In the last essay we studied Luke 11:29-36, a segment that continued a section about Jesus’ controversy with the Pharisees. Today we are studying 11:37-54, which will conclude the controversy section. In verses 37-41 we see that on that same day Jesus accepted a dinner invitation from a Pharisee (v. 38). But we quickly learn that once the Pharisee actually was hosting the dinner. He did not approve of Jesus’ manners. Jesus did not ceremonially wash his hands according to Pharisaic tradition.
Now the washing of hands here was not a matter of hygiene, as in our culture. Rather it was a reference to ritual washing to make oneself ceremonially clean. The Pharisees believed that keeping their ritual “washings” made or kept them holy. And the Pharisee who invited Jesus to dinner was amazed that Jesus didn’t purify himself with a ceremonial washing. Obviously Jesus didn’t think ceremonial cleansings were necessary to be a holy person. At any rate, Jesus’ statement in verses 39-41 indicates that the Pharisee said something to Jesus about his failure to wash.
Jesus’ reply is quite strong and biting. He accuses the Pharisee, and his friends, of hypocrisy. They ceremonially washed the outside of their bodies, in this case their hands; but they failed to cleanse, or let God cleanse, the inside. You see, the washings were supposed to symbolize an actual inner cleansing; but as Jesus said, those Pharisees were “full of greed and wickedness” on the inside. So he calls them “fools” (v. 40). And then in verse 41 Jesus gives them direction. “So give for alms those things that are within you; and see, everything will be clean for you.”
Do you see what Jesus did? He pinpointed the most grievous inward sin of these particular Pharisees’, namely, greed and avarice. They were careful to wash the outside so that they looked holy, but they were not holy on the inside. And if they wanted to be holy on the inside, they would have to change inside. They would have to have a change of heart. And the evidence of that change of heart in respect to their greed and avarice would be the giving away of money that represented their greed.
But greed and avarice were not the only inward sins of those Pharisees. Next, Jesus continued his denunciation of the scribes and Pharisees by pronouncing a series of six woes. These woes are paralleled in Matthew 23.
In the first woe Jesus denounces the Pharisaic practice of tithing in a legalistic way while neglecting “justice and the love of God.” In Matthew’s parallel Jesus mentioned mercy and faith in addition to justice.
This ties in rather well with the previous mention of greed and avarice. The Pharisees tithed legalistically. Yet their hearts were full of greed and avarice. Most Christians don’t come close to tithing, yet they don’t think of themselves as being greedy. But Jesus already had made that point to those Pharisees. Here he was making the point that the Pharisees, though tithing, neglected justice and the love of God, as well as mercy and faith (Mt. 23:23). Jesus went on to say that they should have practiced these in addition to tithing. This was a very serious charge. Clearly tithing is a good thing, if done for the right reasons; but it isn’t enough. We also must practice justice, mercy, faith and the love of God.
The second woe is in verse 43. The message here is simple. Jesus knew that the Pharisees generally were full of vanity. They liked the respect that generally was given to them. The best seats in the synagogues were indeed seats of honor. They were up front, where everyone could see those seated in them. And that’s where the Pharisees liked to sit. They also liked receiving greetings of respect in the marketplaces and public streets. In that culture it was a sign of respect given to a superior when a man spoke first to another man in a public place. And many people would give the Pharisees that kind of public respect.
But Jesus also knew that many of the Pharisees didn’t deserve the respect they received. We find the third woe in verse 44. In this third woe Jesus said the Pharisees were like unmarked graves. In that culture contact with a tomb or grave would ceremonially defile a person. But some graves were unmarked. Therefore one could walk over them and be defiled without knowing it. Jesus likened the Pharisees, who looked good on the outside, to unmarked graves, because they were unholy and wicked on the inside. They thought they were helpers of others, but like unmarked graves, they actually were defiling others, because they were more concerned about their reputations than their character. But God knows what we are really like on the inside.
In the next three woes Jesus shifts his attention from the Pharisees in general to a particular group of Pharisees, the lawyers, the so-called experts in the law. As you can see in verses 45-46, Jesus was prompted to make the switch by a question from a lawyer, who apparently was insulted by what Jesus already had said. Jesus replied with a fourth woe that condemned the lawyers for laying heavy burdens on their followers without lifting a finger to help them.
It was the lawyers who constantly added more rules and requirements to what it meant to be a good Jew. And those rules and requirements became a heavy burden on the people. Yet the lawyers made no effort to help the people carry the burdens. Indeed the context here suggests that the lawyers hypocritically did not always follow their own rules.
Jesus offered a fifth woe in verses 47-48. These verses are a bit difficult, because they require some understanding of what the Jews were doing in Jesus’ day. Apparently it was fashionable in Jesus day for some of the scribes and Pharisees (Mt. 23:29) to build lavish tombs for famous dead prophets and to revere them. But Jesus says that the practice indicated that the tomb builders were no better than their ancestors who killed the prophets, because neither the ancestors nor the tomb builders were willing to do what the prophets said to do.
Now then, in verses 49-51 Jesus condemns them further by saying that “the Wisdom of God will send them prophets and apostles some of whom they will kill and persecute.” In Matthew’s parallel (Mt. 23:34) Jesus says, “I will send.” So the reference to the “Wisdom of God” by Jesus was a self-reference.
Jesus seems to be lumping together the Jewish prophets of the past and the Christian apostles of the future. The ancestors killed and persecuted the prophets, and Jesus’ generation would kill and persecute the Christian prophets and apostles. But they would be guilty of the entire range of killing and persecution, because like the previous generations they show no sign of repentance.
In order to show the sweep of history, Jesus mentions the first martyr in history, Abel (though technically he was not a prophet), and the last recorded martyr in the Old Testament, Zechariah (2 Chron. 24:20-22). Matthew creates a problem here, because he identifies Zechariah as the son of Barichiah, and the Zechariah of 2 Chron. 20 was the son of Jehoiada. Some scholars have suggested that Jesus was referring to the writing prophet, Zechariah, and that he also was martyred. But there is no proof that the writing prophet, Zechariah, was martyred.
In verse 52 we see the sixth and final woe that Jesus pronounced against the Pharisees and scribes. This last woe accuses the lawyers of withholding the key of knowledge from the people. That would be difficult to understand if we did not have Matthew’s parallel. Matthew 23:13 records Jesus as saying, quote, “But woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you lock people out of the kingdom of heaven. For you do not go in yourselves, and when others are going in, you stop them.” That explains what we see in Luke. The “key of knowledge” is the key to the kingdom of heaven. The lawyers and other Pharisees were not entering into the kingdom themselves. That is, they were rejecting the message of Jesus. But in addition to that, they were hindering others from entering. So Jesus condemns them.
Verses 53-54 end the section. They tell us that after this visit to the Pharisee’s home and Jesus’ strong denunciation of the Pharisees that he made there, many Pharisees openly became his enemies.