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We know very little about Jesus’ time on the earth. We estimate that He died in His early thirties and that He was a very public figure for about three years. Yet for all this, we only have four highly repetitive Gospel books that give us the tiniest glimpse of what it was like to be in the Company of our glorious Lord. Despite such limited information, we do learn one thing for certain: Jesus was a very volatile Guest.
Considering how rudely Jesus treated His hosts, it’s really quite fantastic that He received so many invitations to dine. It’s not like the people who lived 2,000 years ago didn’t talk to each other. They loved gossip then just as much as we do now, so you’d think stories of Jesus’ bad manners would spread throughout the country and He’d be blacklisted from all invitation lists. Yet instead, we keep seeing more suckers getting in line for a punch. In Luke 11:37-54, we find a wonderful account of what happens when a Pharisee invites Jesus to dine with him.
Picture our Lord sitting down at a table filled with the Jewish equivalent of preachers and Bible teachers. It’s an educated group plus one very volatile stick of dynamite, and Jesus wastes no time in sparking off. Right away He makes a scene by touching His food with unclean hands. This is repulsive to everyone in the room. Every civilized Jew knew to wash his hands before eating. Jesus is showing very bad table manners—and of course He’s doing it on purpose.
The host of the meal doesn’t even have to say anything. The look on his face is clearly communicating his disapproval, and that’s all the excuse Jesus needs to explode.
“Now then, you Pharisees clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside you are full of greed and wickedness. You foolish people! Did not the one who made the outside make the inside also? But now as for what is inside you—be generous to the poor, and everything will be clean for you.
Woe to you Pharisees, because 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. You should have practiced the latter without leaving the former undone.
Woe to you Pharisees, because you love the most important seats in the synagogues and respectful greetings in the marketplaces.
Woe to you, because you are like unmarked graves, which people walk over without knowing it.” (Lk 11:39-44)
Wow! Who uncorked this cannon? In a matter of seconds, Jesus has hurled an arsenal of shocking insults at everyone present. To liken a Jew to a filthy cup and a foul grave is incredibly disrespectful. If your pastor invited you over to his house for dinner, would you start off the meal by calling him a dirty pig, an immoral scumbag, and a fat hypocrite? No, but Jesus would say all that and worse. In this short little tirade, He’s called all Pharisees idiots, He’s given them the “woe to you” scolding that God always reserves for defiant rebels, and He’s called them pompous, evil, and a source of moral corruption to others.
According to God’s Law, coming in contact with something dead—by doing something like touching a corpse or walking on a grave—would make a person unclean in His sight, and they’d then have to go through a bunch of hassle to get right with God again. Here Jesus says the Pharisees are like unmarked graves—everyone who comes in contact with them is corrupted without even knowing it. He might as well call them instruments of Satan (which He does at another time). This is incredibly obnoxious behavior.
Well, now that Jesus has dirty hands and a dirty mouth, who wants to eat with Him? It’s amazing that His host doesn’t jump up and demand that He get out of the house right then and there. Perhaps the man is too stunned to speak. Meanwhile, another guest at the table finds his tongue and pipes up with a protest.
One of the experts in the law answered Him, “Teacher, when You say these things, You insult us also.” (Lk 11:45)
Somehow “insult” seems too mild of a description. But at any rate, this second fellow feels like Jesus’ nasty words have insulted not just Pharisees, but all those who have made a career out of interpreting God’s Law to His people.
If this second man is hoping that Jesus will apologize, he’s in for a rude shock. Jesus never apologizes for insulting people. Instead, He just insults them even more.
Jesus replied, “And you experts in the law, woe to you, because you load people down with burdens they can hardly carry, and you yourselves will not lift one finger to help them.
Woe to you, because you build tombs for the prophets, and it was your ancestors who killed them. So you testify that you approve of what your ancestors did; they killed the prophets, and you build their tombs. Because of this, God in His wisdom said, ‘I will send them prophets and apostles, some of whom they will kill and others they will persecute.’ Therefore this generation will be held responsible for the blood of all the prophets that has been shed since the beginning of the world, from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah, who was killed between the altar and the sanctuary. Yes, I tell you, this generation will be held responsible for it all.
Woe to you experts in the law, because you have taken away the key to knowledge. You yourselves have not entered, and you have hindered those who were entering.” (Lk. 11:46-52)
Well, now that everyone has knots of tension in their stomachs, who wants to eat? Jesus has a way of killing people’s appetites. This second volley of insults is aimed directly at the experts of the law—another category of religious teachers. Today it would be like Jesus verbally shredding all pastors, and then giving a second speech against all Bible scholars. Once again, the “woe to you” language comes out. And for this second group, Jesus has some new nasty accusations. While He accused the Pharisees of corrupting everyone, He now accuses these teachers of crushing people under impossible burdens. The experts of the law prided themselves in interpreting exactly what it looked like to carry out God’s Law in everyday life. The result was a million picky rules that no one could possibly keep track of. And of course the rules were worded in ways to make common people feel like spiritual failures while the teachers and preachers could all claim moral perfection. It was a very damaging system. Instead of helping people grow in their walks, the teachers of the day were making everyone feel condemned and hopeless. Jesus is disgusted with these wolves in shepherds’ clothing and He makes no attempt to hide His feelings.
It is onto this second group of teachers that Jesus lays the blame for approving of God’s prophets being slaughtered all throughout human history. Reaching all the way back to Adam’s son Abel (who was murdered by his brother Cain), Jesus says He is holding the current generation responsible for the blood of all of God’s prophets. This is a very shocking accusation. The idea of God holding grudges against people for unrepented sins was a very real principle under the Old Covenant. The idea of God punishing a generation for the sins of their ancestors was another familiar theme. With Jesus exuding the Authority of God, these teachers would have felt quite unnerved by His threats.
Jesus ends this second tirade by accusing the teachers of blocking souls from ever gaining the knowledge of God and what He wants. By mangling God’s Laws and contorting Scripture, these so-called experts were seriously hindering the souls who were sincerely seeking God. This was before the day of pocket Bibles. The common Jew had to go to a synagogue to hear a teacher read from some single scroll of Scripture and interpret it. Scrolls were very expensive. Access to all the books of the Old Testament would be hard to come by unless you were chosen out for some special training. The experts of the law were viewed like bible scholars and theologians today who have attended prestigious seminaries. Everyone assumed these experts had a better understanding of God’s truth. Jesus now accuses them of having access to knowledge, personally rejecting it, and then intentionally blocking anyone else from gaining access to it. Harsh, harsh words.
What happened next? Did the whole room erupt in angry shouting? Was food thrown at Jesus? Maddeningly, we aren’t given any of the juicy details. All we’re told is that after Jesus leaves, the teachers and Pharisees began to aggressively harass Him in public—trying to trap Him in making some erroneous statement so they could discredit Him in the eyes of the people. No surprise here. After the scene Jesus just made, it’s a cinch that He now has a lot of new, very dedicated enemies.
So then, let’s review. Jesus gets an invitation to dine with a group of people. He shows up with some very rude table manners, and when His host raises his brow in surprise, Jesus flips out on everyone. When another guest protests, Jesus flips out again. Nice. Don’t be too hasty to invite Jesus over for dinner.
We’re so used to thinking of the Pharisees as “the bad guys,” that we don’t get too ruffled when Jesus verbally attacks them in the New Testament. But there are other accounts in the Bible where God’s anger and vicious comments seem very undeserved. These are the kinds of accounts that make us feel insecure in our relationship with God—worried that He might be holding some grudge against us because of past sins or that He is a volatile Being who might suddenly attack us without warning. To alleviate these fears, we need to understand one key principle about God: He always responds to heart attitude. This means that whenever God gets angry or sarcastic, we know that whoever He is talking to has a rotten heart attitude.
There are many accounts in which we’re not given direct insight into someone’s heart attitude. We aren’t told, for example, that the Pharisees in Luke 11 were a bunch of evil hearted hypocrites. We learn this by listening to Jesus’ assessment of them. So also, whenever you come across a passage in the Bible where God is yelling at someone and using a bunch of hateful language, look for comments He makes about heart attitude. With very few exceptions, God always explains why He is mad at someone. The few times that He lashes out in anger without giving a verbal explanation, we need to assume that He is reacting to blatant rebellion.
God is fair. You never have to worry about Him suddenly pouring His wrath down on your head without any warning. Whenever God loses His temper like Jesus did in the above passage, it is because people are refusing to respond to His convictions. God always gives us clear conviction when He has a problem with us. He never holds secret grudges. Whenever we are not in alignment with His will, the Holy Spirit lets us know in a clear, calm way. If we respond with obedience, then things will never escalate to the point where God is shouting “Woe to you!”
It is very easy to stay on the gracious side of God. Towards those of us who sincerely desire to please Him, God is gentle, patient, compassionate and kind, no matter how often we stumble and fall. Heart attitude is what matters to Him, not perfect behavior. If you know that you sincerely want to please God in your heart, then don’t internalize verses where God is expressing exasperation and hate towards someone. But don’t avoid those verses, either, for a strong understanding of what makes God furious is a vital part of maturing in the faith. In the Bible, God provides us with a valuable education on what kinds of attitudes and behaviors really make Him mad. By studying the entire Book and asking the Holy Spirit to open our minds to everything He wants to teach us, we will grow in our knowledge of truth and become freed up from many delusions—such as the belief that Jesus would have been a relaxing dinner Companion.
Jesus: The Arrogant Lawbreaker
Jesus: The Mean Messiah
Know Your Bible Lesson 62: Woe to the Pharisees