Woe to You
Woe to You
St. Luke 11:37-54
Exactly sixteen-hundred years ago a British monk named Pelagius stirred up an enormous controversy. In 410 he moved to Carthage in northern Africa. He was only there a short time before moving on to Jerusalem, but he left many of his followers behind in Carthage along with his friend Celestius. Pelagius and Celestius denied that doctrine we know as “Original Sin”. They basically taught that humans can pull themselves up by their own moral boot-straps—that grace isn’t really necessary. Pelagianism, as this teaching was known, was condemned as heresy by several local church synods and then finally by the Council of Ephesus in 431—a council of the whole Church. None of Pelagius’ writing have survived. We know him through the writings of his chief opponent: St. Augustine, who was bishop in nearby Hippo.
I bring this up because there’s another group of people we know—or think we know—mainly through the writings of Augustine: the Pharisees. In his battle with Pelagius, Augustine enlisted the Pharisees. In his thinking the Pharisees were sort of Jewish proto-Pelagians. Like the Pelagians, he wrote, they were trying to earn salvation by their own works—pulling themselves up by their own moral bootstraps. This made it easy for Augustine to condemn Pelagius, because he could simply point to the Gospels and to the places where Jesus confronts and condemns the Pharisees. We come to one of the most significant of those passages this morning. For the last sixteen-hundred years what Augustine had to say about the Pharisees has shaped our understanding of them and our understanding of what Jesus had in mind when he condemned them. We’ve all been influenced by this idea that the Pharisees were trying to earn their salvation through their works. Even today when we see legalistic Christians we often condemn them for being “Pharisaical”.
In the last century, however, we’ve begun to learn more about the Pharisees as we’ve studied the literature of the time in which they lived and what we see there is not men trying to save themselves by their works. Jews didn’t even think in those terms. If you were a Jew, you were part of God’s covenant people. Period. Works—keeping the torah—were how you showed your faithfulness to God and to his covenant. The Pharisees were a sort of pressure group. They called for Israel to keep the law better. They understood that Israel was under God’s judgement—still effectively living in exile in their own land and God’s presence having departed from the temple—because the people had been unfaithful. God was punishing Israel, but one day he would return. When Israel had finally straightened up and was keeping the law, God would return in the Messiah to vindicate Israel for her faithfulness and to judge and destroy everyone else. That’s why the Pharisees were “obsessed” with law-keeping. The sooner Israel straightened up, the sooner the Lord would return to save them from the Romans. More than anything else, the Pharisees were political and that’s what made them controversial.
This is what Jesus is facing as we now look at Luke 11:37-54. At least one Pharisee was there when Jesus cast the demon out of the man who was mute and then overheard the accusations that he was in cahoots with the devil and overheard the calls for Jesus to perform signs. That man invited Jesus to his house for dinner. This would have been something of a banquet. The Pharisees’ friends would be there and, according to custom, Jesus was probably invited to address the group. On the one hand, this man may have given Jesus the invitation in the hopes that Jesus would condemn himself during the dinner conversation, but on the other hand, hospitality was sacred in that culture. This was also very much a way for the Pharisee and Jesus to bury the hatchet. So we can’t be sure of the Pharisee’s motives, but one thing we know is that in Jewish society there were very clear customs that everyone was expected to observe when eating. Because those customs had to do with ritual purity the Pharisees were veryscrupulous about them.
While Jesus was speaking, a Pharisee asked him to dine with him, so he went in and reclined at table. The Pharisee was astonished to see that he did not first wash before dinner. (Luke 11:37-38)
This would be a bit like wearing your shoes into someone’s house without first asking it if was okay. The main difference is that the Canadian custom is just about keeping the carpet clean. The Jewish custom of ritual washing before meals had religious significance. For the Pharisees everything was about purity. With the help of the scribes—the legal experts—they’d developed rules upon rules upon rules to make sure that good Jews remained pure in every situation imaginable. And now Jesus is invited into this man’s home and walks right past the vessels holding the water for ritual washing, plops himself down at the table, and digs in. And this causes a dilemma for Jesus’ host. Now everything at the table that Jesus has touched is unclean and if the Pharisee and his other guests sit down and eat it, they’ll be unclean too. But Jesus isn’t done spoiling the banquet. We can imagine his host standing there agape. Jesus knows what he’s thinking. Part of his ministry is to reveal the hearts of men and women. He knew what he was doing when he sat down without washing. He turns the whole thing into an object lesson. Look at verses 39-41:
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.”
They’re upset because Jesus didn’t wash his hands and now he compares their obsession with purity to washing the outside of a cup or a dish while leaving the inside dirty. They keep the easy and superficial parts of the law, but they’ve forgotten the parts that require a real change of character and purity of heart. They’re like a tradesman who puts a fish sticker on his car, but has no qualms about engaging in shady business practises. They’re like a family that goes out to eat at an expensive restaurant, makes a point of praying publicly before they dig in, and yet treat their waiter like dirty and ignore the poor person sitting on the sidewalk outside when he asks for help.
In the last passage Jesus condemned Israel for having kept God’s light to herself instead of sharing it with people still in darkness. This is just what Jesus is getting at here. The Pharisees go through the outward motions of purity, they think they’re better than everyone else because of it, and yet they lack purity of heart. God’s light was supposed to be taken into the darkness to drive it away, but instead it’s being used to draw a boundary. It’s being used to condemn those in the dark rather than rescue them. And yet Jesus doesn’t just rebuke. He invites them to repent: Turn all of that greed into almsgiving—cleanse the inside of the cup—and the outside will take care of itself. Consider that what we do with our possessions and our money reveals the inside of the cup no matter how clean we may scrub the outside. A lot of Christians put on a good show when it comes to the externals, but inside we’re still motivated by selfishness and greed. We talk of God’s kingdom, but our focus is on laying up treasures in this earthly kingdom where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal. We’re fools just like the Pharisees.
Jesus goes on in verse 42:
“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.”
I can picture Jesus picking up a mint leaf off a dish of lamb or scooping up a dish spiced with rue. He holds it up for his host to see and says, “You even tithe off your herb garden lest you eat impure food!” The law of tithing that God had given his people involved giving back to God ten percent of the harvest. If you were a wheat farmer, you tithed ten percent of your wheat. If you raised cattle, you gave back to God ten percent of your cows. Tithing off your kitchen garden wasn’t necessarily a bad thing to do, but the point of tithing was to show love for God and trust in his provision. Human greed and insecurity make us naturally hold onto everything we’ve got lest one day we go hungry. God calls us to a very different way of life. He reminds us that we live only by his breath in the first place. He sustains both us and his whole Creation. He promises to take care of us and as a show of our trust he called his people in the Old Testament to give back ten percent to support the ministry of his temple and his priests. To show trust in him he called his people to rest one day in seven when human nature would have had them scrambling all week long. And to show trust in him, he called his people to share their material blessing with the poor. But for the Pharisees it wasn’t about trust. It wasn’t really even about love for God anymore. It was about purity. They tithed not only off their crops, but even off their herb gardens lest their food be impure and they defile themselves.
Jesus rebukes them. If only they were as scrupulous about loving God and working for justice as they were their tithing. Again, they were obsessed with proving to God and to the world that they were “insiders”—that they were part of God’s kingdom. They were doing their best to make sure that when the Messiah came he’d know they were his. The irony of it was that in trying so hard to be insiders, they were actually proving themselves to be outsiders. In trying so hard to be what they thought was light, they were actually overcome with darkness. They were going through the motions, but they’d forgotten the real reason behind them.
Many of us are guilty of these same sorts of things. We wash the inside of the cup, but we leave the outside dirty. We keep up external appearances of faith, but inside we’re greedy and wicked. It’s often said that a church treasurer has a better handle on the spiritual state of church-goers than we priests do! On the other hand, some us can be scrupulous about tithing and about giving to others, but we do it for the wrong reasons. We bring our offerings to God because we think that we can earn our way into his good graces. Or we do all these things for what others will think of us. Remember the TV programme “Keeping Up Appearances” with Patricia Routledge? Hyacinth, the main character, was always trying to impress everyone around her from her fine china to pronouncing her last name as if it were French, but somehow every episode her family turned up. No matter how good she tried to look, it always came out that she was from a family of poor, trashy, beer-swilling rednecks from the wrong part of town. Brothers and sisters, we may get away with keeping up appearance for a time, but as Jesus revealed the hearts of these Pharisees, he will reveal our hearts too. Look at verses 43-44:
“Woe to you Pharisees! For you love the best seat in the synagogues and greetings in the marketplaces. Woe to you! For you are like unmarked graves, and people walk over them without knowing it.”
I don’t think Jesus could have made his point any more strongly. Again, the Pharisees were all about purity. One of the worst forms of impurity came from contact with the dead. Tombs were whitewashed so they’d stand out and people would stay away. And yet Jesus rebukes the Pharisees, describing them as tombs—as being unclean—and worse, as unmarked tombs. In their scrupulosity they’re not only damning themselves, they’re also becoming a danger to everyone else. Here the Pharisees thought they were the purest of the pure, but Jesus warns them that they’re as impure as graves and that in recruiting others to their cause they were making them less pure, not more.
As it turns out, this wasn’t just a dinner for Pharisees. There were also some lawyers or scribes there too. The scribes were the legal experts of the day. The Pharisees were concerned with keeping the law and the scribes helped them make and interpret the rules. One of those scribes at this dinner doesn’t have the good sense to keep his mouth shut as we see in verse 45:
One of the lawyers answered him, “Teacher, in saying these things you insult us also.”
Apparently it was okay for Jesus to rebuke the Pharisees, but this scribe now chimes in and points out that Jesus has also unintentionally offended the scribes with his strong words. And now Jesus turns on him: “If the shoe fits; wear it.”
And he said, “Woe to you lawyers also! For you load people with burdens hard to bear, and you yourselves do not touch the burdens with one of your fingers.” (Luke 11:46)
God gave the law as a way for his people to show covenant faithfulness. To love God was to keep the law and to keep the law was to love God. The Pharisees and scribes have forgotten that. The law had become a source of pride: “We’re pure; you’re not. We’re insiders; you’re outsiders…and, oh boy, just wait until God comes and punishes you!” They genuinely wanted their fellow Jews to be good law-keepers like them—that would, they believed, hasten the coming of God’s kingdom. And so they developed a whole system of rules meant to help everyone keep the law. But in the end they forgot that the law was about loving God and loving your neighbour. People worried about suddenly finding themselves on the outside because they forgot to wash their hands before a meal or because they had an extra sprig of mint in their gardens that they hadn’t tithed on. That’s not what the law of tithing was about. We see this today in Jewish kosher dietary rules. Exodus and Deuteronomy warn against boiling a young goat in its mother’s milk. It’s not clear the reason for the law. It might have been banning a pagan fertility practise or it might simply be an issue of what we call animal cruelty prevention. But today this simple command has been turned into a complex system of rules to prevent any meat and any dairy from coming into contact with each other. Orthodox Jews often keep two sets of cutlery, utensils, cookware, and storage containers—and sometimes even two dishwashers—just to make sure that meat and dairy don’t mix. The law has been turned into a burdensome set of rules that miss the original point that God intended.
Jesus knows exactly what these people took pride in and that’s what he strikes at. Look at verses 47-51:
“Woe to you! For you build the tombs of the prophets whom your fathers killed. So you are witnesses and you consent to the deeds of your fathers, for they killed them, and you build their tombs. Therefore also the Wisdom of God said, ‘I will send them prophets and apostles, some of whom they will kill and persecute,’ so that the blood of all the prophets, shed from the foundation of the world, may be charged against this generation, from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah, who perished between the altar and the sanctuary. Yes, I tell you, it will be required of this generation.”
The Pharisees saw themselves as honouring the Old Testament prophets. The prophets had rebuked Israel in her sins, pointed to God’s coming judgement, and called the people to repentance. That’s what the Pharisees thought they were doing. They were right to a point. They were right that God was judging his people for their unfaithfulness. They were right that the people needed to repent. The problem was that their diagnosis was superficial and focused on externals. And so rather than calling Israel to love God and to love neighbour and to take the law God had given them to the nations, their solution was simply to encourage the people to keep the law better by drawing boundaries. They took their light, pulled a basket over the top of themselves, and prayed for God to come and destroy everyone outside. And when people rejected the message of the Pharisees they simply took as confirmation of their own faithfulness—a sort of persecution complex: God’s prophets will always be rejected.
And now Jesus tells them that they’re not actually like the prophets. In fact, they’re just like the men and women who rejected and killed the prophets. They’re as guilty for the blood of the prophets as their fathers were, from the blood of Abel, the first martyr, to the blood of Zechariah, the last of the prophet-martyrs. And Jesus concludes in verse 52:
“Woe to you lawyers! For you have taken away the key of knowledge. You did not enter yourselves, and you hindered those who were entering.”
Both the Pharisees and the scribes intended to help the people by making the law clear and by showing how it was relevant, but in the end all they’d done was muddy the waters and obscured the real law and it’s purpose. These were the people who thought they knew what was best for Israel, but they’re actually blind guides and the more they lead, the further they lead the people into darkness.
Needless to say, the Pharisees and the scribes weren’t happy. Luke ends the account in verses 53-54:
As he went away from there, the scribes and the Pharisees began to press him hard and to provoke him to speak about many things, lying in wait for him, to catch him in something he might say.
We’re reminded what Jesus is about. He’s on his way to Jerusalem to fulfil his mission and the closer he gets, the more opposition he’s going to face.
In conclusion: We can’t fault the Pharisees for their zeal. Even Jesus never did that. Their problem was that they’d mistaken their own agenda for God’s. Their problems started when they made the law about who was in and who was out. Once they’d done that, they started forgetting that the real purpose of the law was to show love for God and love for neighbour. They started hoarding the light and in doing so their light became darkness.
Brothers and sisters, how often do we mistake our agendas for the agenda of God? How often do we obscure the kingdom with our rules? Rules aren’t necessarily bad. The law itself was a blessed thing, but only so long as the people remembered that it was meant to be a guide to teach them to love. Jesus has freed us from the law and given us a law of love to share with the world. And yet we’re still prone to abusing even that. We use our faith to draw boundaries to condemn those on the outside, forgetting that the reason Jesus has given us his law of love is to share it with those still in darkness—to offer them forgiveness, redemption, release, and healing and to welcome them into the kingdom. It’s easy to forget that the people in the dark aren’t our enemies; the darkness itself is. It’s easy to forget when we’re inundated by media telling us, for example, that the enemies of our nation are our enemies. Brothers and sisters, they are not. The enemy of the kingdom of God is darkness, not the people living in the dark. We’re called to carry our light to precisely those people. And it’s easy to misidentify the enemy when those lost in darkness wrong and persecute us. Never forget, they reject us because they’re slaves to that darkness—captives who can only be helped, not by our condemnation, but by the message of release that only we can share with them. Remember, you and I were once lost in the dark just as they are. Remember what Jesus said: He came not to condemn—humanity already stands condemned. No, he came to redeem that men and women might escape condemnation. Friends, the best way to wash the inside of the cup is to keep God’s agenda of redemption our agenda. When we remember our hope in the coming resurrection, when we remember our hope that God will one day restore this broken world, and when we remember that without Jesus sinners will stand condemned and apart from that hope, our cups will be filled with love and justice and grace—filled to overflowing so that we no longer have to worry about the outside.
Let us pray: We prayed earlier, Father, asking you to keep your Church in all godliness. Keep us in all godliness we pray, but remind us always that our godliness is your gift. Remind us that we poor sinners live by your grace and by your love. Keep us from self-righteousness and pride and let your love and grace overflow from us into the darkness of the world. We ask this through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.