Luke11v37to54: THE SIX WOES

(A) Introduction. Read: Luke11v37to54 See also Mt23v1to38.

A Pharisee invited Jesus to lunch in all likelihood to question him about what he had been teaching. During the meal Jesus took the opportunity to outline first, the failings of Pharisees and secondly, the wickedness of the lawyers. Jesus' criticisms were forthright to the point of reckless! It takes a brave man to beard lions in their den. Rarely is it done with such disregard of the consequences. It is like getting up in the Synod of the Church of England and inveighing against the besetting sins of Anglicanism. I cannot imagine the apostle Paul who tried to be all things to all men provoking the Pharisees and lawyers in quite the same uncompromising style as Jesus.

Although there are six woes in the text Jesus actually deals with seven weaknesses displayed by his opponents.

(B) The Pharisees under the cosh.

The Pharisees were like the Taliban - both a religious party and a political movement. The Pharisees used such political power as they possessed in the Sanhedrin to implement their religious agenda. They believed everyone should abide by the rules and regulations that had grown up around God's law and thereby create a society pleasing to God who would be obliged as a consequence to deliver the nation from the Roman occupier.

Jesus condemned the Pharisees on four counts:

(1) For keeping up appearances.

The Pharisees considered it was important to go through the ritual of washing their hands and ensuring ceremonial cleanliness before handling food. This was not a practise prescribed in the Law of Moses but rather a custom derived from the Pharisees obsession with ceremonial cleanliness. So, Jesus' host was surprised and, indeed, shocked because he did not bother to wash his hands before starting the meal. But the Pharisee, noticing that Jesus did not first wash before the meal was surprised. Lk11v38. It was almost as if Jesus did not know how to behave in polite company.

(a) Many in the world are obsessed with keeping up appearances. There is a well known British comedy called just that - 'Keeping up appearances.' Poor Hyacinth Bucket tries her hardest to impress neighbours and acquaintances with her gentility - without success! The program appeals because in so many walks of life people act just like Hyacinth. Married couples give the impression that all is well with their relationship. Teachers talk the talk to convince colleagues that their classrooms are trouble free and centres of learning. Politicians cover up mistakes, spin, bury bad news and introduce new initiatives to persuade the electorate that they are on top of every situation and capable of solving all the countries' problems.

What matters is not how things look but how things are; is an organisation or an individual sound at heart.

(b) Religious people can be preoccupied with keeping up appearances. The Pharisees made their phylacteries wide and tassels on their garments long. Mt23v5. Phylacteries were boxes containing a few verses of the law worn on the forehead. They, and the blue tassels sown onto the four corners of cloaks, symbolised devotion to God's law. Jesus said of the Pharisees: "Now then, you Pharisees clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside you are full of greed and wickedness." Lk11v39. The Pharisees gave the impression of being holy men but in truth they loved money and would do anything to get their hands on it.

There are churches and individuals like the church at Sardis. The angel said of this church: "You have a reputation of being alive, but you are dead." Rev3v1. I have mentioned in an earlier exposition the testimony of an American Christian girl I heard when speaking at a ladies meeting in Suffolk. The girl spoke about her father who had a very prestigious, highly paid job and was also a leading light in his church. But, when the man lost his job he went completely to pieces and stopped attending church. His self-esteem was not grounded in Jesus but in his job! He had a reputation for being alive but he was dead all the time.

We should not be too concerned with how things look in our churches. I know a church where two ladies rule the kitchen. They are preoccupied with how 'their' kitchen looks. The cups have to be put away with the handles all facing the same direction. The lead of the electric kettle has to be coiled up just so. If one of the young people leaves a plate in the sink unwashed all hell breaks lose. Years and years ago my mother put a half-pint mug of water in the pulpit for the benefit of visiting preachers. One day a preacher picked up the mug and said, "I hope this doesn't contain anything intoxicating." A lady, whose identity remains unknown to this day, removed the mug before the next service without so much as a by your leave to my mother. Why? Because it looked bad! It is just as well my mother never discovered the name of the culprit!!

(c) Jesus told the Pharisees: "Give what is inside the dish to the poor and everything will be clean for you." v41. This is a clumsy sentence. Matthew's version is much clearer: "First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean." Mt23v26. Some commentators believe that Luke had trouble translating the Aramaic language Jesus used into Greek. However, I expect Jesus condemned the Pharisees on more than one occasion and each time probably said something different. If Luke accurately reports Jesus' words he is probably saying, "Be full of generous impulses and then you will be clean." He was encouraging the Pharisees to replace greed and self-indulgence with selfless benevolence and kindness. What an attractive quality generosity is. I can just remember Mr Botright - a member of the first church my father pastored. He was the village postman in Grundisburgh in East Suffolk. For many years he served in the merchant navy where he lost an arm. Perhaps, that is where he got used to going about barefoot. Mr Botright was not a rich man - he lived in an old railway carriage! However, it was he - a poor pensioner - who sent two substantial gifts that helped my parents financially at a very difficult time. I can remember my mother weeping over the money he sent.

(2) Prioritising trivialities.

"Woe to you Pharisees, because you give God a tenth of your mint, rue and all other kinds of garden herbs." v42.

The Pharisees were pernickety over the minutiae of the law. They went further than God intended. No jot or title was ignored - yet, the Pharisees neglected what really mattered - justice and the love of God. v42.

(a) This can be the attitude of 20th century officialdom. A couple are rejected for adoption because they are: too fat, smoke, the wrong colour or too old. Do these things really matter? Surely what should concern the adoption agency is whether a couple are committed, loving, caring, supportive, kind and wise.

I sometimes think teachers are assessed on their paper work and to what extent they set and meet targets. The things that are of real importance are: subject knowledge, communication skills, a good relationship with children, commitment and industry.

(b) No organisation is guiltier of prioritising trivial matters than the church. Churches separate from other churches over minor issues. British Baptists are divided among other things on whether to restrict the Lord's Table to baptised believers or open it to all Christians. This does not seem to me a sufficiently serious issue to form two separate denominations over. In the light of Jesus' emphatic teaching on unity and Paul's example of remaining in fellowship with the wayward Christians of Corinth why cannot believers live and let live over such a matter.

Individual churches split over trifles like the version of the Bible to use, the form of service, style of worship, a building project or the best musical instrument to accompany the singing. It is pathetic!

Individuals fall out over next to nothing. I know of a family that left their church because of a row about whether it was appropriate to Hoover up crumbs in church on a Sunday. Another couple stopped attending chapel because someone pinched their parking space. A man of my own fellowship threatened to leave because the lady behind him was singing too loudly. It beggars belief!!

Jesus told the Pharisees to concentrate on justice and the love of God. If we do this we can never separate from those who believe in Jesus - who love and obey him as best they can. If we love God we shall love or brother Christians. John wrote: If anyone says, "I love God," yet hates his brother, he is a liar. For anyone who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God, whom he has not seen. 1John4v20.

(3) Love of public recognition.

Jesus said: "Woe to you Pharisees, because you love the most important seats in the synagogues and greetings in the market places." Lk11v43."

The Pharisees loved to take precedence. It was meat and drink to them to sit at the front of the synagogue facing the congregation. They revelled in being a member of the platform party!

The Pharisees also took delight in being acknowledged by their devotees in public places. It was very sweet to be afforded respect and greeted, 'Rabbi,' or 'Rabboni' for all to hear.

Human nature has not changed. Consider:

(a) Politicians who aspire to sit on the 'front bench' in the House of Commons and who enjoy the attention of the media.

(b) Entertainers who revel in award ceremonies. Why does it matter so much that their work is recognised at award ceremonies such as the Oscars? Why do actors need the applause of their peers? Surely it is enough to do good work and to be appreciated by the paying public.

(c) Business men who are very concerned that the company car should reflect their status. The chief executive has to have the most expensive model.

(d) Church leaders. The hierarchical structure of the major churches poses a very real temptation to those who love precedence. The gorgeousness of the vestments worn by the clergy is in proportion to their position in the hierarchy. I think all those so sumptuously decked out might remember from time to time that Paul, the greatest of Christ's servants, went about in rags. Jesus himself wore plain clothes - although his rich lady supporters would not let him go about in rags!

There is no doubt that clergymen love to be known! Some positively exult in being greeted at conferences, rallies, festivals and special services.

(4) A corrupting influence.

Jesus said: "Woe to you, because you are like the unmarked graves, which men walk over without knowing it." v44.

Graves were usually identified in some way because according to the Law of Moses contact with a grave made a person ceremonially unclean. See Nu19v16. An unmarked grave would make a Jew unclean without his or her knowing it!

(a) Jesus was referring to the insidious influence of the Pharisees who seemed pious. They appeared to revere God's law and honour his name. But Jesus knew that the Pharisees had no real love for God and no heartfelt desire to please him. Most members of the religious establishment lacked humility, compassion and generosity. Their influence on the Jewish people was bad because they promoted legalism, fostered racial pride and stimulated an intensely damaging nationalism that ultimately led to disaster.

(b) Respectable men and women of our time also encourage potentially disastrous tendencies like:

  • Secularism. More and more in authority who are equally contemptuous of all religions are discriminating against Christians in the name of 'equality and diversity.' Some middle class parents are so hostile to Christianity that they steer their children away from books about Jesus. They don't want to brain wash their sons and daughters into being Christians - but they are quite happy to actively encourage atheism.

  • The promotion of alternative lifestyles. Notwithstanding all the advantages of heterosexual marriage this is not something the British Government is willing to wholeheartedly support. If alternative lifestyles are considered equally valid marriage will continue to decline and social problems will escalate.

  • The growth of dependency. More and more people are dependent upon the state for employment and support. As the state's power over individual lives grows freedom will be eroded. In the end the population of Britain wont care about freedom - so long as Nanny State looks after them. Then what happens when the state no longer has the where with all to do so?

  • Consumerism. Advertising in a materialistic society encourages people to think: "I want it. I must have it. I must have it now!" This attitude is associated with self-indulgence and waste.

(c) Unfortunately the church is not without its insidious tendencies:

  • Legalism. Starting from the Judaisers who caused a rift in the church at Antioch to the Grace Baptist churches of my boyhood legalism has been a running sore on the body of Christ. In my youth I was brought up to believe that alcoholic drinks, the cinema, dances and even playing cards were instruments of Satan. Well of course they could be - but so could just about anything else.

  • Liberalism or Modernism. For many years there have been Theologians in universities and colleges who cast doubt upon the reliability of the Bible. No doubt they are very persuasive, scholarly, nice men but the fact remains they undermine the faith of some and fatally impoverish the preaching of others. For two thousand years the Bible has fulfilled the purpose Paul claimed for it. He wrote to Timothy: All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work. 2Tim3v16and17.

  • Fundamentalism. I think Christians who take the Bible very literally can bring the Faith into disrepute. It is just unreasonable to believe that Noah packed all the animals that live upon the earth into the ark. The passage describes a local flood for goodness sake! See my article on the Genesis Flood. If children in Sunday School are taught about a universal flood when they get older they may put Bible stories in the same category as fairy stories. Fundamentalists play into the hands of atheists who dismiss Christian belief as superstition.