…judged more strictly 1
Preached by Jason Abbott
We sometimes think it would’ve been neat to travel with Jesus during his ministry. However, I think we would have been uncomfortable around Jesus much of the time. And this passage is a good example of why I think that. In today’s text, Jesus is incredibly direct and exceedingly confrontational while at a dinner party. Most of us, consequently, would have been staring in embarrassment at our plates if we’d been there. This would not have been a “neat” moment to be with Jesus. On the contrary, it would’ve been very awkward!
And, what would’ve made it even more uncomfortable is who he confronts. Today we usually think of the Pharisees and religious lawyers from biblical times in negative terms. But, if you were an Israelite who followed the ministry of Jesus, these weren’t negative figures at all. These Pharisees and religious lawyers were respected leaders in Israel. Think of your favorite Bible scholar or favorite pastor, think about how you respect and value their teaching and leadership. This is how many of the Israelites would’ve respected and valued these leaders. So, when Jesus challenges them so directly, it would’ve been even more uncomfortable.
Well, that’s the context of this encounter. Let’s read it together.
37 While Jesus was speaking, a Pharisee asked him to dine with him, so he went in and reclined at table. 38 The Pharisee was astonished to see that he did not first wash before dinner. 39 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. 40 You fools! Did not he who made the outside make the inside also? 41 But give as alms those things that are within, and behold, everything is clean for you.
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. 43 Woe to you Pharisees! For you love the best seat in the synagogues and greetings in the marketplaces. 44 Woe to you! For you are like unmarked graves, and people walk over them without knowing it.”
45 One of the lawyers answered him, “Teacher, in saying these things you insult us also.” 46 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. 47 Woe to you! For you build the tombs of the prophets whom your fathers killed. 48 So you are witnesses and you consent to the deeds of your fathers, for they killed them, and you build their tombs. 49 Therefore also the Wisdom of God said, ‘I will send them prophets and apostles, some of whom they will kill and persecute,’ 50 so that the blood of all the prophets, shed from the foundation of the world, may be charged against this generation, 51 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. 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.”
53 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, 54 lying in wait for him, to catch him in something he might say.
Jesus has harsh words here for these leaders, doesn’t he?! The gloves are off. Luke makes this clear when, at the end of today’s passage, he tells us these leaders “…began to press [Jesus] hard and to provoke him… lying in wait… to catch him in something…” (vv. 53-54). Obviously, Jesus has touched a very sensitive nerve with this challenge of them. They are sensitive about their sin.
Yet, remember my warning to us all two weeks ago. When we read Scripture and are tempted to judge someone’s sin—like the sins of these religious leaders—before going any further, we must look at our own hearts and consider how we do the very same types of things. So, this morning, as we set out to study this passage, we must begin to identify ourselves with the Pharisees and the religious lawyers. We must imagine that we’re hosting this dinner party and that our Lord is speaking to us. Only then will this text drive us to humility and to the cross.
We’ll begin with Christ’s words to the Pharisees and then look at his words to the religious lawyers. So: (1st) Woe to you Pharisees. (2nd) Woe to you lawyers. Let’s look at each rebuke in a self-reflective manner.
1. Woe to you Pharisees (vv. 39-44)
While everyone is preparing for this banquet, the Pharisee hosting the dinner notices that Jesus doesn’t wash before eating. And, the host is “astonished” by this. I think it’s fair to say that his astonishment wasn’t because he was impressed by it but, rather, offended by it. And, it’s also important to note that the washing talked about here has nothing to do with hygiene. It was a traditional rule of washing put in place to signify separation from a sinful world. 2 In short, it wasn’t commanded by God in Scripture but was something added to Scripture by men—the very kinds of men hosting Jesus right now.
Well, we don’t know if this Pharisee said something or simply made a face, or whether Jesus miraculously discerned the quiet judgmental thoughts of his heart. Luke doesn’t share how Jesus knew. But, he does share his response:
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.
“But woe to you Pharisees! For you tithe…every herb, and neglect justice and the love of God. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others. 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” (vv. 39-44).
First, note that “woe” is a word of regret. 3 Jesus wishes this wasn’t the case. He laments the condition of this religious leader’s heart. In fact, he confronts him because he cares. He’s scolding him because he cares. Jesus is heading to the cross because he cares. (If we confront people because of their sin, we should always do so because we care about them. That’s what Jesus is doing here.)
Next, notice the character of Jesus’ lamentation concerning these Pharisees. Jesus complains that their real problem isn’t primarily about what’s on the outside; rather, their real problem is primarily about what’s on the inside.
Jesus says, Woe to you Pharisees:
- You clean the outside of the dish, but not the inside. Yet, God made both. God requires that both outside and inside be made clean (vv. 39-40).
- You love admiration and popularity and to be publicly praised by people. All the while, you secretly neglect the very things that please the Lord, things like justice (vv. 42-43).
- You keep your rot hidden like unmarked graves. Your ways seem good, but they defile and pollute all those you disciple and teach (v. 44).
Friends, our world is enamored with putting on pretty, outward appearances. When, however, we get to peek behind the curtain, we’ll find that every single one of us is pretty screwed up. We see it with our politicians, popstars, and professors. We see it with our movie stars and business moguls. It’s everywhere that we look. When someone seems too good to be true, they are.
But, before we go too far, recall that Jesus isn’t talking to those out there. Jesus is talking to us. We’re hosting this party. “Judgment begins at the household of God” (1 Peter 4:17). It’s consequently our responsibility to pull back the curtain on our own sins. We are called to crucify, first and foremost, the hypocrisy hidden inside us—in our own hearts and minds. So, I’ll begin:
- Whenever I preach, and someone complements me regarding the sermon, I usually say: Praise God! But really, in my heart of hearts, I feel like: Praise me! I want your praise. I want your approval.
- In a similar way, I can be harsh and judgmental when others don’t behave like I think they should. Oh, I can seem gracious and kind on the outside while simultaneously there’s sinful pride and condemnation on the inside. I’m often like an unmarked grave.
I wonder if in your own ways you feel these same kinds of hypocrisy in you. I wonder if you’d agree that you look way more put together than you really are. Friends, I think we spend so much time dwelling on the exterior, making it pretty, because we don’t want to deal with the mess within us—a mess that we know we can never clean up on our own: selfish desires, harsh thoughts, greedy intentions, prideful ambitions, and on and on and on…. This is what’s inside us.
And this, consequently, begs the question: How can we ever clean the inside of the cup? How can we ever deal with the rottenness that’s hidden deep within us? Well, the only answer is the gospel of Jesus Christ. Thus, when we trust in Christ, he doesn’t work from outside to inside. Instead, he works from inside to outside. The Father gives us his Spirit, and the Spirit’s main purpose is to tune our desires and affections to God. I like what R. C. Sproul says:
Loving a holy God is beyond our moral power. The only kind of God we can love by our sinful nature is an unholy god, an idol made by our own hands. Unless we are born of the Spirit of God, unless God sheds his holy love in our hearts, unless he stoops in his grace to change our hearts, we will not love him…. To love a holy God requires grace, grace strong enough to pierce our hardened hearts and awaken our moribund souls. 4
Friends, we must always trust Christ for such grace and depend on the power of the Holy Spirit to transform the affections of our hearts. Otherwise, we are dead in our sins and without hope.
Well, let’s look now briefly at Christ’s words to the lawyers.
2. Woe to you lawyers (vv. 46-52)
Here, Jesus turns his attention from Pharisees, a conservative religious party, to its lawyers, a specific set of biblical scholars within the party of the Pharisees. So, in this section, Jesus is setting his sights on Israel’s professors of theology—those among the Pharisees who were its intellectual elites. These Bible scholars sat around all day analyzing and debating Scripture. And, consequently, these lawyers had added their own traditions as a companion to the law. Thus, Jesus says:
“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. 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…. 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” (vv. 46-48, 52).
Jesus says, Woe to you religious lawyers:
- You set the bar super high for others but not for yourselves (v. 46).
- You put the finishing touches on the sinful persecutions of your fathers—building tombs to honor the prophets they killed; while at the same time, you persecute and kill the prophets of your own day (v. 47-48).
- You have obscured the words of God by adding your traditions to them. You did not understand Scripture yourselves and, now, you keep others from understanding the way of salvation in Scripture (v. 52).
Friends, we must be careful not to be like they are. We must guard our hearts from doing the very same kinds of things—careful to keep our social viewpoints from hindering someone meeting Jesus, careful to keep our preferred worship style simply our preferred worship style and not an orthodoxy, careful not to add things to Scripture, and careful not to take things away from Scripture.
I think we all tend to imagine that God’s on our side—that God sees things just like we see things. And, when we do this, we’re tempted to impose our views on others. This, I believe, is the mistake of the Pharisees and the religious lawyers. And too often, I think, it’s our mistake as well. We make our views on things equal to God’s word. We think we’re making disciples of Christ when we’re actually making disciples of us.
So then, how do we avoid doing this? Let me close with a few suggestions. Not silver bullets, just a few helpful practices.
First, read your Bible. Read all of it. Read it daily. But, before you read it—even as we did today—pray that God wouldn’t show you the sins of other people but, rather, that God would show you your own sins. That he’d make you righteous as opposed to self-righteous through your reading of his word.
Second, read your Bible with others. Read it with people who see differently than you see. Discuss it with them and try to understand it from their point of view. When you read Scripture alone, it’s like watching a movie that’s black and white. But, when you read it with others, it’s like watching it in color. Things come alive. You see things in ways you wouldn’t otherwise. (We have a not the Christian point of view or Christian hermeneutic.)
Finally, read Scripture through a gospel lens. If Jesus is the great Bible hero, then we will best understand the story of Scripture—from Genesis to Revelation—as the story which finds its ultimate meaning in his person and work. Ask yourself: How are the needs in this passage ultimately met only in Christ? Or, how is living like this only possible through the empowering work of Christ? These questions will help you build your reading of God’s word on the firm foundation of the one who ultimately fulfills its promises. Amen.
Pray with me as we close.