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Luke 11:37-54 – “Woe” to Religious Leaders

Summary

At a meal with Pharisees and Jewish legal experts, Jesus harshly denounces them for their greed, hypocrisy, and violence.

Analysis

These are some of Jesus' most stinging words in the Gospel of Luke. Upon people generally known for their commitment to live in faithful accord with the law of Moses, Jesus unleashes a stream of indictments concerning false and hypocritical piety. What Jesus says goes beyond calling Pharisees and scribes misguided; he assaults their character and motives. At the root of his criticisms is the claim that they have failed in their ability to provide authentic spiritual leadership. The hypocrisy, greed, and desire for acclaim that Jesus sees on display in their lives make them dangerous people. Pharisees purport to promote purity, but they actually serve as a source of impurity that others cannot easily recognize, just as an unmarked grave gives no warning to people who might accidentally defile themselves by walking over it. Scribes are guilty of violence against prophets that God sends. Jesus pronounces them culpable for everything from the Old Testament's first murder (Abel, in Genesis 4:8) to its last one (Zechariah, in 2 Chronicles 24:20-21). (In some orderings of the books of the Jewish Scriptures, 2 Chronicles came last.)

It is important to note that Jesus is here criticizing specific people whom he believes have misunderstood the nature and function of the law of Moses. He is not critical of the law; nor does he proclaim the law and its rituals as obsolete. He is not critical of Judaism; nor does he condemn all Jews or their desires to live in obedience to God's law. His point is that these particular people who have assumed responsibility for aspects of Judaism's religious life have misunderstood what God intends for humanity and are adhering to the law in the wrong way. Their guise of holiness ensnares others.

Luke 11:37-54

Jesus Denounces Pharisees and Lawyers

37 While he was speaking, a Pharisee invited him to dine with him; so he went in and took his place at the table. 38The Pharisee was amazed to see that he did not first wash before dinner. 39Then the Lord said to him, ‘Now you Pharisees clean the outside of the cup and of the dish, but inside you are full of greed and wickedness. 40You fools! Did not the one who made the outside make the inside also? 41So give for alms those things that are within; and see, everything will be clean for you.

42 ‘But woe to you Pharisees! For you tithe mint and rue and herbs of all kinds, and neglect justice and the love of God; it is these you ought to have practised, without neglecting the others. 43Woe to you Pharisees! For you love to have the seat of honour in the synagogues and to be greeted with respect in the market-places. 44Woe to you! For you are like unmarked graves, and people walk over them without realizing it.’

45 One of the lawyers answered him, ‘Teacher, when you say these things, you insult us too.’ 46And he said, ‘Woe also to you lawyers! For you load people with burdens hard to bear, and you yourselves do not lift a finger to ease them. 47Woe to you! For you build the tombs of the prophets whom your ancestors killed. 48So you are witnesses and approve of the deeds of your ancestors; for they killed them, and you build their tombs. 49Therefore also the Wisdom of God said, “I will send them prophets and apostles, some of whom they will kill and persecute”, 50so that this generation may be charged with the blood of all the prophets shed since the foundation of the world, 51from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah, who perished between the altar and the sanctuary. Yes, I tell you, it will be charged against this generation. 52Woe 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 When he went outside, the scribes and the Pharisees began to be very hostile towards him and to cross-examine him about many things, 54lying in wait for him, to catch him in something he might say.

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