Jesus, the Pharisees, and the Six Woes
[Luke chapter 11, verses 37-54]
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Last week when we closed that portion of our in-depth analysis of Luke chapter 11, Jesus had just finished pointing out that the light of God is within each of us because we were all created by Him. It is our responsibility as sincere believers and faithful followers to let the Holy Spirit of Jesus Christ be the light that shines within us. Today as we move on to the 4th and final part of Luke 11, we find that Jesus had been invited to a nice luncheon to be given in his honor. It’s what Jesus does once he arrives at his host’s location that I really admire about our Lord and Savior. So let’s begin today’s study at verse 37.
“When Jesus had finished speaking, a Pharisee invited him to eat with him; so he went in and reclined at the table. But the Pharisee, noticing that Jesus did not first wash before the meal, was surprised. Then the Lord said to him, ‘Now then, you Pharisees clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside you are full of greed and wickedness. You foolish people! Did not the one who made the outside make the inside also? But give what is inside the dish to the poor, and everything will be made clean for you. Woe to you, Pharisees, because you give God a tenth of your mint, rue and all kinds of other garden herbs, but you neglect justice and the love of God. You should have practiced the latter without leaving the former undone’.” (Luke 11, verses 37-42)
What’s the first thing about Jesus the Pharisee, or religious elitist, notices? Jesus didn’t ‘wash’ properly (this presumably referred to some obscure portion of Levitical Law, or possibly the rules of the temple at which that Pharisee was a member of), which offended that Pharisee to no end! Those kinds of people are still around today. But instead of Pharisees, today we call them “fundamentalists” or even “conservatives”. And Jesus’ description of these people is remarkably similar to many of the types of Christians I just mentioned above. They all live in nice houses, they all drive new or late model cars, trucks, or SUV’s of all sizes and configurations, they all have graduate or post-graduate degrees, IRA’s, 401K’s and so on and so forth. Moreover, they are all well dressed and fashionable to one degree or another. Are we beginning to see a pattern here? Oh yes we are – they all do basically the same thing – they all ‘follow the crowd’! They’re all a bunch of conformists, conforming for conformity’s sake, doing what they think is right just because somebody said so. What a bunch of idiots! God gave them a brain, and they respond by unplugging it!
“… inside you are full of greed and wickedness. You foolish people! Did not the one who made the outside make the inside also? But give what is inside the dish to the poor, and everything will be made clean for you.” Religious people look great on the outside, but what lies within is exactly the opposite of the traits they display. The same ones who are the most religious on Sunday are the ones who are most adept at office politics in the workplace the other six days, and they’re the same ones who abuse their wives and kids when no one is looking. They are the biggest cutthroats and the most cold-blooded sharks of the business world, and they will go to great lengths to hide that from people. Politicians are particularly prone to this type of behavior, as are overachievers. Jesus’ sarcasm in what follows is unmistakable: ‘You give what is left of the unclean part to the poor, to put all that off on them, and that is how you justify yourself’. You know the type – they give stuff to Goodwill or the Salvation Army, or to their ‘church’, that they would have otherwise thrown out just to cleanse their consciences of the guilt they carry for keeping everything they ever earned in life all to themselves. That, my dear readers, is the price to be paid for being self-centered. Now let’s move on to the next part of our study.
“‘Woe to you, Pharisees, because you love the most important seats in the synagogues and greetings in the marketplaces. Woe to you, because you are like unmarked graves, which men walk over without knowing it.’ One of the experts in the law answered him, ‘Teacher, when you say these things, you insult us also’. Jesus replied, ‘And you experts in the law, woe to you, because you load people down with all kinds of burdens they can hardly carry, and you yourselves will not lift one finger to help them.’” (Luke 11, verses 43-46)
If we look at the Pharisees from a political rather than a Christian perspective, they could be compared to the “1%” of modern-day America, a tiny minority who controls everything because they have all the money, political power and business connections pretty much sewn up. They sit on the front row at church, park in the ‘handicapped’ spot at the supermarket so they can show off whatever they’re driving that day, climb the corporate ladder while stepping on everybody else at work, and they are always the most miserly when it comes to financial management. The bottom line here is, just as Jesus said, these individuals do all these things for all the wrong reasons, up to and including attending church! They’re not there to serve anyone else, they’re only in it for themselves. But they use their religiosity to justify the things they do to other people, or the things they do at their expense. All of this is sin, pure and simple.
“Teacher, when you say these things, you insult us also.” This brings me back to what I wrote in the first paragraph, when I expressed my admiration for what Jesus did when he arrived at the fancy luncheon given in his honor by that same offended Pharisee (whose name has evidently vanished into obscurity). When he got offended by Jesus’ perceived lack of personal hygiene, our Lord let him have it with both barrels. ‘That’s nothing compared to what you Pharisees and other religious leaders have been doing for hundreds of years’ (you will recall Jesus’ reference to “unmarked graves, which men walk over without knowing it”). So here we have Jesus, who has been invited to the equivalent of a catered lunch with all the trimmings by this Pharisee, this religious snob, insulting this guy and all his peers by calling them a bunch of hypocrites! Although the Bible doesn’t specify what time of day this incident occurred, I think it was after everybody had eaten and all the pleasantries had been exchanged. On the other hand, if the meal was still being served when this incident occurred, Jesus’ remarks could have stopped the whole event in its tracks!
“….woe to you, because you load people down with all kinds of burdens they can hardly carry, and you yourselves will not lift one finger to help them.” Although I could use this verse to go on a rant against the IRS and the federal income tax, that’s a topic I’ll save for another time. Jesus was talking about the myriad of rules and regulations surrounding the offering of sacrifices at the temple every Sabbath. This had started out as a part of the Law of Moses, what we now call the first 5 books of the Old Testament. But by the time Jesus came along, it was roughly 1,200 years after Moses’ death. Back then people would bring a tenth of their livestock for sacrificial purposes. But by the time of Christ, making the required sacrifices on the designated Jewish holidays required the animals for sacrifice had to be purchased from the Temple. So the priests and teachers of the law had turned their sacrificial ceremonies and other ‘church’ activities into a thriving business, Jesus was indignant about it, and he didn’t hesitate to let that unidentified Pharisee know all about it! In too many of today’s churches, not only is this ‘holy profiteering’ still going on, it’s actually worse than ever in many cases.
The same things still happen today. Catholic priests may not get married. Catholics may not divorce not matter what, and they may only eat fish on Fridays (as if that will get us into heaven!). The richer churches often exclude the poor, and God forbid that any homeless individual should show up at ‘their’ church on Sunday morning! Predominantly white churches often exclude people of color, and the majority of all churches exclude gay people even if they’re a monogamous couple. “They’re in sin, they can’t come in here”, the better off whites say about them, forgetting that we are all sinners who have “fallen short of the glory of God”. Passing judgment is God’s job, it’s not ours, so let’s step back and let God work instead of getting in the way! Instead of minding the business of others, we should be “working out our own salvation with fear and trembling”! And now let’s conclude this week’s study, starting at verse 47.
“Woe to you, because you build tombs for the prophets, and it was your forefathers who killed them. So you testify that you approve of what your forefathers did; they killed the prophets, and you built their tombs. Because of this, God in his wisdom said, ‘I will send them prophets and apostles, some of whom they will kill and others whom they will persecute. Therefore this generation will be held responsible for the blood of all the prophets that has been shed since the beginning of the world, from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah, who was killed between the altar and the sanctuary. Yes, I tell you, this generation will be held responsible for it all.’ ‘Woe to you experts in the law, because you have taken away the key to knowledge. You yourselves have not entered, and you have hindered those who were entering.’ When Jesus left there, the Pharisees and teachers of the law began to oppose him fiercely and to besiege him with questions, waiting to catch him in something he might say.” (Luke 11, verses 47-54)
Here we have something not often taught in the churches of today, while in other churches it’s not being taught at all! What I’m talking about here is the reason Jesus was crucified. Yes, it was because Jesus told Pontius Pilate he was “the king of the Jews”, and it’s also true that it was the Romans, not the Jews, who actually nailed Jesus to that “old rugged cross”. But the true reason Jesus was crucified in the first place was because he preached against organized religion! It was the Hebrew religious establishment that had our Lord and Savior put to death. That would be the equivalent of having the combined heads of the Catholic, eastern Orthodox, and all the hundreds of varieties of Protestant denominations crucifying Christ over again in today’s terms, that’s how outrageous the accusations were that were being leveled against Christ the Lord!
“ …God in his wisdom said, ‘I will send them prophets and apostles, some of whom they will kill and others whom they will persecute. Therefore this generation will be held responsible for the blood of all the prophets that has been shed since the beginning of the world.” The ancestors of the Pharisees to whom Jesus’ “six woes” were directed were the ones who had murdered the prophets of old who came before him. Jeremiah, Isaiah and numerous others were put to death by the Temple authorities at Jerusalem, and that is what Jesus was referring to. Thank God for his abundant mercy, that none of us was born into that generation!
“ Woe to you experts in the law, because you have taken away the key to knowledge. You yourselves have not entered, and you have hindered those who were entering.” What was Jesus talking about here? The “woe” in this case is uttered against those who were, by their very calling, the professed interpreters of the Law (Woe unto you, lawyers!). Its form rests on the fact that each scribe or “doctor of the law,” in the full sense of the term, was symbolically admitted to his office by the delivery of a key. Evidently a lot of the Pharisees that Jesus was speaking out against were attorneys by trade while simultaneously holding positions of authority in synagogues. As you can see, this resembles the pattern of the lawmakers of today, who work against the will of the people while working in favor of their corporate sponsors. It’s the same old song and dance, but it’s just a different tune.
“When Jesus left there, the Pharisees and teachers of the law began to oppose him fiercely and to besiege him with questions, waiting to catch him in something he might say.” This is what happens when those who are living a lie are confronted with raw truth. This is also what happens when those who are living lives of hypocrisy are exposed for being the frauds they truly are, such as scandals involving government or political officials, or that of the clergy. Things today are still very much the same. In some ways it has gotten even worse, but in other ways it’s just that its being exposed for the first time thanks to the tremendous power of the Internet. Between that and the advent of alternative media, it’s just about impossible to hide just about anything any more. But I know the antidote to all this – be authentic! Don’t do bad or dumb things and then try to hide them – just be yourself. What’s wrong with being genuine? What’s so bad about being honest? We are here on this earth to please and serve God first, other people second, and ourselves last. If any of us is not doing this very thing in whatever way they do it best, then that individual is in sin! Period, end of story. And next time we’ll start on chapter 12 of the gospel of Luke.