Everyone likes to pick on the Pharisees but no one wants to be labeled as one! But there are plenty of them out there. And they tend to ruin things.
How do you become a Pharisee? Could it really happen to you? The Pharisees were a good thing for Israel — at least they started out that way. Something happened to them along the way that can also happen to us if we are not careful.
This passage from the life of Jesus teaches us about the dangers of being a Pharisee. It also suggests seven ways we can keep from falling into this easy and dangerous trap.
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. Luke 11:37–54 (ESV)
There is so much here, it is challenging to break it all down. Here are some of the most important things.
A Good Start and a Stumble
Even the Pharisees remained curious as to what Jesus was saying and doing. It’s not fair or accurate to say they were all out to get him. So this Pharisee actually invited Jesus to dinner. That was a good start.
It didn’t take long to stumble! He was watching Jesus probably to learn about and from him. But Jesus not washing took him by surprise and he was a bit offended. Hand washing was a tradition (not a command) and Jesus didn’t take much stock in traditions!
What Jesus Taught
The Revelation and the Remedy
Jesus condemned their practice of looking good on the outside while being full of greed and wickedness on the inside. Jesus applied the principle of washing to life. There’s nothing wrong with washing the outside but if you don’t wash the inside, it makes no sense!
On the outside, the Pharisees appeared flawless. In reality, they were full of sin.
Jesus gave them a remedy to their condition: be generous to the poor. They were stingy and lacking compassion. Being generous to the poor reflects the heart of God!
What Can Be Measured and What Cannot
The Pharisees were very good at tithing. That is commendable. They even tithed the tiniest part of their garden produce! I mean, who does that?
But Jesus condemned them because they failed in the area of social justice and the love of God! It is so much easier to measure a tithe than it is to measure compassion.
The Seen and the Unseen
Jesus remarked about how the Pharisees loved human attention and recognition. This is a shallow existence that focuses on a selfish perspective and puts pride in the spotlight.
It is also supremely deceitful. When Pharisees keep up the outward appearance while being inwardly defiled, the people who follow them, are led astray! Not only are they responsible for their own actions, they become responsible for all who follow their hypocrisy.
Legalism and Legacy
Jesus next addressed the dangers of legalism and condemned the practice. The Pharisees and now the lawyers were called to account! They had a tendency to not practice what they preached. They were quick to enforce all kinds of rules but were slow to help people conform to the rules.
Behind it all they had a legacy of resistance to God — killing God’s prophets, building their tombs. The Pharisees fell right into line with this legacy. Many Old Testament prophets suffered greatly at the hands of those who should have heeded their warnings. Jesus was following this line of prophets, even though he was greater than all of them. He bluntly told them that there was strong resistance to the word of God!
God desires his people to know him and to know about how they are to live. But the lawyers had taken away the key to knowledge. The Pharisees and experts in the law closed their eyes to true knowledge as they pursued man made traditions. This made it impossible for them to find the truth and created an obstacle to any others looking for the truth.
Warnings for us:
We need more than a good start! Once we have invited Jesus in, we need to be ready for change.
Don’t get sidetracked by traditions. There is nothing wrong with tradition but there is nothing inherently right about tradition either. Tradition often springs from some strain of truth but it cannot take the place of truth. It is good to seek and learn the truth behind the tradition so you can honor that truth.
Give generously to those in need. God is watching over those in need. They have a special place in his heart. Stubborn refusal to help the poor is roundly and consistently condemned in scripture.
Don’t worry about being honored or recognized. We must be content with simply pleasing God. Even if our efforts are ignored or unrecognized, we should simply keep doing what God wants us to do.
Don’t substitute your own understanding or teaching for the plain Word of God. Your ‘common sense’ is not always right but God’s perfect truth is always right.
Don’t become a legalist. Relationship are not about rules. It is possible to keep all the rules and not have a relationship. Don’t judge others by some set of rules.
Always seek God’s truth. In relationship, we seek God and his truth. We follow him with all our hearts all the time.
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