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Luke 11.37-12.3

Preached by Mark Horne at First Reformed Presbyterian Church on May 9, 2004

Copyright © 2004

While Jesus was speaking, a Pharisee asked him to dine with him, so he went in and reclined at table. The Pharisee was astonished to see that he did not first wash before dinner. And the Lord said to him, “Now you Pharisees cleanse the outside of the cup and of the dish, but inside you are full of greed and wickedness. You fools! Did not he who made the outside make the inside also? But give as alms those things that are within, and behold, everything is clean for you.

“But woe to you Pharisees! For you tithe mint and rue and every herb, and neglect justice and the love of God. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others. Woe to you Pharisees! For you love the best seat in the synagogues and greetings in the marketplaces. Woe to you! For you are like unmarked graves, and people walk over them without knowing it.”

One of the lawyers answered him, “Teacher, in saying these things you insult us also.” And he said, “Woe to you lawyers also! For you load people with burdens hard to bear, and you yourselves do not touch the burdens with one of your fingers. Woe to you! For you build the tombs of the prophets whom your fathers killed. So you are witnesses and you consent to the deeds of your fathers, for they killed them, and you build their tombs. Therefore also the Wisdom of God said, ‘I will send them prophets and apostles, some of whom they will kill and persecute,’ so that the blood of all the prophets, shed from the foundation of the world, may be charged against this generation, from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah, who perished between the altar and the sanctuary. Yes, I tell you, it will be required of this generation. Woe to you lawyers! For you have taken away the key of knowledge. You did not enter yourselves, and you hindered those who were entering.”

As he went away from there, the scribes and the Pharisees began to press him hard and to provoke him to speak about many things, lying in wait for him, to catch him in something he might say.

In the meantime, when so many thousands of the people had gathered together that they were trampling one another, he began to say to his disciples first, “Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy. Nothing is covered up that will not be revealed, or hidden that will not be known. Therefore whatever you have said in the dark shall be heard in the light, and what you have whispered in private rooms shall be proclaimed on the housetops.”

“He was always just bad seed.”

That’s something people sometimes say to explain why someone they knew ended up in jail, or flunked out of high school, or abandoned his wife. The speaker might not mean it literally, but the saying implies the person was just born that way.

Well, in one sense, theologically, it is true. Of ourselves we are born alienated from God and hostile to him. Left to ourselves we will grow away from him, not towards him. However, that orientation, as offensive to God as it is, is not the same as the results of that orientation. A baby cannot be evil in the same way that a grown adult can be evil. In fact, one of the easiest ways to get depressed about human life is to realize that every single person you meet, even the worst, was at one time a cute little baby.

Even though it is true that people begin to go wrong from birth, and that only the grace of God slows, or better, remedies that problem, it is not true that people are equally bad from the beginning. When people say that someone was always “bad seed” they are almost certainly interpreting the past in light of the present. They are remembering all the growing sins of the past and forgetting all the promise and potential that the person once showed. Yes it is true that sin can be traced back so that it is seen to grow and develop, but it is also true that other paths were possible if God had intervened.

Pharisees as Everyman
The Pharisees and Lawyers did not originally set out to be cups of greed and wickedness, unmarked graves, or burdensome taskmasters over God’s people (notice those labels from verses 39, 44, and 46). These are not cartoon villains who were cut out of paper with black hats and cloaks to serve as bad guys. They are people, specifically leaders, who over time fell into soul-destroying evil. And Jesus didn’t regard them as so horrible that they were inhuman. No, Jesus regarded them as the end result of a very tempting process. We see this by looking at the end of this passage, chapter 12, verse 1-3: “Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy. Nothing is covered up that will not be revealed, or hidden that will not be known. Therefore whatever you have said in the dark shall be heard in the light, and what you have whispered in private rooms shall be proclaimed on the housetops.

Warning Disciples Against Real Temptation
And whom does Jesus say this to? He says it to his disciples right at a time when they, like superstars, are surrounded with devoted fans. “When so many thousands of the people had gathered together that they were trampling one another, he began to say to his disciples first, ‘Beware.’

Leaders, then All Christians
This passage is a warning first and foremost for teachers, pastors, and religious leaders of all sorts. This is a sermon that I have to preach to myself. But it is also applicable to all Christians because all Christian are called to Spiritual authority and authority can be abused.

Three Points
And that is the issue. The Pharisees and Lawyers have Spiritual authority but as far as Jesus is concerned they have abused it. Jesus does not here say what exactly it is they have done; though we have a strong hint in the opening verses that will remind us of other conflicts. Taking those clues into account, we have three parts to this warning. First we have the possibility that instead of applying God’s word in a way that honors him, we might twist God’s word in a way that displeases him. Second, we see that by doing this people can become exactly the opposite of what they wanted to become. And thirdly we see that the reason this happens in people or the reason they don’t realize what has happened is because of idolatrous motives.

Now these aren’t necessarily given all in three points in order, but we will see them addressed in this passage.

1. A Perverse Principle of Holiness/Ceremonial Cleanliness
First, instead of applying God’s Word, the Pharisees and Lawyers end up twisting and obscuring it. This entire situation starts with the Pharisee passing judgment on Jesus because he didn’t wash before dinner. Now we know from Mark 7 and Matthew 15 that this was not a matter of hygiene and germs. The Pharisees had taken the cleanliness requirements for Priests working in the Temple and applied them to everyday life. Those who wanted to live holy lives would act as if every meal was a Temple sacrifice and would ceremonially cleanse themselves before eating at table. There was nothing in the Bible to support that idea, and Jesus refused to do it.

From Cleansings to Exclusion
Now, think about this: eating without ritual cleansing is not the only thing that Jesus has gotten in trouble for at the dinner table. The previous time he was invited to the house of a religious leader Jesus was also judged for not maintaining purity. In that case he was judged for not refusing the presence of a woman known for her sinful lifestyle (even though she was obviously repentant). These holiness rules meant that allowing impure people at the table with you was about the same as letting unclean people into the Temple.

Tithing = Exclusion
By the way, the remark about tithing fits in here. From everything we know the Pharisees taught that one must not eat untithed food. So if they didn’t trust someone to be tithing like they were they refused to be his guest at a meal.

Human Tradition Inverted Israel’s Calling
In fact, the Pharisees’ quest for purity involved more and more divisions with people that the Law of God nowhere demanded divisions. The Israelite leaders believed that even being in a Gentile home made them unclean. That is why Pilate had to go outside to deal with them because it was the evening of or before Passover and they thought that going into Pilate’s house would defile them so they couldn’t participate. That is why Peter had to be shown a vision from God before he would consent to go into the house of a Gentile. God’s Law nowhere prohibits such interaction, but they had invented their own laws. God’s law established Israel as a holy nation to witness to the nations but Israel added to God’s law to keep the Gentiles away. God sent not Israel into the world to condemn the world but that the world through them might be saved. But instead they turned their ministry of salvation into a ministry of condemnation.

Divisions Multiplied Within in addition to those without
And it spread. Because if the Pharisees were supposed to be separate from the nations then they would also have to keep separate from the other Israelites who didn’t properly keep separate from the nations in their view.

Divisions Perverse
That was the false doctrine and practice. Jesus believed that the Pharisaical ethic was completely backwards. They were supposed to be reaching out and witnessing to the pagans around them, not erecting barriers between themselves and these people. And they certainly weren’t supposed to be erecting barriers between themselves and fellow Israelites on the basis of these false standards. The question of whether or not to ritually purify oneself before eating had many implications.

Solidarity, not Division
Notice Jesus’ positive exhortation to the Pharisee to become truly clean: “But give as alms those things that are within, and behold, everything is clean for you.” Not just alms should they give, but their very selves, those things that are within. Instead of protecting themselves the Pharisees should be helping others by giving of themselves. Likewise, Jesus tells them their code is causing injustice but they don’t even notice. They need to remember justice and the love of God.

Jesus Reverts Israel’s Calling In His Own Life as the True Israel
You see, while Israel was called to be holy, that holiness was supposed to involve intercession for and ministry to the nations, even if it hurt them. Jesus found a people who were doing exactly the opposite. Ultimately we will see that he deals with Israel’s sin by fulfilling the mandate they had abandoned.

2. Following Inverted Holiness Results in Becoming the Opposite of What was Intended.
But the fact that they had so severely twisted the call to holiness meant that they had become unholy. This is the second point I want us to consider. If we do as an act of piety exactly the opposite of what we are supposed to do then we will become exactly the opposite of what we intend to become. The Pharisees had pursued a way of holiness that was actually unholy. As a result they themselves became unholy and unclean. Jesus compares them to sources of uncleanness like unmarked graves. He also tells them that they have become oppressors. When Jesus tells the lawyers they are putting burdens on the people that reminds us of Pharaoh before the Exodus. The Pharisees and Lawyers wanted God to liberate them from the Romans, but Jesus says that others need to be liberated from them.

The warning here is that we can become the very opposite of what we say we want. The Pharisees wanted to make sure they were a holy people and they became unclean in God’s sight. They wanted liberation and became taskmasters. They wanted to remember the prophets and became the killers of the prophets.

This can really happen. I know a congregation where a young Christian girl got pregnant. She was repentant. She confessed her sin. Yet she was barred from the Lord’s Supper for an entire year as if she had to earn favor from God. And her pastor, a Presbyterian minister no less, told her he wanted to bar her forever but that Church law wouldn’t allow him to. So instead of free forgiveness in Christ for repentant sinners, her pastor wanted her to “pay” for what she did. She was counted as unworthy of table fellowship with Jesus.

So it wasn’t that surprising that this minister later joined a traditionalist church where one is taught that one earns one standing before God be doing good works.

3. Inversion of Call Not Recognized Because It Rewards the Inverters
I could say more, but let me skip to my final point: the motives of the Pharisees. Why didn’t the Lawyers and Scribes see that what they were doing was wrong? What is the appeal of a supposed way of cleanliness that sows division among the people of God?

Jesus makes it very clear that this ethic that the Pharisees have adopted lets them feel superior to other people. “Woe to you Pharisees! For you love the best seat in the synagogues and greetings in the marketplaces.” By pursuing a purity that involved excluding others not only for being Gentile, but merely not following their own made-up purity rules, the Pharisees gained certain psychological “benefits.” Not only did they regard others as unworthy of their company because they didn’t follow their rules, but they had convinced the populace that the fact they were following a special program meant that they deserved respect.

In fact, it was precisely because they had become leaders that their sin was so serious. People thought that their program was the way to maintain purity. Thus, they either became Pharisees themselves, or became those who admired the Pharisees but consigned themselves to the status of compromised Israelites. We’ll find this out further as we go through Luke’s Gospel, but being a Pharisee was somewhat expensive. If you happened to be a tax collector, for example, you were regarded as a traitor. The only way you could gain religious standing would be to give up collecting taxes for the Romans or the Herods. Jesus and John the Baptist merely called tax collectors to be honest and not exploit people. That is a huge difference.

There were many other costs to pharisaic holiness. In Matthew 17.24 we learn that Holy People gave two days wages to support the Temple every year. In Luke 18.12 we will see that Pharisees tithed not only their income, but everything they bought as well. Lower classes could not easily be Holy by Pharisee criteria.

So instead of seeing what they were doing as wrong, the Pharisees liked feeling special. They adopted a holiness code that was one that not everyone could afford and they actually enjoyed the exclusive effect. They may not have admitted this to themselves, but Jesus says that is what was going on.

We are called to be Holy as God is Holy, as Jesus is Holy. But we must be careful to learn our holiness from God’s Holy Word and be just as afraid of adding to it as we are of subtracting from it.

And we need to be especially careful not to create separation between Christians on the basis of issues of judgment. The Pharisees believed they were being wise in how they applied the Law of God. Jesus tells them that they are going to kill the prophets and Apostles sent to them by the Wisdom of God (11.49). Remember what James wrote to the Church about wisdom?

Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good conduct let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom. But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth. This is not the wisdom that comes down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice. But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace (James 3.13-18).

God calls us to Holiness. He calls us to sincere devotion to Him, his Gospel, and to others. “But give as alms those things that are within, and behold, everything is clean for you.” He therefore calls us away from comparing ourselves to other people, from holding ourselves aloof from other people, or from imposing our personal standards on other people. That’s why Presbyterian Churches don’t have rules saying that all members must never smoke or drink. We have Ten Commandments. That should be enough.

But we should realize that being called to real holiness means, among other things, being called to humility. If we have been given gifts that others haven’t, our job is to use what we have for their good without worrying about getting credit for it. Remember what Paul told the Galatians? Let this be our final charge:

Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ. For if anyone thinks he is something, when he is nothing, he deceives himself. But let each one test his own work, and then his reason to boast will be in himself alone and not in his neighbor. For each will have to bear his own load (Galatians 6.2-5).

Copyright © 2004

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