Woes on the Pharisees and the Experts in the Law
37 When Jesus had finished speaking, a Pharisee invited him to eat with him; so he went in and reclined at the table. 38 But the Pharisee was surprised when he noticed that Jesus did not first wash before the meal.
39 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. 40 You foolish people! Did not the one who made the outside make the inside also? 41 But now as for what is inside you—be generous to the poor, and everything will be clean for you.
42 "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.
43 "Woe to you Pharisees, because you love the most important seats in the synagogues and respectful greetings in the marketplaces.
44 "Woe to you, because you are like unmarked graves, which people walk over without knowing it."
45 One of the experts in the law answered him, "Teacher, when you say these things, you insult us also."
46 Jesus replied, "And you experts in the law, woe to you, because you load people down with burdens they can hardly carry, and you yourselves will not lift one finger to help them.
47 "Woe to you, because you build tombs for the prophets, and it was your ancestors who killed them. 48 So you testify that you approve of what your ancestors did; they killed the prophets, and you build their tombs. 49 Because of this, God in his wisdom said, 'I will send them prophets and apostles, some of whom they will kill and others they will persecute.' 50 Therefore this generation will be held responsible for the blood of all the prophets that has been shed since the beginning of the world, 51 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.
52 "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."
53 When Jesus went outside, the Pharisees and the teachers of the law began to oppose him fiercely and to besiege him with questions, 54 waiting to catch him in something he might say.
In the past few years in the United States a new movement has arisen that just did not exist when I was younger. It is called the “green” movement. This is an interesting phenomenon because it’s not really a formal or official organization (although there is a rather insignificant political group called the green party but that’s not what we’re talking about here). This is not a formal group and yet it seems to be everywhere and wield a great deal of influence and power. The group is also interesting because they are not a religious group of any type and yet they are a mixture between political and moral influence. To disagree with or go against their influence is seen to be a moral violation that can take on a religious fervor in many ways. I am simply amazed at the influence that this group has gained in the last few years. The idea of “going green” is now everywhere from my kid’s schools to television advertisements for many companies.
The reality of that movement is that it is very influential and to go against it can bring one a great deal of negative reaction. Many people that are part of that movement are very sincere about it. They genuinely believe that human beings are ruining our planet and causing it to spiral into an irreversible typhoon of climate destruction. Many do live sincere and consistently environmentally conscious lives. There are two aspects of this movement, however, that are a bit concerning. One is the incredible opposition faced by those who are of a sincerely different opinion. They are treated as though they are the cause of all that is wrong in the world and that they must be eliminated. The other problem is that many of the leaders of this movement have been shown to be rather hypocritical. They chide others for using too much energy whilst they jet about all over the globe. They put massive pressure on others to change their lives for the benefit of the global environment but usually investigations into their own lives show a rather lavish lifestyle that doesn’t match up to what they propose to put on everyone else. There are some good things about this movement, surely. But there also many things which are very concerning.
I say all of this, not because I’m particularly political or because I have an agenda one way or the other with the green movement. I bring it up because there are many points of contact that I see between this movement and the Pharisees of Jesus’ day. There tends to be a perception of the Pharisees as a legalistic religious movement that simply called for everyone else to a very rigid form of religious fervor but were themselves not at all following their own rules. A study of the actual history of the time, however, shows that this was not entirely the case. The Pharisees were not a formal religious group. They were more of a pressure group. They were a mixture of politics, legal guardians, and religious behavior. They had become extremely influential although they had no specific role or power. They firmly believed that following God’s law was the way to show themselves to be God’s people. So they created more and more rules so that people could correctly follow God’s law in any situation that might arise. They firmly believed that this would save the world and God’s people by bringing about the kingdom of God on earth and make the way for God to return to Jerusalem. To oppose them brought a great deal of criticism and pressure. And just like the green movement, there were good and sincere Pharisees but they also had the dual problem putting heavy loads on everyone else and making them appear to be the problem, as well as the problem of many of them not really caring about anything more than their own advancement and opportunity. Their hypocrisy wasn’t so much a case of saying one thing and doing another, but of focusing on small issues to the neglect of the more important things (a charge similar to that made against the green movement as well) that God cared about.
The common meal was an important aspect of the Jewish life and culture. It was viewed as a constant reminder that everything comes from and belongs to God. Because a feast together was often always seen as a symbolic proclamation of the great feast that would be the age to come (it was often spoken of in terms of a great banquet with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob), it was of particular offense to the Pharisees to neglect aspects of the ceremonial laws that had been created so as to help people follow God’s law to the smallest detail. The Pharisee took notice that Jesus had not taken part in the ceremonial pre-meal washing. Knowing their hearts, however, Jesus took this as an opportunity to deliver one of the harshest rebukes in all of the gospels.
There was actually a sharp debate between factions in Jesus’ day as to whether a dish needed to be ritually cleansed once or whether two ceremonial washings had to take place for both sides of the cup. In bringing up the argument, Jesus was really rejecting all of that kind of nonsense. The real issue was not how they washed the dish but whether they were focusing on external rules as the uniform of God’s people rather than having hearts and lives that were truly transformed from within. Loving others, especially in the context in that culture, by being generous to the poor, would demonstrate that they were embracing the kind of heart that God wanted his people to have.
After laying that down as an opening salvo, Jesus turns to offer up three specific challenges to the Pharisees and three to the teachers of the law, so as to not leave them out.
First for the Pharisees. They would meticulously count everything they had right down to small amounts of spice so that they could tithe on it and show themselves to be God’s people but they neglected the true heart of being part of God’s family which was to be people of justice and love. It’s not that they shouldn’t have tithed but to do all of those external things without being transformed internally by the love of God was worthless (see 1 Cor. 13:1-3). Their motivation to meticulously follow God’s laws, however, went beyond their devotion to God. They loved to be important. They loved to use the position that they had to be noticed and to receive special attention. They had lost sight of the fact that God’s true family was focused on serving not on being served.
This made them very much like an unmarked grave. Pilgrims would come from all over Israel to worship at the Temple. Just outside of the Temple walls, a few hundred yards away, were tombs. These tombs would be whitewashed each year so that they could be easily seen. Otherwise someone could trip over one without seeing it and make themselves unclean. Jesus’ point was a directly confrontational one. They were like these tombs that made people unclean because they were full of putrid death on the inside. They thought they could save the world by calling people to be conformed to a series of ritual behaviors but they were neglecting the truly important task of being transformed. Only the kingdom could do that.
The compatriots of the Pharisees, the teachers of the law, were no better. They tied people down with all kinds of burdens and rules but never offered anything that would actually help them to achieve that. His point was not that they were burdening people with more and more rules and sitting back and looking down on them while they failed. His point was that they were giving more and more rules claiming that they were helping them to truly be God’s people. But the reality was that they were not lifting a finger towards actually solving the problem. People needed transformation not conformation.
In fact, they were taking part in the long tradition of the rebellious people of Israel in rejecting the prophets that God had sent them. They were like their ancestors who built tombs for prophets but also put them in those tombs. They wouldn’t accept it, but the fact was that they were just like their forefathers who rejected God’s word through his spokesmen. This was clearly demonstrated by their rejection of Jesus. They were continuing in the long line of the family of fallen humanity.
What was far worse was that not only did they not have God’s ways in mind, they were actually keeping others from finding God’s kingdom. Teachers influence others and will always be judged more strictly than others (see James 3:1). They believed that they possessed the key to knowledge that would bring about the kingdom of God on earth but the truth was quite the opposite. Not only were they not entering into the door to the true life that God has in store for his people, they were barring the way for others to enter in as well. There is no greater charge against teachers of God’s word than this, so this would have had a particularly sharp sting to it.
In the previous passage, Jesus spoke of their need to repent and embrace the light that was coming through his message. The door was left open for them to repent and this message was part of that final plea. Would they realize that they were unmarked graves that were barring the door for themselves and others to find the true path to being God’s people? Sadly, the woes did not lead to their repentance but to a further hardening of their heart. That’s the way the truth is. It softens the hearts of some while the same truth hardens the hearts of others.
Warnings like this are an important reminder for us. Christianity is living a life. It is learning to embrace the will of God and cling to Jesus’ life as our own. Christianity is not and can never be about a list of rules that take away our need to choose and the demand to think through what we do and make the right choices. We so often get frustrated because we want a religion that is easy and shows us exactly what to do in each and every situation. That type of thing will never lead to transformation. When we partner with the Spirit and work towards our true transformation into the life of Christ we realize that those times when we’re unsure of what God wants and we have to search, pray, think, and wrestle; those are the times when we are truly transforming.
Do you really prefer a walk with God that transforms rather than conforms? What are ways that you fall into a pattern of spiritual life that is more about conforming than genuine Spirit-led transformation?