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The Pharisees

Luke 11:37 -- 54

Lesson audio

It puzzles some new Christians that the Prince of Peace met with such opposition. But, as we have seen, Christ places before us the Great Divide – and some will choose to be on the side of sin.

Now when He had spoken, a Pharisee *asked Him to have lunch with him; and He went in, and reclined at the table. When the Pharisee saw it, he was surprised that He had not first ceremonially washed before the meal. But the Lord said to him, "Now you Pharisees clean the outside of the cup and of the platter; but inside of you, you are full of robbery and wickedness. "You foolish ones, did not He who made the outside make the inside also? "But give that which is within as charity, and then all things are clean for you. "But woe to you Pharisees! For you pay tithe of mint and rue and every kind of garden herb, and yet disregard justice and the love of God; but these are the things you should have done without neglecting the others. "Woe to you Pharisees! For you love the chief seats in the synagogues and the respectful greetings in the market places. "Woe to you! For you are like concealed tombs, and the people who walk over them are unaware of it." One of the lawyers *said to Him in reply, "Teacher, when You say this, You insult us too." But He said, "Woe to you lawyers as well! For you weigh men down with burdens hard to bear, while you yourselves will not even touch the burdens with one of your fingers. "Woe to you! For you build the tombs of the prophets, and it was your fathers who killed them. "So you are witnesses and approve the deeds of your fathers; because it was they who killed them, and you build their tombs. "For this reason also the wisdom of God said, 'I will send to them prophets and apostles, and some of them they will kill and some they will persecute, so that the blood of all the prophets, shed since the foundation of the world, may be charged against this generation, from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah, who was killed between the altar and the house of God; yes, I tell you, it shall be charged against this generation.' "Woe to you lawyers! For you have taken away the key of knowledge; you yourselves did not enter, and you hindered those who were entering." When He left there, the scribes and the Pharisees began to be very hostile and to question Him closely on many subjects, plotting against Him to catch Him in something He might say.

(Luk 11:37-54 NASB)

Brunch At Home

A little background is necessary. We know from the customs of the time, which were well documented, that Jesus and the Pharisee are returning from the synagogue after morning prayers. It was customary to go to morning prayer before breakfast; afterwards, a brunch. This is the meal to which the Pharisee has invited him.

You will see the word “reclined.” Tables were low and something like a couch was brought up to them. You reclined on the couch and ate by taking things off the table. Hence, “reclined.”

We must not mistake the ceremonial washing here with your mother’s command to “wash your hands before dinner.” Indeed, they would ask you why you’d get rid of all that dirt. Washing meant a ritual cleansing, not a physical one. You would dip your hands in a bowl, down to the wrist. You would then raise your hands, and wait for the first drop of water from your elbow. Then you would lower your hands and wait for the first drop of water from your fingertips. No soap required. The concept of germs still lies some 1800 years into the future.

Into the lion’s den

We may pause here for a question: If Jesus so disapproved of these people, why did he go?

  • One answer is that this is his mission – to seek and save the lost. If this particular Pharisee is a devout man, then he will be blessed by the presence of Christ. If he is a hypocrite, then he will be warned.
  • Note, too, that this is a private conversation – not a debate in public. Jesus wants to give them the chance to repent – without having to do it in public. This is brunch with the poobahs.

The danger, of course, is that Jesus could be co-opted into the Pharisees way of thinking. Perhaps this was the purpose in asking him to brunch; they assumed that the young firebrand could be straightened out better in private. Little did they know….

Better left unsaid

Some of our best lessons come without words. By his actions here Jesus makes three points:

  • As a man of God, he can go even into the hypocrite’s den. Courage is a requirement for the Christian.
  • By not washing, he rejects the additions of the ceremonial law.
  • In so doing, he sets up his main illustration. His actions here are designed to open the door for his words.

The Center of the Argument

Jesus now goes to the heart of the matter. In effect, he says, “You think you are religious, but you’re not. And because of the high position you have among God’s people, your punishment for this will be far worse.” He then gets down to specifics, announcing them with “woe to you.”

Woe to you Pharisees

Why does Jesus pronounce woe upon them? Consider these three reasons:

  • First, they have separated worship from service. They are diligent about all the ceremonial law, but do not act accordingly. Worship in the formal sense shows what we should be doing as service during the week.
  • Next, they love the praise of men – above the praise of God. “Good morning, teacher” sounds better to them than “well done, good and faithful servant.”
  • Worst of all is this: they spread their insidious corruption to others.
Lawyers too

(One should note here that one of my sons is a lawyer. I was going to write a disclaimer about this, but it would never get past legal review).

The lawyers – experts in interpreting the Mosaic law – are the next in line. They even stand up and ask for it. Christ brings three accusations against them, also:

  • First, by their authority they make the worship of God a great burden to others. They drain the joy from worship and service.
  • Next, yesteryear’s mistake is this year’s tradition. For example, we have churches which refuse to use a piano for worship; the arguments of yesteryear become the dogma which today divides the body of Christ.
  • Finally, they obscure the knowledge of God, making it difficult for ordinary men to get – while not following it themselves.

Message for today

All fine and good, and I’m sure those hypocrites got what was coming to them – but what’s that got to do with me today?

Dealing with today’s Pharisees

Make no mistake about it: this problem has not gone away. The Pharisees are ever with us; they are the enemies of the faith from within the faith. So what should we do about it?

  • Recognize that the problem is now, not just then.
  • How do we recognize such people? By their fruits. If their piousness on Sunday doesn’t match their dealings on Monday, the light should go on.
  • We should therefore be cautious about accepting hospitality from such people; there is the temptation to be polite and agree with them.
  • The real danger is this: that they will co-opt you into their way of doing things. When you feel the tug to “belong” but know that it is not right, it’s time to leave.
Self test for Pharisees

One thing is clear: these people really didn’t see the problem. They didn’t feel guilty about being hypocrites. In fact, it felt good! So how would we test ourselves to be sure that we are not going down their path?

  • Do you love the praise of other people? Do you like to have it said that you’re a wonderful Christian?
  • Are you faithful on Sunday – but for the rest of the week you excuse yourself, saying, “Some people just don’t understand what it takes to survive in today’s economy.”
  • Most of all: are you always ready with good advice for other people? But have difficulty accepting it yourself?
The works of a Christian

By his condemnation Christ gives us a list of things that we should be doing:

  • The first is simply this: giving to the poor. It amazes me how many churches see this as a low priority item – and how much emphasis Christ places on it.
  • The second is similar, but more personal. We are to bear each other’s burdens. If your Christian brother is in need, in pain, in sorrow, what should you be doing?
  • In all your dealings, be just. Be fair. Never try to skim off a little extra, but provide all that is fair. Let it be said that a Christian would never cheat someone.
  • Most of all: be loving. God loves us; we are his children; we should act like we are in his family.

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