And while he was speaking, a Pharisee asks whether he would [like to] come to share breakfast with him; and he went along [to his house] and took his place. But the Pharisee, seeing him do so, was amazed that he had not first engaged in the washing of hands before the meal.
And the Lord said this to him: “Oh you Pharisees [are so concerned to be] clean on the outside of the cups and the plates, but your inside is full up with robbery and malignancy. Foolish men that you are; did not He who made the outside also construct the inside? But then you [turn around and] give [to some charity] and what do you know, everything in your view is now cleansed!
“But woe to you Pharisees, because you [are so committed to] tithe mint, and rue and every herb, and yet you pass by when it comes to right judgment and the love of God – you let these fall. It is such deeds that must be performed while the other [things] should not be left undone.
“Woe to you Pharisees since you are so deeply in love with the presiding seat in the synagogues and [all the loud] greetings in the market places
“Woe to you because you are like unmarked graves except that men are simply unaware of it when they walk over you.”
At that, one of the lawyers spoke up and says to him: “Teacher, you should know that in saying this you are also insulting us.”
And he replied: “And indeed woe also to the law experts because you load men with heavy burdens that are so difficult to carry, and then, having done so, you do not dare to relieve those weighed down by these loads by even a finger-full of support. Woe to you because you build as your own houses the graves of the prophets, since it was your fathers who had them executed. In that regard you are the witnesses [see Acts 7:58] who entirely confirm the works of your fathers, because on the one hand, they killed them, and on the other you build [your] houses on their heritage.
“Hence, the wisdom of God saying, I will send them prophets and commissioned messengers and it will be these whom they will kill and persecute, that the blood of all the prophets shed since the world was set up may then be required of this generation, from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zachariah, whoever was snuffed out between the altar and the temple. Truly I say to you it will be required of this generation.
“Woe to you lawyers [experts in Torah] for you have usurped the key of knowledge [from God’s law]. You yourselves did not enter and you [thereby] prevented anyone else from entering.”
And with such teaching coming from him, the scribes and the Pharisees became widely angry and sought every opportunity to provoke him even further on many matters. They were [playing a game] of wait and see in order to catch him out for something that came from his mouth.
What is Luke wanting to tell us? Here we read of a Pharisee, presumably present in one of Jesus’ early morning teaching sessions, inviting the Rabbi to join him for breakfast. Other Pharisees had also been invited along with some legal experts. He had obviously planned the occasion. But by the end of Luke’s account of this breakfast and its ensuing discussion, we learn that Jesus’ straight-talking had left the Pharisees and the Lawyers furious. Together determined to find a way to catch him out and destroy his ministry, if not his person (53-54).
Luke has already alerted us to the opposition of the Scribes and Pharisees (6:11), the attempt of Simon to entrap him on the occasion of an earlier invitation to a meal (7:36-50), and of their critical attitude to Jesus’ modus operandi (5:30-31). After all, as well as visiting the houses of Pharisees, he allowed himself to be entertained by tax-collectors, eating and conversing with all kinds of sinners! He had also confronted a Torah expert who sought to test him out, and Jesus disclosed to him what God’s law required of him as a neighbour.
We are informed that Jesus did not partake of a ritualised washing before sitting down to the meal. The subsequent conversation was taken up with this fact. What is Luke trying to convey here?
We recall that Luke has undertaken extensive investigations. He does not tell us everything. He could not tell us everything that went on. He had to rely on what he had been told. On a previous occasion in Simon’s house, a woman comes and washes Jesus’ feet. So we asked: how was it possible for her to do that? What does it say to us about Simon’s invitation, as well the manner in which he conducted his household affairs? Likewise, at this point when Jesus brings forth amazement from his host, Luke leaves it to the reader to raise any questions. How was it that the Pharisee never provided for Jesus’ washing? We do not read that Jesus refused the Pharisee’s invitation to wash. It does not seem to have been offered and that did not seem to worry the guest. All we read from Luke is that the Pharisee issued an invitation to Jesus to dine – as we have said, it was probably breakfast – and as Luke’s story unfolds it is as if Luke is leaving us to ask: if the Pharisee could arrange the “prayer breakfast” why is he unable to provide Jesus with facilities for the washing he considers so important?
The Pharisee, Luke writes, “marvelled”. Could Luke be suggesting to us that this “marvelling” is merely a show? In writing up what he has been told of the incident, his account should not be read to invalidate such questions as we might have. After all, in this case, whose responsibility was it that Jesus had not washed? Was this not, as with the instance in the house of Simon, a case of disrespect for the guest. Jesus had said so to Simon. And when we read on we hear Jesus explicitly warn his disciples to “beware of the yeast of the Pharisees which is downright hypocrisy” (12:1). Luke tells us that it became the occasion for the Pharisees and Torah experts to firm up their resolve to entrap him.
Luke depicts Jesus as trying to point out to this Pharisee and his other guests that it was an inner corruption which casts doubts on their integrity when they rely on external signs of piety, like ritual washing. We might wonder whether a display of “amazement” can be similarly classified. Though we do not hear how the Pharisee prepared for this breakfast, nor how the conversation developed. What Luke tells us is what Jesus had to say to those assembled. God’s people can not trust a self-appointed religious movement that indulges its own thieving inner malignancy (that word again: πονηριας). The Pharisees and the experts in Torah presumed they had every right to publicly and persistently assert their power. Jesus challenged their self-definition.
Your exterior is so clean and polished; who would guess you are full to overflowing with robbery and malignancy? You are indeed fools (Psalm 14:1, 53:1) because you go ahead and make your charitable donation to demonstrate how righteous you are in order to compensate for your inner corruption and you are forgetting that you are known through and through by Him who made you inside and out!
When we read “Woe, woe, woe” we are left to wonder whether what Luke has collected is a poem or a song that had its birth from this breakfast confrontation.
Jesus acknowledges the genuine value of a way of life that isolated a tenth of everything gathered to offer to God. He does not condemn the Pharisees for such painstaking concern about such small matters, yet when such concern means consigning right judgment (κριςιν) (self-examination?) and the love of God to the rubbish bin, something is seriously awry. The Pharisees had “passed by” the weightier matters.
John’s Gospel, records that though many leaders believed in Him they couldn’t do so openly
… because they were in love with praise from men more than praise from God (John 12:42-43).
But here, Jesus fingers the Pharisees’ love of the deference given to them due to their social power, whether in the synagogue or the market-place. This, implies Jesus, as at the heart of their malignancy. This desire has captured their hearts. We read this strange warning:
Woe to you because you are like unmarked plots in the cemetery which people walk over without being aware of it.
They were the more dead and buried than they could ever know. Luke tells us that this was the moment one of the Torah experts intervened. These professionals, who gained their livelihood as interpreters of God’s law, shared in such public prestige. This fellow and his mates felt very insulted by Jesus’ exposé.
What a memorable breakfast! We might wonder who would ever dare to say such things. What breakfast guest would give his host such a dressing down? It may not sound like a riot, and it doesn’t read as if it were as a shouted diatribe. Then Jesus turned to the Torah lawyers and “let ’em have it”. Can’t you imagine Luke saying to his informant, his jaw dropping:
He said what?
This is something that should fill us with “amazement”. It may not be a miracle but it is very “out of the ordinary”. Jesus may have not washed before sitting down to dine, but certainly he gave his host and his host’s other guests a dose of what he said they needed to hear! Were they listening? Or were they transfixed in breakfast time politeness? It certainly strains our imagination to try and work out how it all unfolded.
Whereas the Pharisees had conveniently “passed by” the weightier matters, the lawyers, experts in all the details of the Torah, had made their living by weighing people down with impossible burdens. Jesus tells them that have been living off the heritage of the prophets and it was their own ancestors who, in every generation, had conspired to murder God’s messengers. Luke reiterates Jesus concern that “this generation”, “this evil generation” (see 11:29) was brazenly preparing itself to stand before God in judgement, and those interpreting Torah for the people of God are in the forefront of this “in yer face” preparation.
“Woe” is announced to these lawyers. Jesus tells them that they have not only burdened God’s people and impoverished them, they have succeeded in removing knowledge of God’s love and mercy from their way of life and in fact they no longer participate in the very life they are seeking to control.
Luke informs us that Jesus’ teaching provoked these professionals into seeking his demise. His teaching infuriated them because it exposed their inner corruption. His announcement of “Woe” was a wake-up call they needed to hear.