JESUS CONDEMNS THE HYPOCRITICAL PHARISEES
While in Judea, Jesus accepts a meal invitation from a Pharisee. It is likely during the day, rather than an evening meal. (Luke 11:37, 38; compare Luke 14:12.) Before eating, the Pharisees carry out ritual washing of their hands up to the elbow. But Jesus does not. (Matthew 15:1, 2) It would not violate God’s Law to wash to that extent, yet it is not something God requires.
The Pharisee is surprised that Jesus does not follow that tradition. Jesus detects this and says: “Now you Pharisees, you cleanse the outside of the cup and dish, but inside you are full of greediness and wickedness. Unreasonable ones! The one who made the outside made also the inside, did he not?”
Having clean hands before eating is not the issue, but religious hypocrisy is. The Pharisees and others who ritualistically wash their hands fail to cleanse their hearts from wickedness. So Jesus counsels them: “Give as gifts of mercy the things that are from within, and look! everything about you will be clean.” (Luke 11:41) How true! Giving should spring from a loving heart, not from a desire to impress others by a pretense of righteousness.
It is not that these men do not give. Jesus points out: “You give the tenth of the mint and of the rue and of every other garden herb, but you disregard the justice and the love of God! These things you were under obligation to do, but not to disregard those other things.” (Luke 11:42) God’s Law called for the paying of tithes (a tenth part) of crops. (Deuteronomy 14:22) That included the mint and the rue, herbs or plants used to flavor food. The Pharisees scrupulously paid a tenth of these herbs, but what of the more important requirements of the Law, such as to exercise justice and to be modest before God?
Jesus goes on to say: “Woe to you Pharisees, because you love the front seats in the synagogues and the greetings in the marketplaces! Woe to you, because you are as those graves that are not clearly visible, that men walk on and do not know it!” (Luke 11:43, 44) Yes, people could stumble on such graves and become ceremonially unclean. Jesus uses that fact to underscore that the uncleanness of the Pharisees is not apparent.
One man who is well-versed in God’s Law complains: “Teacher, in saying these things, you insult us also.” Yet such men need to realize that they are failing to help the people. Jesus says: “Woe also to you who are versed in the Law, because you load men down with loads hard to carry, but you yourselves do not touch the loads with one of your fingers! Woe to you, because you build the tombs of the prophets, but your forefathers killed them!”
The loads that Jesus refers to are the oral traditions and the Pharisees’ interpretation of the Law. These men are not making life easier for the people. Rather, they insist that all must keep what become heavy burdens. Their ancestors killed God’s prophets, from Abel onward. Now they, who make it seem as if they are honoring the prophets by building tombs for them, are imitating the attitude and actions of their forefathers. They are even seeking to kill God’s foremost Prophet. Jesus says that God will hold an accounting with this generation. And that became a reality about 38 years later, in 70 C.E.
Jesus continues: “Woe to you who are versed in the Law, because you took away the key of knowledge. You yourselves did not go in, and you hinder those going in!” (Luke 11:52) These men, who should be unlocking the meaning of God’s Word, are instead taking away the opportunity for people to know and understand it.
How do the Pharisees and scribes react? As Jesus departs, they begin to oppose him angrily and to assail him with questions. They are not asking out of a desire to learn. Instead, they want to trick Jesus into saying something for which they can have him arrested.