In Luke 11, Jesus has been teaching. He started with how to pray and, in the last passage, we looked at His teaching on light and darkness. Somewhere in the midst of His teaching, a certain Pharisee interrupted Him.
Luke 11:37 And as he spake [notice how it was while He was teaching], a certain Pharisee besought him to dine with him: and he went in, and sat down to meat.
In verse 38, we learn that this was “dinner” [ariston]. The Jews of that time had two meals during the day. One that was later in the morning, what we would call a brunch or an early dinner and then the main meal was in the late afternoon or early evening (it’s called “supper” [deipnon] in the KJV, see Luke 14:12).
You would get up in the morning, go out to the field and plow for a few hours and then come back to a good-sized meal. This is the meal that the Pharisee invited Jesus to.
Religious people tend to think that, if Jesus was here on earth today, that they would have a fine time with Him. They would be able to talk about all those sinners out there and He would nod and smile and say, “I agree, absolutely.” Any issue that they bring up, Jesus would only express glowing agreement with them. Is that how you think it would go for you?
That’s probably what the Pharisees thought initially when Jesus came on the scene. We see some evidence of this when some Pharisees tried to get to know Him, such as here in Luke 11:37. But the more Jesus violated religious traditions of the Pharisees and associated Himself with sinners, the more angry and bitter the Pharisees got.
This Pharisee seems to be genuine in his invitation of Jesus to a meal. I mean, I think he hoped to find that Jesus would be on his side, he wasn’t out to trap Him. Perhaps his fellow Pharisees had already made it know that Jesus wasn’t to be trusted, but he thought that he would give Jesus a chance. But it doesn’t take long before he realizes that Jesus and him are worlds apart.
Now you should know that, on the surface, the Pharisees and Jesus were a lot alike. Pharisees had a love for God’s Word, for instance. Of all the religious groups in Israel, Jesus would be the closest to the Pharisees.
And frankly, so would Fundamentalist Christians. That’s why we need to be especially aware of every encounter that Jesus had with the Pharisees. DL Moody once talked about the Bible being like a photo album that you could flip through and find pictures of people who look like you.
Fundamentalist Christians share some of the same DNA with the Pharisees, so it’s easy for us to see similarities, especially when we start allowing pride and legalism to dominate in our lives.
How do you know if you are looking too much like a Pharisee? By examining yourself in the light of the marks of a Pharisee like those we see here in this passage.
1) PHARISEES FOCUS ON EXTERNALS (11:38-41)
Luke 11:38 And when the Pharisee saw it, he marvelled that he had not first washed before dinner.
The old saying, “Cleanliness is next to godliness,” is not biblical, but if it had been around in the first century, the Pharisees would have loved it. One of the traditions that the Pharisees promoted was hand-washing before eating. This was more than hand washing for the sake of hygiene, which is good and proper. This was a special ritual hand washing that had to be done in just a certain way.
The Pharisees had all sorts of extra-biblical rules like this, which they believed were given to Moses on Mount Sinai and handed down by oral tradition. That’s so convenient! Don’t like something? Make up a rule and then say it’s a long lost rule given by Moses, but didn’t make it into the written law…but it’s oral law. These oral laws were written down eventually in what is called that Mishnah.
Reading through the hand washing laws in the Mishnah is mind-boggling. There are requirements for what kind of water, how much water to have for specific numbers of guests, and exactly how to wash your hands. Here’s a sample from the Mishnah:
The hands may be rendered impure or pure up to the wrist. How so?
If one poured the first [pouring] up to the wrist, and the second [pouring] beyond the wrist, and they [i.e. some of the waters flowed down and] ran back onto the hand, it is pure.
If one poured the first and the second [pourings of water] beyond the wrist, and they ran back onto the hand, it is impure.
If one poured the first over one hand, and then changed his mind and poured the second over both hands, they are impure.
If one poured the first over both hands, and then changed his mind and poured the second over one hand, his hand is pure.
If one poured over one hand, and then rubbed it against its fellow [hand], it is impure. If [one rubbed it] against one’s head, or against a wall, it is pure.1
Jesus comes into this Pharisee’s home and doesn’t even touch the wash basin much less go through the ritual in the proper way. So the Pharisee “marveled” (thaumazō), but not in an admiring way. Rather, “marveled” here means that he was shocked and offended.
Have you noticed that legalistic people are often offended? It seems to be mark of a Pharisee to be offended at others around you for not following your rules and standards. Jesus notices the offended Pharisee (perhaps by his facial expression) and rebukes him:
Luke 11:39 And the Lord said unto him, Now do ye Pharisees make clean the outside of the cup and the platter; but your inward part is full of ravening and wickedness.
Luke 11:40 Ye fools, did not he that made that which is without make that which is within also?
Believe it or not, Pharisees actually debated about whether to clean the inside or the outside of a cup first. Jesus picks up on this debate and uses it to make a spiritual point: that it’s the inside of a person—the heart—that matters the most.
The outside of a Pharisee looks good. They do all the right things, and often even more than what is required to be considered a good person by the people around them. But their heart is full of “ravening and wickedness.” Do you have a heart like this?
I know it sounds like you have to have be an axe-murderer to qualify for a ravening and wicked heart, but remember—the Pharisees were the most moral people around. Yet Jesus said they were full of “ravening and wickedness”! Jesus said you don’t have to murder someone to break the commandment on murder—mere hatred in your heart is enough (Matthew 5:21-22).
You might look good on the outside, that’s awesome…good for you. But you need to examine yourself on the inside:
Are you offended when others don’t do “Christianity” exactly the way you do?
Are you bitter and resentful with others for violating your standards? Or bitter and angry with yourself for not living up to your standards?
Do you find it is easy for you to criticize others?
If your heart is not right—if these and other symptoms of pride are manifested in your heart—then it really doesn’t matter how proper and “Christian” you look on the outside, you have a deeper problem.
Look, if you went to a restaurant, and there was dirt on the outside of a cup, but the inside was clean—you’d probably scrap the dirt off with your fingernail and use the cup without any trouble (unless you are one of those annoying customers that waitresses love to hate). But if there was dirt on the inside, it’s a different story.
There are Christians who have the outside of their cups looking good. But they keep their hand carefully over the top of the cup so no one can see inside.
Then Jesus says,
Luke 11:41 But rather give alms of such things as ye have; and, behold, all things are clean unto you.
Giving “alms” (eleēmosynē) is giving to those who are in need. Jesus isn’t saying that giving to the poor is what saves you, but those who are generous to the poor—who give from a cheerful heart—that’s evidence that they have a good, clean heart. Are you are Christian who complains about the poor? Or are you generous? This is one of the evidences of a clean heart. We can also look at the fruit of the Spirit for evidence of a clean heart—
22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, 23 Meekness, temperance: against such there is no law. (Galatians 5:22–23)
Are these fruit in your life? They are evidences of a clean heart.
A mark of a Pharisee is that they focus on the externals. But there are more marks in this passage.
2) PHARISEES MAJOR ON THE MINORS AND FORGET THE MAJORS (11:42)
Luke 11:42 But woe unto you, Pharisees! for ye tithe mint and rue and all manner of herbs, and pass over judgment and the love of God: these ought ye to have done, and not to leave the other undone.
Tithing—or giving ten percent of one’s income back to God—is a biblical command that even Christians should follow.
But once again, the Pharisees took God’s Law and distorted it into something else. They made sure that they gave exactly ten percent—down to the decimal point—of everything, even their herbs.
But while they were obsessive about getting their tithing exactly right, they missed something bigger—“the judgment and love of God.” The “judgment” here is the positive judgment of justice, not the negative judgment of condemnation.
In other words, the Pharisees did not look out for others in their society to make sure that they received justice and experienced the love of God in their lives. This is what God commanded His people to be doing:
8 He hath shewed thee, O man, what is good; And what doth the Lord require of thee, But to do justly, and to love mercy, And to walk humbly with thy God? (Micah 6:8)
That’s the bigger picture that Jesus said that they were missing. That’s where God’s heart was, and they were missing it. They were majoring on the minors and missing the things that were most dear to God’s heart.
Think back over your years as a Christian. How many of the issues brought up in church (either this one or ones you belonged to previously) have actually been important biblical issues? How many have actually been biblical issues? Yet time and attention and emotions were invested in those issues. Relationships were strained and even broken.
All the while, the major issues that God makes clear in the Bible—loving the Lord your God and loving one another and all that—were neglected.
Why is that we so easily major on the minors and forget the majors? Well, why would the Pharisees be so precise about tithing every herb? Because it’s easy to measure your progress. And if it’s easy to measure your progress, it’s easy to compare yourself to others.
How can you measure your love for God or your love for other people? It’s difficult and perhaps impossible. You can’t walk up to another Christian and say, “My feelings of love for God are so great, even greater than your feelings for God.” “Oh, yeah, this morning during devotions I felt such a great love for God…greater than you could even imagine.” You can’t measure and compare your inner heart.
But you can keep track of your tithing down to the decimal point. You can learn to wash your hands in the proper way every time. So, while those things might not be as important to God, they become very important to Pharisees, because they are measurable.
But why do we want measure ourselves? Pride has to be at the top of the list. Because we are sinners, we want to do something to earn or maintain our salvation. We have to something to do so that we can compare ourselves to others and boast about it.
Another reason is insecurity. Insecure people respond to their insecurity in different ways. Some suffer from depression whenever something sets them off. They mope around and feel pitiful for themselves.
Others get legalistic, obsessive, and compulsive about things to keep themselves feeling secure—they get controlling. And major things are hard to control, so you end up controlling the minor things. Minor issues become major because that you can control them and feel secure.
If we learn to do as Micah says and “walk humbly with [our] God,” pride can be minimized in our life. With pride minimized, we will begin to focus on the major things that God loves to focus on.
Finally, we see a third mark of a Pharisee is that…
3) PHARISEES FOCUS ON WHAT GETS THEM ATTENTION (11:43)
Luke 11:43 Woe unto you, Pharisees! for ye love the uppermost seats in the synagogues, and greetings in the markets.
All cultures have some sort of “social order” that is expected to be followed by everyone. In some cultures, that social order includes the concept of people who are better than others. In ancient Israel, it was expected that a socially lower person would greet a socially higher person first.
So if a Pharisee went to a “market” (the equivalent of a mall or even Walmart today), where a lot of people were gathered, they expected a lot of people to be greeting them. Matthew tells us that they loved to be called “Rabbi, Rabbi” (Matthew 23:7).
This is what we would call an “ego trip” nowadays. Can you see them standing there waiting for people to come and greet them and maybe compliment them on their robes and ribbons?
Have you ever done something like that at some gathering? Have you stood in a spot and expected people to come see you? Have you wanted them to tell you that you did a good job on something? Did you get bitter when they didn’t?
The Pharisees also expected to have the best seats when they came into the synagogues—a Jewish version of church. You wouldn’t catch a Pharisee dead sitting with the normal folk, they might get field dirt on their nice robes. Besides, they were better than those people.
Jesus’s evaluation of this behavior is “Woe unto you”! In other words, this is not acceptable behavior. And if it wasn’t acceptable for the Pharisees, it’s not acceptable for Christians. We ought not to desire attention for ourselves.
There is one more thing we need to see from this text:
CONCLUSION: THE GRAVE INFLUENCE OF PHARISEES
Luke 11:44 Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye are as graves which appear not, and the men that walk over them are not aware of them.
The KJV phrase, “graves which appear not,” refers to unmarked graves. Jews were very careful about coming near the dead or even a grave…it made them unclean (see Numbers 19:16). Stepping on a grave or coming in contact with a tomb that you didn’t know was there would make you unclean for seven days.
So, every spring, people would whitewash tombs so that they would be easily identifiable to others passing by. This was especially important to Levities, as touching a grave would render them unfit to do their ministry in the temple for a week.
What is Jesus saying when He refers to the Pharisees as unmarked graves? The Pharisees make those who come near them unclean in the sight of God, just as a grave makes those who come near it unclean.
But what is the comparison with the grave being one that “appear not”? It means that just as people might touch an unmarked grave unawares, they come to the Pharisees and accept their teachings unaware that they are actually unclean underneath. The inside of their cup is filthy.
Today, we might say that someone is a land mine, very dangerous to be around even though we can’t see it.
Or, in recognition of cold and flu season, we might say that Pharisees are contagious. Legalistic Christians are often eager to train younger, unsuspecting Christians in their ways.
Friends, be careful around legalists. We all know a few…you can’t be a Christian long without running into at least a couple. But they are like graves—they can be deadly to your spiritual life. They can drag you into the muck of rules and traditions and rituals and make you doubt that you are good enough for God.
I got news for you. In Christ, you are good enough for God. In fact, it’s only by being in Christ that you can be good enough for God! The apostle Paul was one of the best Pharisees who ever lived. He had it all down pat!
But, after meeting Jesus Christ, here’s what he says:
7 But what things were gain to me, those I counted loss for Christ. 8 Yea doubtless, and I count all things but loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord: for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and do count them but dung, that I may win Christ, 9 And be found in him, not having mine own righteousness, which is of the law, but that which is through the faith of Christ, the righteousness which is of God by faith: (Philippians 3:7–9)
In other words, don’t think that you’ll ever impress God with your righteousness. Run to Christ. Seek to be found hidden in Him, so that His righteousness is your righteousness!