IVP New Testament Commentary Series – Jesus Rebukes the Pharisees and Scribes (11:37-54)
Resources chevron-right IVP New Testament Commentary Series chevron-right Luke chevron-right The Journey to Jerusalem (9:51-19:44) chevron-right Controversies, Corrections and Calls to Trust (11:14-54) chevron-right Jesus Rebukes the Pharisees and Scribes (11:37-54)
Jesus Rebukes the Pharisees and Scribes (11:37-54)

Luke loves meal scenes and often reports discourses of great significance at the table (5:29; 7:36; 10:38; 14:1; 22:14). This meal is no exception. If diplomats had been present at this meal, the press release afterward would have said, "The two parties held frank and direct discussions, but no agreement was reached." In typical diplomatic terms that description would be an understatement. Jesus takes the occasion of this meal to condemn his host's religiosity. The harshness of his critique strikes our modern, sophisticated taste as almost rude, but in ancient culture, as in many non-Western cultures today, discussions about religion were very open and direct. So Jesus delivers his honest opinion about the leadership's spiritual life. Here is a checklist of potential pitfalls in the pursuit of piety. The differences between Jesus and the leadership are not small; a great gulf yawns between them.

The evening starts simply, with Jesus responding to a Pharisee's invitation to dine with him. As Jesus begins he does not wash before the meal, a fact that astonishes the host. Jewish tradition made a point of washing (Gen 18:4; Judg 19:21; Josephus Jewish Wars 2.8.5 129; especially m. Yadayim 1). The Old Testament describes such washings, but they are not commanded. Later writings from Judaism speak of washings both before and after a meal. The Pharisees are concerned with ritual purity before God, but Jesus will view this concern as adding burdens to God's revelation.

Jesus' host is thinking about these things—there is no indication he says anything to Jesus. Nevertheless, Jesus responds. What follow are a general condemnation and then six woes. The first three are directed at the Pharisees and the last three at the scribes. The general condemnation is for hypocrisy, and in the woes Jesus specifies the subtle variety of forms such hypocrisy takes.

He begins with the picture of a cup that is clean on the outside but filthy with extortion and wickedness on the inside. When I read this text, I often recall walking over to my children's sandbox after a rainstorm. The cups the children played with would be covered with sand and dirt on the outside but, because they were turned upside-down in the sand, absolutely clean on the inside. They were so filthy that I almost hated to pick them up. Though Jesus' image is the reverse of this, what he is evoking is similarly distasteful. Jesus creates a powerfully emotive visual.

Jesus' reply moves beyond hand-washing to address issues of character. In speaking of cups that are clean on the outside, Jesus alludes to the precise care that went into washing utensils so as to avoid ritual uncleanliness. Often this was called "fly impurity," for if an unclean or dead bug fell onto a cup or plate, that would render the dish unclean (Goppelt 1968b:149). The practice was grounded in Leviticus 11:32-33 and 15:12 (in later Judaism, t. Berakot 5:26; see Booth 1987:119-50, 194-203). Jesus is not condemning physical cleanliness. However, he is reacting to the contrast between compulsiveness in external cleanliness and an absence of concern for the heart. The two vices Jesus names are greed and wickedness. Both are broad terms for immorality of various types, usually attitudes that lead us to treat people and possessions as objects to be used and manipulated. Luke 20:45-47 is similar in tone. The rebuke has Old Testament roots (Is 1:10-17; 58:4-8; Amos 5:21-24; Mic 6:6-8). From the very start of his rebuke Jesus shows that a person's heart concerns God most.

As he completes the general rebuke, Jesus turns his attention to God's role as Creator, the One who made both the outside things and the inside. God cares about both. To think otherwise and act otherwise is foolish. In calling the Pharisees foolish people Jesus harks back to the book of Proverbs' many rebukes of the fool. The fool exhibits the exact opposite of the wisdom the Pharisees think they possess. To be a fool in the Old Testament is to be blind to the things of God (Bertram 1974:230-31). The question whether God created both the outside and inside is structured for a positive answer (note the use of the Greek particle ouk). God made both, and both cups and hearts are subject to him!

Jesus' next remark is difficult. To what does the reference to giving alms refer? In the ancient world giving alms meant contributing to those who had material needs. The practice reflected a sensitive religious concern for the unfortunate (Bultmann 1964b:485-87; Sirach 7:10; Tobit 12:8-9). To give alms is to show mercy (Is 1:10-31; Hos 6:6). Giving alms requires conscious action. But what do alms have to do with hypocrisy? The saying "Give alms for those things that are within" (Greek) means one of two things. (1) Most read it to mean that one should be generous from the heart (NIV). Such generosity makes for spiritual cleanliness. The opposite of extortion and evil is generosity. (2) But another meaning is possible: to apply the consideration we give to almsgiving to the issues of the heart. If we give special attention to the heart, then cleanliness is the result. Given the heavily figurative language of the context, this second sense seems more natural and sets the theme of Jesus' remarks: true piety begins when we pay careful attention to the issues of the heart.

Now Jesus begins the woes. A woe is a cry for God's just judgment in light of an action that deserves a divine response (see 6:24-26). The first woe says to the Pharisees, "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." Another religious practice of Jesus' day was giving one-tenth of all one had back to God for the temple and its ministers. This practice also had Old Testament roots (Lev 27:30-33; Num 18:21-32; Deut 14:22-27). In fact, there were various types of tithes, including tithes of produce and tithes involving livestock. By tithing minute herbs the leaders showed themselves scrupulously faithful. Elaborate rules existed for such tithes (m. Ma`aser Seni; m. Demai 2:1). But two large relational imperatives were ignored—justice and love for God. It is no accident that these two ideas are linked, as they were also linked in 10:25-28. The basic call of God is to love him and respond properly to others (Mic 6:8; Zech 7:8-10; Col 3:12-13). Jesus corrects the Pharisees by saying that they should tithe without neglecting the pursuit of love with justice.

The second woe addresses pride. Why do the Pharisees seek the most important seats in the synagogues and greetings in the marketplaces? Judaism had elaborate greetings for rabbis, and the prominent seats drew attention to the leaders' status. Jesus offers no correction here, only the rebuke.

The third woe is the most direct. The Pharisees are like unmarked graves, which men walk over without knowing it. Here is the height of uncleanliness. Jesus suggests not only death but also uncleanliness. Jesus' view of the Pharisees is exactly opposite of their self-image. In fact, what they thought about Jesus' not washing his hands is true of them. The "cleanliness tables" have turned! Jews were careful about their contact with dead bodies or things associated with death (Num 19; Lev 21:1-3; m. Demai 2:3). Yet Jesus says the Pharisees, far from being paragons of purity, are bearers of burial, death and uncleanliness. Only they carry their uncleanliness in a stealthy, underground fashion. Unfortunately, few knew just how deadly they were.

At this point a scribe tries to come to the Pharisees' rescue: if Jesus is going to attack the Pharisees, he'd better realize he is also attacking the scribes. The logic seems to be that surely Jesus would not want to throw his net of rebuke quite so wide. In fact, the scribe actually accuses Jesus of insulting (hybrizeis) them all. Does he really want to take them all on, and does he really want to tell them all to repent? Surely the religious leadership is above reproach.

Briefly, Jesus' answer is yes, they all need to repent. So he continues to issue woes and turns his attention to the scribes. There is plenty of guilt to go around. The first woe for them is because "you load people down with burdens they can hardly carry, and you yourselves do not touch the burdens with one of your fingers" (Greek). This woe can also be read in one of two ways: either (1) they are hypocrites, asking others to do what they do not ask of themselves, or (2) they are heartless, asking others to labor hard at spirituality while doing nothing to help those people accomplish the task (NIV will not lift one finger to help them). The term for burdens in the verse (phortion) is normally used to describe a ship's cargo. So the burdens are indeed heavy ones. Given the Pharisees' reputation for being very careful to keep the letter of the law, it is unlikely their kind of hypocrisy is the point. Since the other passages refer to failures at a relational level, we might expect a similar failure to be cited here. The rebuke is for a failure to show mercy and encourage others in their pursuit of God (view two above). Quick to point the finger but slow to lend a helping hand—that is Jesus' complaint.

True devoutness is never cold and withdrawn. The scribes' hypocrisy lies in claiming to know God's will yet being cold to others. The leadership was loading others down with a U-Haul or lorry full of demands and then standing by and watching them get crushed under the load. The scribes were so right in their own eyes that they unconsciously but constantly did wrong. What a rebuke to those whose life was focused on getting the law exactly right.

The second woe for the scribes is for their support of the slaying of the prophets. Now this woe contains irony: "you build the tombs for the prophets, and it was your forefathers who killed them." They built these tombs, no doubt, to show how they honored the prophets. But Jesus argues that in fact it shows their support for killing these divine agents! By building the tombs, he says, you testify that you approve of what your forefathers did. Here is one of Jesus' fundamental critiques of the leadership: they have been disobedient as their ancestors were. This evaluation also has Old Testament roots. It has been called the "deuteronomistic" critique of the nation, for throughout the books of Samuel and Kings the nation is condemned for consistent unfaithfulness before God in light of standards God proclaimed for the nation in Deuteronomy (Moessner 1989).

Jesus, speaking for "the Wisdom of God" (Greek), goes on to predict that another line of sent prophets and apostles also will be slain (NIV has simplified the construction by removing the personification of the Greek). This will be proof that Jesus' point is correct. This generation will have to answer for the slaying of all the prophets, since all the prophets preach the same call to obey God.

The final woe to the scribes is a stinging rebuke for their assumption that they know the way to God and hold the key to knowledge (Weiss 1974:48). Jesus argues that in fact they have taken away the key. In fact, not only have they not entered into knowledge themselves, but they have put up barriers for those who were entering! They are doing the exact opposite of what they assume. No one enters the house of the knowledge and blessing of God through them. They are a wall instead of a door.

The woes are a devastating critique of pride and self-assurance in religious practice. Amid concern for external righteousness, the heart was neglected. Rules existed for everything except for how to relate honestly to God and to others. Self-importance replaced humility, and destruction replaced pursuit of God's will. These remarks are strong because they show how deceived people can become if they do not rely humbly on God. Sometimes the obsessive pursuit of what is right results in some very serious wrong.

The reaction to Jesus is strong. The leaders press around him and try to think of questions that may provoke him. Lying in wait, they hope to catch him in something he might say. Enedreuo ("to lie in wait") and thereuo ("to catch") are hunting terms. The opposition to Jesus has become a hunt with Jesus as the prey. But this time the hunters will be shooting themselves.

Luke is showing not only how the opposition grew but also how they failed to heed Jesus' earlier call to repent (11:29-32). Luke also reveals what piety does not look like. The way to God is not that of the Jewish leadership. The way to God is not in a piety of pride and rules without care and compassion. The God-lover should not point the finger but lend a helping hand.

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