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?

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Herod, Mikvehs and the Religion Disconnect

Religion is often disconnected from the spiritual reality of the existence of God and who God is as revealed in Scripture.

Ruins of King Herod’s fortified palace Machaeros, Jordan, Middle East.

A recent article on the discovery in 2016 of the mikveh uncovered at the site of King Herod’s palace at Machaerus on the eastern shore of the Dead Sea in modern Jordan got me thinking about a theme I have been contemplating for some time.[1] That theme is the disconnection between religious ritual and spiritual reality.

21st Century people might call that “disconnect” hypocrisy in the process of dismissing all religions and spiritual truth. That modern tendency to discount all religion in that way, and especially Christianity, reflects a lack of understanding that bothers me when I hear it. The recent discovery reminds why I feel this way.

Digging into the history of King Herod, the palace at Machaerus and the mikveh that was recently discovered there sheds some light on the subject and reminds me that there is much more than meets the modern eye. And, in some fundamental ways, nothing has really changed from then to now, and yet everything has changed at the same time.

Before we get into the meat of the matter, I should explain that a mikveh is a small pool or bath used in ritual purification. Thus, the discovery of a mikveh in King Herod’s palace indicates that the royal inhabitants engaged in the Hebrew purification ritual that was instructed in the Old Testament (the Torah).[2]

Of course, the instructions in the Torah were traditionally understood as religious in nature, though the ritual cleansing in mivka’ot (plural of mikveh) might be seen through the lens of modern science as good hygiene. The purification rite that were instructed would have inhibited the spread of contagious diseases and infection. But for them, with no understanding of modern hygiene, health and medicine, these practices were purely religious in nature.

With that in mind, what then is the significance of the discovery? How does it shed light on the disconnect between religious practice and spiritual reality? What is the nuance that modern people often miss in discounting everything they lump together as “religion”?

Continue reading “Herod, Mikvehs and the Religion Disconnect”

Are Christians Hypocrites?

Calling Christians hypocrites is like shooting fish in a barrel. It’s that easy. You literally can’t miss.


The charge that Christians are hypocrites is a common one. Many people cite the hypocrisy of Christians as a reason they don’t go to church or consider themselves Christian. According to Webster, a hypocrite is “a person who puts on a false appearance of virtue or religion” or “a person who acts in contradiction to his or her stated beliefs or feelings”. As a Christian, I take this charge seriously, and so I feel compelled to address it.

In this world of fake news, we seem to be on hyper alert to what is fake. If Christians claim to be virtuous or religious, but they act like everyone else, most people would consider them “fake”. If Christians have ascribed to certain standards of morality and conduct, but don’t live up to those standards themselves, most people would call them hypocrites.

As I survey the Christians that I know and have known in my life, I find myself having to concede that Christians are guilty as charged. In fact, I need look no further than myself to come to that conclusion. I fail in my life on a regular basis to live up to the standards I believe in, though I recoil at the thought of putting up a false front about it.

Still, the answer is clear and obvious: Christians are hypocrites.

We are religious. It isn’t a pretense, for most of us. We try to be virtuous. That usually isn’t a pretense either, but we fail to live up to the standards we hold out. There can be no doubt of that.

Calling Christians hypocrites is like shooting fish in a barrel. It’s that easy. You literally can’t miss.

But, that isn’t the end of the story. Not by a long shot. It’s only the beginning.

Continue reading “Are Christians Hypocrites?”

Conflating God with People

We can’t judge God by the conduct of the people

ed-sheeran-concert


I have an old friend who is “disgusted” that many Christians supported Donald Trump and were a significant factor in Trump winning the election. She, like many women (and men), cannot get past the infamous words that Trump spoke how about a woman reporter. I won’t repeat them here. They are too vulgar for polite company.

My friend has been so turned off of Christians and “the” Church by the fact that many Christians voted for Trump and were a factor in electing him, that she no longer goes to church at all after decades of being a church-goer.

I don’t want to get into politics here. That isn’t the issue I’m focused on.

I have family and friends who say that they can’t believe in God, or can’t believe in the Christian God, because Christians are hypocrites. This is what leads me to write this piece.

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Editing the Right and Wrong

canstockphoto24976909


This headline reads, Fiorina Was right. The article, then, goes into details regarding how Carly Fiorina, the rising GOP star, was right about the Planned Parenthood videos. The sanguine point is not that Carly Fiorina is right about those videos, but that so many people can be so wrong.

Yes, I said it, wrong! I know it is not poplar to believe in right and wrong, but morality never won a popularity contest. Morality often goes against the popular culture.

I heard some pundit say that the Planned Parenthood videos are “heavily edited” and that Planned Parenthood does none of the things they are accused of doing in those videos. Seriously?

Continue reading “Editing the Right and Wrong”