Luke 11:37-54 “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 clean for you . . .’” (and so on to verse 54.)
Our Lord preached to crowds of people and warned them of a particular kind of wickedness that showed itself in their demand for more and more signs from him. Before they could possibly put their trust in him he had to perform more miracles. They were clearly dissatisfied with all the remarkable things he had said and done over a two year period. Christ told them that what they needed was a sovereign divine work in their lives by which God would open their eyes (v.34) that they could see Jesus Christ for what he was, the Messiah, the Son of God. Without such a spiritual illumination they were destined to live their lives in the darkness of blindness.
It was then, moved to discover more about him, that one of the Pharisees invited Jesus to come and have a meal at his home, and our Lord accepted the invitation. There he found himself in the closest proximity to his opponents, to some of those men who had shouted out for him to go ahead and do more miracles while yet refusing to think seriously about the wonders they’d already witnessed.
Please also notice an additional little feature that marks out this section as a unity in itself. That is the introductory paragraph phrase in verse 37 and the concluding paragraph phrase in verse 53. In verse 37 we are told that Jesus went in, and in verse 53 we are told that Jesus went out, so that all that is recorded between those movements of Christ in and out took place during this meal in the house of his host. Jesus spoke these words to his host and his fellow guests, men who’d also been invited who were legal experts (or Scribes) and Pharisees. This is not the first time that Luke records Jesus sitting down to a meal and speaking very straight to his fellow guests. A similar scenario has been described at the end of chapter seven.
1. THE SETTING IN WHICH THESE ‘WOES’ OF JESUS WERE UTTERED.
i] Jesus was unafraid of resisting the Pharisees and the teachers of the law while they surrounded him in a small room. Here is Daniel in the lions’ den. The Scribes and Pharisees were two social and religious parties which are frequently joined together in the gospels as a coalition growingly opposed to our Lord. Then, after this meal, with the stinging words of Christ ringing in their ears, their antagonism flared up and would not be quenched until they’d killed him. “When Jesus left there, the Pharisees and the teachers of the law began to oppose him fiercely and to besiege him with questions, waiting to catch him in something he might say” (vv. 53&54). He had really laid it on them; he had charged them with their guilt. In this home Jesus was giving them a once in a lifetime opportunity to evaluate their behaviour and beliefs in all their folly and shame, but instead of turning their anger against themselves, against their own sinful ways and abandoning them for ever they turned their hatred upon Jesus. From now on they would seek to catch him and silence him for ever even if it meant bribing men to accuse him of blasphemy. Jesus was not intimidated by their frowns.
ii] Jesus defied all the social conventions surrounding an invited guest at a meal in a home. There is a certain decorum to be displayed when you have been asked into someone’s home. There are built-in standards to be maintained. You are expected to be polite and maybe not discuss politics or religion. How often is that observed? Not very often today I suspect, but in Jesus’ day social protocols were highly regarded. The people at this feast considered that it was an honour for Jesus to be there in this big house, because he had spent most of his life in a lowly carpenter’s house. But we know that the reality was this, that it was an honour for them to sit at a meal with him. Who were they dining with? It was Jehovah Jesus. It was the incarnate God. Notice how Luke calls him ‘Lord;’ “Then the Lord said to them . . .” (v.39) and virtually all the rest of the chapter is in red letters. These are words of the Lord of glory. He is here in a room sitting at a table and he is concerned about the religion of these men; he utterly disapproves of their beliefs and behaviour. They judged themselves to be beloved by Jehovah, that God was delighted with them, that they were men of knowledge, the keepers of the morals of the nation, the natural leaders worthy of respect for their rank and influence in the land, with their opinions held in high regard.
At this time the Pharisaic movement had been in existence for over 100 years; they were entrenched in Jewish society. Little could happen in Jerusalem or its towns and villages without the approval of the Pharisees. Could they draw Jesus of Nazareth into the Pharisaic fold? Could they get him to join them? Wouldn’t that be a catch and tremendous publicity for them? But it was at this feast, as a guest in a strategic Pharisaic home, that Christ seized the moment in order to expose their great errors of faith and practice. He wanted them to abandon their Pharisaism and follow him! There was no hint that he admired their religion and their moral standards. There was nothing of religious relativism in Jesus’ thinking at all, that all religions believe the same and all roads are going to the same destination. There was nothing whatsoever like that in his convictions. There was total opposition on the part of our Lord to the beliefs and practices of the Pharisees, and there and then the knives came on the table. This was the time and place for him to expound to them on this subject, and to do it in such a way that they felt the guilt and pain of what they were doing. It was a message of expressed hostility; he made their peril spectacularly clear. They might have gained the land of Israel; it was in their pockets, but they had lost their own souls, and he told them so. They were facing the judgment of hell and so social etiquette went out of the window. They walked all over the land as its lords and now they wanted to walk all over Jesus. What a brave young Saviour he was to stand up to them!
iii] Jesus defied the demands of superficial purity which lay at the heart of the Pharisaic world view. We are told that, “the Pharisee, noticing that Jesus did not first wash before the meal, was surprised.” (v.38). The Pharisees were a restorationist movement claiming to be a new work of God, restoring to Israel the pure lifestyle of true religion. They were ‘the pure ones’ because that is what the word ‘Pharisee’ meant, people separated unto a pure life. You understand that the issue raised by Jesus in this home in ignoring the washing of hands was not one of medical hygiene but of ceremonial purification. The Pharisees would never eat a meal without a certain elaborate hand-washing ceremony in which their hands and arms were plunged into water to their elbows and then they dried naturally. This they did before meals and particularly when they returned from the market place where they might have picked up some defilement, for example in passing a dead body. It was essential that they kept themselves ceremonially pure. Dr. Edersheim, the Christian Jew, gives chapter and verse for the strictness with which this tradition was enjoined. He wrote, “To neglect this washing was like being guilty of gross carnal defilement. To neglect purification rituals would lead to poverty entering your life, or an even worse calamity. Bread eaten with unwashed hands was as if you were eating filth.”
So, do you see the scene? All the guests gather for the meal. Never in this household had anyone ever sat down to a meal without going through this ceremony, and here on this occasion there seems to be no change. Everyone meticulously observes the ceremony, the servants going from one to another with their bowls of water, except for our Lord Jesus, the guest of honour. Weren’t there laws of hospitality that mere etiquette insisted you must observe? How would they listen to anything Christ said if he didn’t do what they all did and expected him to do before eating the meal? Didn’t Jesus know the principle behind today’s buzz word, ‘contextualization?’ You fitted in to the context of the people you were seeking to win. Every student is told in every seminar on evangelism that that is how he is to behave. You acted just like a Pharisees to win the Pharisees, and you acted just like an expert in the law to win the experts in the law, and you acted like a pub visitor to those who visit pubs, but here is Jesus and he didn’t do that. He was a revolutionary; he was a controversialist. He came to the table and he sat down before the food and he ignored totally the water offered to purify him before the meal. He was all ready to tuck into the food. A word of thanks to God, “Blessed be the Lord who daily loads us with his benefits,” and then he’d be handing round the plates of bread to his fellow guests. That refusal to dip his hands in water was the reason Luke tells us that the Pharisee who was his host, was shocked at this abstinence, and where he had done it, as a guest in his house. It was obvious that Jesus and his disciples understood a pure life along radically different lines from the Pharisees.
So this is the scene before us; it was one, you notice, of every day life. The difference was not over what you did in the Temple, or what you preached in the synagogue. It was not over some rabbinic theological dispute. It was about eating and drinking and washing – the ordinary events of life. That is why Jesus chose to focus on this now. The light that was in these Pharisees was darkness, and so it was great darkness. Their spiritual eyesight was terribly defective so that these Pharisees could not see the incredible miracles of our Lord, or his ineffable teaching, or the perfection of his life, they saw tricks, and deep mysterious teaching, and they also saw very clearly this, that he failed to observe the correct outward ceremonies of purification before he ate. What we have here was an inevitable collision resulting from two totally opposing religions
2. FOUR GREAT PRINCIPLES BY WHICH JESUS THOUGHT AND ACTED.
i] Divine illumination, by a sovereign act of God, is indispensable. The Pharisaic movement taught that the disciplines of morality, regular washings, tithing of everything, limits on the length of a walk you could take on a Sabbath, and high reverence for what they imagined to be the ‘old ways’ was everything that God required. What was wrong with that? All those actions we know to be attainable; there is no one who can’t do that, but God asks us for what is impossible to man. He asks us for new eyes to see what your ordinary eyes can’t see. He asks for a new heart, a new birth, a new creation, a resurrection from spiritual death. The problem with the religion of Pharisees was that it had the appearance of being difficult . . . challenging . . . when in fact it was easy, whereas the religion of Christianity seemed to be easy – put all your trust into Jesus Christ alone for pardon and the forgiveness of your sins – whereas it is impossible without a birth from above.
A Pharisee named Nicodemus said to Jesus, “How can I enter a second time into my mother’s womb and be born again?” He might well have asked, “How can I obtain new eyes so that all my body will be full of light?” Jesus would say to him, “All that is impossible with man, but possible with God.” Go to God and tell him of the stoniness of your heart, and the blindness of your eyes, and the deadness of your soul and ask him for life and sight and light. Go on asking him until he has answered your prayers. You must have divine illumination to see your great need, and to see that only the coming of the Messiah, Jesus, into the world, could deliver you. Your chief need is not laws and regulations and washings and fastings. You need to see that Christ the Saviour is your Lord, and by nature you can’t see that, not until the Holy Spirit comes and gives you light. Cry mightily to God for light from heaven. Divine illumination is indispensable.
ii] God looks on the heart not on the outward appearance. Jesus said to them, “From within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts.” God’s standards were much higher than the Pharisees, and his scrutiny much deeper. They were obsessed with the outward appearance of religion, standing in the Temple to pray aloud, or even on street corners, covering your head with ash when you were fasting, putting your money noisily into the Temple offering vessels, sitting in the honourable seats of dedicated members in the synagogues, giving loud religious greetings to one another. That was religion to them, but all that was quite possible with a rotten heart. God searches our hearts. The first nine commandments seemed to refer solely to outward behaviour, but the tenth commandment spoke of the aching itch for stuff that belongs to others which greed men hide away in their hearts. So if that last commandment was addressing the inward life of man, so also were the first nine. So there is no hope for us, if we are going to be judged by what goes on in our hearts, in our imaginations and our lusts and our fantasies, and if we can’t hide these from God then we can never be reconciled to him by what we are and do. We need mercy that’s greater than all our sins, and that comes through what his Son Jesus Christ was sent into the world to do. So God looks at our hearts.
iii] Moral righteousness is far more important than ceremonial righteousness. Here were men scrupulous in how they washed, what bowls they cooked in, how they prepared their food. Their descendants today are concerned that their food be placed in refrigerators that have never contained bacon. So when a large group of them come for a vacation to our town they bring hundreds of new refrigerators. They set up wires on tall poles so that they can all walk within the confines of those wires on their Sabbath day without sinning. Ceremonial righteousness is of the utmost importance to them.
Jesus said to them that what defiles a man is what comes out of his heart, in other words, you can’t build a firewall of human ceremonies that will keep sin out. This is the reason, that our main problem is what is in our hearts already, those angry feelings, jealousy, self-pity, boasting, foul words, lust, envy, a critical spirit, and so on – these come out of what is already in a man’s heart. They are the reason we are defiled and spoiled, not how we’re cooking and cleaning and washing, and how far we walk on a Sabbath day. The Pharisees were zealous about not breaking the Sabbath and so they wanted Jesus and the two other men crucified with him to be finished off before the Sabbath. “Break their legs so that they will be suffocated,” they asked Pilate. They were not shocked at breaking the legs of a man struggling for breath, crucified to a cross, but they were shocked at condemned criminals still alive on a Sabbath. What a religion whose entire concentration was on ceremonies and external criteria! Jesus believed that moral righteousness was more important than ceremonial righteousness. What else did Jesus believe?
iv] People matter more than things. Jesus quotes approvingly some words of God in the prophet Hosea; “I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.” In other words, compassion matters to him more than correct ceremonial rules and regulations. For example, there were sick people who were in agony on the Sabbath day, and Jesus healed them on that day, much to the annoyance of the Pharisees. Can you see a Pharisee going home from the morning service in the synagogue and he goes into his house like a bear with a sore head and slams the door behind him? “What’s wrong with you this morning?” his wife says to him. “You know your friend Benjamin the blind man? Well, Jesus restored his sight this morning in the synagogue. He can see now as well as you and me.” “How wonderful!” his wife says, her face lighting up. “On the Sabbath?” he says, “Let Jesus keep his miracles for tomorrow.” That was Pharisaism. No joy in blessings coming to people. Ceremonies mattered more than people, but of course those men were utterly inconsistent. If he got home and his wife told him that one of the sheep had fallen into a well he would be there like a shot on the Sabbath to pull the sheep out.
So these four principles structured all of Jesus’ life and behaviour. Personal divine illumination is indispensable; what God sees in the heart is more important than what he notices of your outward appearance; moral righteousness is far more important than ceremonial righteousness, and finally people are more important than things. Now let us see how Jesus applies these principles to the other guests at his dinner.
3. HOW DO THE MERELY RELIGIOUS APPEAR WHEN THE LORD JUDGES THEM?
What would Christ be saying to us if he were coming to have Sunday lunch with us today? We wouldn’t want small talk. We’d want counsel and help and life from this great teacher. How would he judge us?
i] We are obsessed by our outward appearance and we are neglecting to clean our hearts (vv.39-41). That is the first verdict that the Lord makes on our lives. Here is a cup and it sparkles, but when you look inside it, what filth is inside it, thick, brown, greasy and smelling! That’s you; “full of greed and wickedness” (v.39). Would you serve a meal even to your enemies with cups and bowls only the outside of which had been cleaned? No, you would be ashamed of that, but that is how you seem to God. You look so good; botox, and plastic surgery, and expensive wigs, and a personal trainer, and nice clothes that suit you – these things have all made an outward transformation, but God looks in and in and in and in, and what he sees is the defilement. These Pharisees were outwardly clean, but inwardly dirty and one of the evidences of that was that they were surrounded by needy, poor people but the Pharisees were too mean to give them even their own leftovers (v.41). That simple action would have been the sign of new life; that would have started the inward clean up operation.
ii] We are majoring in the minors (v. 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.” See how scrupulous they were to keep their human traditions. They told their children, “Make sure you give a tenth of everything to the Lord; that is the way to please him, even to the mint we pluck from the garden to make mint sauce. Set aside a tenth of those mint leaves for the Lord.” That’s how they instructed their perplexed children, but when they cheated an old lady out of her house and home, when they acid stripped an established bakery and put the baker onto the street, when they joined with their fellow Pharisees (they had their associations like the freemasons of our century) in some business deals they had no qualms of conscience at all, and as for a heart pulsing with love for the living God their Creator and Sustainer, there was an empty void in the lives – “but don’t forget to tithe the mint!” What minor fetishes are we scrupulous to observe, some political ideals we zealously follow, evangelical in our total commitment to the theory of global warming but cold to our wives, and neglectful of our children’s moral and spiritual life? God sees; God will judge.
iii] We ache to be recognized and praised by men (v.43). The Pharisees loved to put on their most impressive clothes and walk through the market place and imagine that people were talking about them! They loved every greeting, every smile, every wave, “Good morning father Abraham! Lovely day isn’t it. You’re looking fine this morning!” They didn’t realize how hated they were. They had no idea that tradesmen were doing it to gain their trade, that their servants would be sent from the big house to purchase fish at their stall. They gave a whole pound to the Synagogue every Sunday, making sure it was in the form of ten ten-penny pieces so that it rattled as it fell into the container. So they got the most important seats in the place. There was no awareness of grace, that they were sinners and needed mercy and pity from a holy God and only by the sacrifice of the spotless Lamb could they gain atonement. All their religion was done for effect. That is what our courageous young Saviour told these stony faced men as they sat around the table and endured his analysis of the rottenness of their lives!
iv] Our vile religion contaminates the spiritual life of the entire nation (v.44). Jesus looked at them and said to them quietly and seriously from the other side of the table, “You are like . . . unmarked graves!” (v.44). Let me explain this to you. The Pharisees thought of themselves as the custodians of truth and righteousness in the nation. They felt they were the conscience of the nation. It was because of them that God was blessing the nation. If they were to decline then the nation would disappear. “If we lost the Pharisees we will lose Jehovah” they said to the people. God’s covenants and promises, his temple and priesthood would all be annihilated if they disappeared. They thought would enter another Babylonian captivity, but this would not last for 70 years; it was last for ever. So the nation needed the Pharisees for its survival, they felt and taught. That was the vaunted view of themselves these people had. Instead of thinking about being anchored to God, and to the sustaining and reviving power of God, casting themselves on Jehovah’s promises and grace they looked at one another, their behaviour, their clothing, their hundreds of rules and regulations, as being the voice and power of God in the world.
Jesus told them that this was far from the truth, in fact what they were doing was akin to a man who buries a dead body secretly so that people walked over the spot where it was hidden and thus got ritually unclean and contaminated by their proximity to death. The Pharisees were in fact a force for spiritual death, corrupting and defiling the whole land; when merchants came from Egypt and soldiers came for a tour of duty from Rome and met Pharisaism they were sickened by what they saw. Something in them died. They thought, “No hope for a guilty sinner here.” The Pharisees were driving away the life from Jehovahism and Messiahism in the land. Israel had become killing fields through the influence of the Pharisees. The word of God, the covenants of God, the promises of God, the sacrifices of God had all shrunk through Pharisaism. Life had become death. The Pharisees were the unmarked graves of Israel.
At that dinner table at that moment the knives came on the table. This was strong tobacco indeed. “One of the experts in the law answered him, ‘Teacher, when you say these things, you insult us also’” (v.45). This is the voice of a Scribe who has been listening to Jesus denouncing the Pharisees, but his words have now struck home to the Scribes too (the experts in the law) because though they were not card-carrying Pharisees there was only a membrane separating their views and practices from the Pharisees. They were also being censured by Jesus in this never-to-be-forgotten meal. But Christ carried on . . .
v] We give other people burdens we do not bear ourselves (v.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.’” Had there been at first a smugness among the experts in the law when they heard Jesus dishing it out to the Pharisees? “Lay it on them, Jesus,” they were thinking. Then he spoke about their sins, and they were outraged and insulted, but he would not withdraw a word, “Woe to you experts in the law,” he said to them. What were they doing wrong? According to their ideas the law contained 613 commandments which were divided into 365 negative restrictions (one for every day of the year) and 248 positive commands. So their counseling and pastoring consisted of giving legal requirements to the common people. There were laws on food, cooking, eating, washing, hygiene, women, animals – every aspect of life was covered by many commandments, while the voice of grace, and mercy, and about the Messiah who would open up a fountain for sin and uncleanness was utterly mute. “Do, do, do, do!” they said. “Don’t, don’t, don’t, don’t” they said. They loaded the people with these burdens. Mustn’t Jesus say to the scribes also, “Woe to you!”
Don’t we say to every religion in the world today – all of them religions of regulations with prescribed times for fastings, and meditations and saying prayers, “Woe to you!” because you load men down with burdens which you yourselves are too weak to carry. You don’t lift a finger to help your congregations do what you tell them to do. The continents of the world are trapped in religions of works and guilt. They tell others what they must do each day but their spokesmen fail to do it themselves. Don’t we see this inconsistency in the religious humanism of our day? There are policemen who themselves are caught speeding, and social workers who themselves have downloaded pornography, and doctors who themselves are sick through drinking excessive alcohol, and teachers who themselves despise the ten commandments, and politicians making our laws and yet they abuse their generous expenses system that they have set up, so stealing from us, charging us for their dog food and their 50 inch plasma TV sets. They preach all the old virtues and practice all the old vices. They load people with burdens and yet they themselves have all the corruption of today’s double-standard society. Shouldn’t we say, “Woe to you!”?
vi] We abuse the past to justify our actions in the present. “Woe to you, because you build tombs for the prophets, and it was your forefathers who killed them” (v.47). What a fuss they made about Israel’s glorious past history, its mighty leaders and inspired prophets. They were rewriting the past, and claiming that they were its custodians and inheritors, but Jesus told them that they were rather the inheritors of the men who opposed and murdered the prophets, and that the same thing was happening while they ate this meal. God was still sending them prophets, and they were still intent on destroying them. They would be held responsible for what had happened. They were romanticizing the past; they were giving it a perfect quality – which in fact it did not have. It was in the past that the righteous were opposed and many were hounded to their deaths. These Pharisees were absolutizing the past. They lacked any historical perspective and were historically ignorant. They failed to recognize the imperfection and relativism of all human attainments at any period of redemptive history, even the best and highest human achievements under God. Abraham, and Moses, and Samuel, and David were all imperfect men.
These Pharisees were proud men, abusing the past to give themselves glory. Someone has said that there are three kinds of pride: pride of race, pride of face and pride of grace. They were guilty of all three. Which is worst? We might rightly say that pride of grace is the worst of the three, but surely we may rank with it pride of face, of being Jewish Pharisees, pride of race does not come far short of it. But what about pride of ignorance? Let us turn to that as the final indictment that our brave young Saviour brought against these scribes and Pharisees.
vii] Being ignorant of the truth we hinder others from embracing it. “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” (v.52). What good would be the National Library of Wales with its treasure trove of all the books that have been printed in the UK for a century if the doors were locked and no one could find a key to open them, and nobody could enter to open a single book. Someone’s taken away the key. Here is a golden chest and carved on its lid is the word, “Knowledge” but no one has the key to open the chest. Someone has taken away the key to knowledge. What a tragedy. Joan Didion worked in the mid-sixties in the so-called ‘summer of love’ in California as a desk-clerk in an apartment house handing out the keys to new tenants and picking up their payments. She was surrounded by young people who were saying things like, “All you need is love . . . go with the flow . . . live for today” but it was all so glib and self-centred. Joan Didion, then the desk clerk handing out bills and keys, said, “I had the keys, but I didn’t have the key.” The Pharisees didn’t have the key to salvation but they had interfered with the key of grace so that no one else who listened only to them could be saved.
The Lord Jesus Christ has the key. The Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is the key. “I am the way, the truth and the life.” The infallible Christ gives me the Bible, the key to life. “Your word is truth,” he says, but the Pharisees had replaced the Word of God with the infallible traditions of men. They had taken from the people the key to knowledge. They had failed to profit from the Bible; its scrolls gathered dust on their shelves while they fussed about tithing herbs from the garden. They had failed to enter the divine library of knowledge which ultimately is Christ, for in him are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge, and they had hindered the common people from entering by their persecution of Christ. Woe to such men! Woe to such a movement that tells its congregations that the Bible is a book difficult to understand and that they need Mother Church to explain in her encyclicals and decrees and pronouncements what they must believe. Here is the Word of God! Leave the traditions of men or you will come under the fearful woes of the Saviour. Cast yourself on the Lord of the Word, and the Word of the Lord. To know who you are you must know the God who made you in his image. To know what is wrong you must take seriously the divine diagnosis of our fall into sin and our natural depravity. To know how to be healed you must receive the double cure, of sin’s guilt by the redemption of Christ on the cross, and of sin’s cure by the regeneration that is through the Holy Spirit. Never cease your dealings with the living God until you are sure that this great healing has become yours. May these solemn woes of Christ be like a divine pack of sheep dogs under the control of the Good Shepherd drive you to him alone, the key to God and heaven.
29th August 2010 GEOFF THOMAS