relax and look through the picture rather than at it. You want to look at a point behind the picture. You will notice that the picture will go slightly out of focus. This is normal, and in fact, this is what you want to happen. For beginners, a useful way to start would be to look at pictures that have been framed. You can then learn to look beyond the picture by using your reflection as a guide.
  3. Once you notice the 3D image, it gets easier. Try to resist the temptation to refocus onto the 2D picture– you will lose the 3D picture if you do so.

People who have never been able to perceive 3D shapes hidden within an autostereogram find it hard to understand remarks such as, “the 3D image will just pop out of the background, after you stare at the picture long enough”, or “the 3D objects will just emerge from the background”. Unless or until you see it, you can’t imagine what it is like.

A skeptic who can’t see the 3D image might be tempted to write it off as an illusion or an active imagination. The reality of autostereograms with 3D images designed into a flat, two-dimensional image, however, is fact. You can even generate your own autostereograms on the Internet.

Autostereograms and the inability to see the image within the image remind me of the teaching of Jesus on the kingdom of God. People who have gone from atheist or agnostic to believer often describe the switch in similar terms. Sy Garte described a similar experience in his book “The work of His Hands: A Scientist’s Journey from Atheism to Faith”. He describes the period of time when he had moved from atheism to agnosticism as follows:

I found myself standing on the shores of a sea of mystery, certain that the waters hid treasures of beauty and goodness, but with no way to see them for myself.

(An excerpt from Sy Garte: Why I Believe in the Resurrection, commenting on his book in Peaceful Science, November 19, 2019) He recalled reading the Gospels when he still subscribed to materialism and atheism. He read them, he says,

only as an exercise to reinforce my atheistic scorn at the stupidity of Christianity. Back then I was focused on the magic, the contradictions, the naiveté of the ignorant who believed in scientifically impossible events like the resurrection.

Years later, no longer convinced that all truth was bounded by the parameters established by materialism and atheism, Sy Garte read the Gospels with an open mind. He “relaxed” his view, and this time, he saw the image within the image:

When I read the Gospels the second time, my mind was open, freed of the ideological certainty of atheism. I still saw the apparent contradictions, but now they appeared as evidence for truth, the kind of differences one would expect in true eyewitness accounts [citation omitted]. I still saw what looked like magic, but now it confirmed for me my new-found conviction that science is not the only pathway to truth. And now I saw the figure of Jesus Christ, and reading His words, I realized that God must have seen me standing on the shore, staring helplessly at the waves. Jesus Christ rose from those waters and held out His hand to me.

Sy Garte uses metaphoric language here. He didn’t actually see Jesus emerge or pop out of the pages, like the hidden image in an autostereogram. The metaphor is apt, though. The experience is the same.

At one point in his life, Sy Garte couldn’t even imagine what it would be like to believe in Jesus. Later, when he had relaxed his embrace of atheism and materialism, Jesus virtually leapt off the pages of the Gospels.

Sy Garte’s experience is far from unique. The lightbulb moment, the dramatic paradigm shift, is common to stories of conversion. The description Jesus gave it, being born again, is beautifully descriptive of the experience many people have had who went from no faith to faith, often very quickly, even suddenly.

I recall one friend who described that she suddenly realized she saw the world differently. As she gazed out over the landscape, it was alive in ways she never noticed before. In most recent article I wrote, I described the conversion of an Afghan Muslim. He said that he saw people differently after his conversion. He loved them.

These experiences are similar to suddenly being able to see the image in the image of an autostereogram, though the experience of “seeing” and understanding God, Jesus and the kingdom of God is much more dramatic, meaningful, and (of course) life changing. The autostereogram metaphor also makes some sense of the way Jesus described the kingdom of God.

Continue reading “The Kingdom of God is like an Autostereogram”