Luke 11: 37-54 – Denunciation of Pharisees and Lawyers

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A dinner to which Jesus is invited is the setting or the scene of these sayings (Lk 11: 39-54) against the Palestinian religious leaders, the Pharisees and their lawyers. In all probability, Luke would have created this setting (Lk 11: 37-38). These denunciations would have had other contexts (Cf. Mt 23). It is very unlikely that Jesus made such invectives against Pharisaic leaders in one single sermon; besides, a dinner at which he is a guest is an unlikely occasion for such a series of criticisms.

  1. In verse 39-41, Jesus exposes the superficiality and hypocrisy of a religion or piety that is concerned only with external observance of the Law. The Pharisaic zeal for ritual cleansing of the outside of the utensils is a substitute for real cleansing of the ‘inside’, namely, the human heart. As far as God is concerned, what is essential is that the ‘inside’ (heart) be cleansed of greed and wickedness. God, the maker, sees the inside and, therefore, the greed and wickedness within persons. Jesus in Luke’s gospel adds a very typical demand: “give for alms those things which are within” (i.e., within the cup and the dish). Real cleanliness before God can be achieved only by such action as almsgiving.
  2. Verses 42-44, contain three woes uttered against those Pharisees whose religion consisted in the strictest observance of the Mosaic Law as interpreted by their lawyers (Scribes). They were so concerned about the minute details of the Law that they would go to any length in order to forestall even an accidental transgression of the Law. For example, though the Law of tithing (i.e., giving 1/10th to the temple) was concerned only with the produce of the agricultural fields, they would even tithe kitchen herbs. The casualty in such scrupulous preoccupation with the Law is “justice and the love of God” (Lk 11: 42; see also Mic 6: 8). Such preoccupation and concentration only on the minute points of the Law makes one self-satisfied and vain. The Pharisees are compared to graves. Since physical contact with dead body renders a person ritually unclean (Num 19: 16), tombs were whitewashed in order to warn passers-by. But the Pharisees are even more dangerous; for they are like unmarked
  3. Verses 47-54, contain the second woe against the lawyers. (It seems more applicable to the Pharisees than to the lawyers). The criticism is against their camouflaged form of honouring the dead prophets for whom they build monuments. These prophets were killed by their own fathers, who refused to listen to them. The legalists’ (and the Pharisees’) attitude to Jesus reflects the stance which their forefathers took towards the prophets of old. They do not want to listen to the Word of God from a living prophet such as Jesus. The implication of these sayings is that Jesus himself will share the same fate of the prophets. However, God’s wise plan will not be thwarted. Therefore, the warning issued is crucial: unless this generation repents and turns away from the past ways, they will, as the last generation, be charged with the accumulated responsibility for the killing of all prophets – from Abel to Zechariah, the first and the last persons whose murders are reported in the first and last book of the Hebrew Old Testament. The paradox of the lawyers’ misery is that even though they have the keys to enter the house of God’s wisdom (Prov 9: 1), that is, the key of knowledge of the will of God as manifested in the Scriptures, they do not enter it, nor allow others to enter.

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