Luke 11:37-54

Text Comment

v.38     The translation provided in the ESV is a perfectly fine example of a contextual rendering: “he did not first wash before dinner.” Perhaps “lunch” would be better than “dinner,” for American readers. You should know, however, that the words are literally, “because he was not first baptized before dinner.” If someone argues that the Greek word baptize always means immerse — and so baptism must always be performed by the immersion of the entire body under water, not by sprinkling or pouring water on the head — here is the place to take them. By the time of the NT baptizo, in a religious context,refers to any ceremonial washing, however performed. No one thinks that this ceremonial regulation required individuals to be immersed under water before they could eat. Before they ate a meal scrupulous Jews would pour water over their hands to remove the defilement they may have contracted through contact with the sinful world. “The quantity of water and the manner of washing are prescribed in minute detail in the Mishnah (Yadaim 1:1ff.).” [Morris, 221] The purpose was not hygienic, they weren’t worried about germs, but ceremonial purity. And, take note, this is important for the context as we proceed, this regulation is not found in the law of Moses; it was one of the many additions that the rabbis added to the Law.

v.41     Some measure of the importance of Jesus’ words is conveyed by the fact that he uttered them at his host’s table. One does not usually accept an invitation to a meal and then criticize one’s host. Jesus was a perfect gentleman, but he was also the prophet of God and the Savior of the world and, as in so many other encounters between the Lord, Scribes, Pharisees and like-minded Jews, this man needed to hear the bad news so that he would be able to embrace the good news.

Jesus laid stress on the inward — the motivation, the attitude of the heart — while the Pharisees concerned themselves with obedience to the multitude of their regulations, precious to them in some part because they had invented them! The Lord’s point is simple: one can keep all these rules and be no holier in fact. As one commentator puts it, “The gift without the giver is bare.” [Lowell in Morris, 222] Where there is inner purity and love for God, and the behavior is an expression of faith and love, the behavior will take care of itself!

v.42     C.S. Lewis described this kind of religion, the religion of external importance and conformity, (in which he had himself been raised) as “the memory of Christianity.” [Downing, The Most Reluctant Convert, 41-43]

            The tithe was meant to be an offering of love; the Pharisees had managed to turn it into a calculation of the trivial. And when people concentrate on the minutiae of a thing they are very likely to lose sight of the big picture, the main point of something.

            “Legal religion concentrates on not doing wrong instead of on active and positive goodness.  The Pharisee, in order to avoid unwitting transgression of any commandment left a margin of safety round each of them, so that, for example, though the law of tithing obviously applied only to agricultural produce, they paid tithes on their herb gardens just to be on the safe side. Such scrupulosity can flourish only where men have lost their sense of proportion.” [Caird, 158]

v.44     The best seat was a seat at the front, facing the congregation. It represented a place among the leadership, a higher status. Deferential greetings in public were as well an oriental way of conferring status.
Contact with death made a person ceremonially unclean. Graves were frequently whitewashed to warn people of the risk of such defilement. But an unmarked grave could defile a person without his realizing it. “Jesus calls the Pharisees unmarked graves, because their reputation for holiness concealed from men the insidious quality of their influence.” [Caird, 158] They were making people unclean, not clean.

v.45     The lawyer, or scribe, was an expert in the law of God and its rabbinical development and the application of these regulations to the actual daily life of people. So the Lord’s criticism applied to their teaching and living as well as it did to the Pharisee. If the lawyer was expecting an apology he was sorely disappointed!

v.46     It is very important to realize that the burdens Jesus speaks of here were the rabbinical additions to the law, not the law itself; the unending regulations that governed Jewish life in that period (and for that matter, that govern devout Jewish life today). It was a chore to live in obedience to the mass of rules that had been added to the law and in the Mishnah we read that it is more important to observe the scribal interpretations than the Law of God itself (Sanhedrin 11:3)! The lawyers should have expounded the law of God in such a way that people were inspired to keep it for the goodness and love in it. Instead they managed to turn it into a wearisome burden.

            What is more, these lawyers were experts in the loopholes by which one might evade virtually any of the more inconvenient or expensive requirements of these regulations that were supposed to apply to everyone.  In the parallel passage in Matthew 23:3 the Lord makes a point of this: the lawyers didn’t practice what they preached.

v.48     These men were very ready to venerate Israel’s tradition, but listening to God’s prophets, one of whom was standing before them, was a different matter!

v.51     The guilt of “this generation” was that they had rejected the essential position of the Lord’s prophets and had aligned themselves with the long history of Israel’s opposition to the Lord’s prophets and to their preaching. “This generation” forms something of an inclusio with the same phrase in v. 29, at the beginning of this discourse. All of the matter in between has to do with what’s wrong with this generation, where they had gone amiss.

            The Lord predicted here, as he does elsewhere in the Gospels that the Jews would fall under a terrible judgment for their rejection of the Messiah, which, of course, they did when their nation was destroyed and the population displaced some forty years later.

v.52     The lawyers’ teaching was such, his concentration on regulation was such, that the basic message of the Word of God was hidden from the people. “By their concentration on the secondary and the peripheral they have locked the book and thrown away the key.” [Caird, 159]

A question that presses itself upon the mind of any thoughtful reader of the Bible, and not once or twice but again and again, is this: how was it that Israel, having received such extraordinary blessing, having witnessed so many miraculous acts of divine power, how was it that first Israel and then the Jews found it so easy repeatedly to turn away from the Lord? It is a rather simple thing, after all, to compare the religion of Judaism to the teaching of the Old Testament, and when one does that it is perfectly obvious that the former is a dramatic departure from the latter. So it was in ancient days. Israel was always finding reasons to adopt the religious ideas and practices of the culture around her and to abandon the covenant that God made with her and published by the hand of Moses. Her religious privileges were utterly unique, the theology of Moses was unprecedented in ancient Near Eastern life and, by any standards, an epoch-making advancement over what otherwise passed for religion and for life in that time and place, but Israel never seemed to be able to hold that thought in her head. A generation or two of faithfulness would be followed by generations of unbelief and idolatry.

We could, to be sure, explain Israel’s penchant for the ridiculous rather than the sublime as simply the result of the natural rebelliousness of the human heart and its animosity toward God. This is what sin does to human beings: it makes them stupid! It makes them impervious to the obvious. The Bible says that often enough. That is certainly the explanation. But more can be said than that and more is said in the Bible, repeatedly and emphatically. Another explanation provided in the Bible for Israel’s recurring preference for apostasy rather than faith is the power of one’s culture to blind the eye and deafen the ear. After all, Israel’s temptations were always the temptations provided by the life and worship of the peoples around her. In her apostasy she always traveled to nearby places and did familiar things. Human beings have an insatiable desire to conform, to think and act like everyone else around them; to be accepted. How else can you explain the clothes we wore in the 70s?

That has very often ever since been an explanation for the Christian Church’s departure from the faith and from a holy life. She is beguiled by the world and comes to prefer the world’s way of life to that difficult way of discipleship to which her Lord has called her. But that is not always the explanation or, at least, not always a complete explanation. For example, Israel had had pagan idolatry wrung out of her by the Babylonian captivity. She was never tempted after that to bow down to wood or stone. But in the first century she lived in a world that was thoroughly and comprehensively idolatrous in just that pagan and primitive way. Images, idols were everywhere. In that sense Israel’s life was profoundly counter-cultural. It was one of the things that made her seem so odd to the Greco-Roman world: her abhorrence of idolatry. So it is not enough to say simply that she had succumbed to the influence of the culture around her.

There is another explanation. Generally, when in the Bible an explanation is offered for one of Israel’s spiritual collapses, that explanation is that she was led astray by her leadership. Leadership is key in the Bible. Indeed, if you stop and think about it, the history recorded in the Bible is largely a history of the church’s leaders. The people appear as a mass, but the leaders appear as individuals who influence affairs and whose conduct has massive repercussions for the people as a whole. We know almost nothing about any ordinary Israelite. The people we know about, the people’s whose life’s story is told us in the Word of God are the leaders of the people. It is so from Moses and Joshua, through the Judges and into the history of Israel’s kings and her prophets. The people prosper or suffer in largest part according to the measure of faithfulness to God displayed by their leadership.

And in the Gospels we have this explanation given repeatedly. The Lord, you remember, once surveyed the great congregation that had gathered to hear him and to witness his miracles and observed that they were sheep without a shepherd. They lacked faithful, godly, effective leadership. And here it is the same. The people have been shut off from the true teaching of the Word by the men most responsible to provide that teaching. The leadership of the church had set an example not of faith, love, humility and purity of heart, but of pettifogging concentration on minutiae, on the accumulation of status, and hypocrisy. The great message of man’s sin and guilt, God’s initiative in providing redemption which in turn leads to a life of loving gratitude was buried under a mountain of genuinely ridiculous religious regulations. If you don’t think so, pick up a copy of the Mishnah at some point and begin to read wherever you wish.

And as you read think of the Law of Moses which keeps the true interest of any commandment plainly in view and leaves so much of the application of the law to the loving heart and depends so much on the committed soul to apply the commandments of the law to the thousand and one questions of daily life. The Law of Moses is not, however it may sound to modern ears as if it were, it is not a mass of regulations. It is a grand summary of God’s will with a little bit of case law added to guide us in applying its great principles to specific questions of conscience: what should I do in this case or in that? But most is left to the faithful man or woman to discern for himself or herself. Love and faith guide obedience in the Old Testament but endless regulations were doing it in first century Judaism. The leaders of the Jews led them to embrace that very different philosophy of salvation and of life.

So, in more ways than one, the history of the church is the history of her leadership and the history of her apostasy is likewise the history of her leadership. Rarely, if ever, does the church slide into unbelief and into false and denatured forms of her faith from the bottom up. Again and again, however, it has happened from the top down. The leadership loses its grip on the gospel and the teaching of the Word of God and under its influence the church eventually does as well.

I read this week of an African American professor of New Testament, an expert on the Dead Sea Scrolls, who teaches at the Interdenominational Theological Center, a consortium of historically black Christian colleges and seminaries in Atlanta.  ITC as it is called is a typically liberal theological institution, teaching, as such schools do today, gay theology, womanist theology, and liberation theology, virtually anything but Biblical theology. Prof. Jamal-Dominique Hopkins was one of the few evangelical voices on the campus, though many of the students, having grown up in the black church are conservative and evangelical in their theology.

Dr. Hopkins’ sin was to invite Dr. Alice Brown-Collins, director for Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship’s Black Campus Ministries in the New England area to speak to a group of conservative students at ITC. After her presentation Dr. Brown-Collins gave one of the students a copy of Robert Gagnon’s The Bible and Homosexual Practice, a defense of historic Christianity’s doctrine of sexual purity. Within weeks Dr. Hopkins had been fired. He had violated the schools commitment to diversity, which nowadays more than anything else means diversity of sexual orientation. He had been touted in the seminary’s advertising as the only African American New Testament theologian with expertise in the Dead Sea Scrolls, but that didn’t save him. He had been promoted a few weeks before the meeting that got him in trouble; but that didn’t save him either. He hadn’t given the student the book, he hadn’t been the speaker at the meeting. That didn’t save him either. []

To be sure, the faculty and administration at ITC in Atlanta would never accept that they were denying the gospel any more than these Pharisees and lawyers would have accepted the truthfulness of the Lord’s accusations. The motives of one’s heart are a great deep and very often people are as much in the dark about their own motives and their own true commitments as they are about those of others. The Pharisee and lawyer here would never have admitted that they were guilty as charged, but, the fact is, they found unacceptable the teaching of a man who agreed with the prophets of God, who took the Word of God seriously as a divine revelation, unchanging and unchangeable in its demands, as Dr. Hopkins does, and who had, by the way, performed the most extra ordinary works of power before their very eyes! They found Jesus unacceptable because he said the same things and did the same things God’s prophets had done before. But especially because he disagreed with them, and criticized their “modern” viewpoint.

How many times has this sort of thing happened through the ages? A school that trains the church’s leadership and was built upon a foundation of loyalty to Holy Scripture becomes an outright enemy of the gospel, an engine to disseminate unbelief in the Christian Church. And graduates of that school, no matter what their views may have been when they arrived, leave it by the hundreds to infect with the virus of unbelief what parts of the congregation that have not been infected already by previous pastors.

Lots of seriously religious people are doomed. One cannot believe the Bible and deny that sad fact. Lots of people who consider themselves Christians are going to hell. It is the emphatic teaching of Holy Scripture. And the saddest road to hell is that road that leads down the aisle of a Christian church and right past a Christian pulpit and multitudes of church members have walked that road in the ages since the Lord’s conversation with this Pharisee and this lawyer. That was the road that so many Jews of Jesus’ day walked. And they were encouraged all the way by the leadership of their own church.

Indeed, enough time had passed that the Pharisee’s way of religion was largely accepted by the people. As a group the Pharisees were well thought of by the people. Common folk did not see through them as Jesus did because by this time the common folk had been thoroughly trained in the Pharisee’s viewpoint. It is not as if the church always goes unwillingly into apostasy and must be dragged to her doom. Give the leadership time enough and the people will think and behave pretty much as they do. As Jeremiah would put it, “the priests rule by their own authority and the prophets prophesy lies, and my people love it this way.”  (Jer. 5:31) But then he adds, “But what will they do at the end?”

Once again I remind you, because I think we often make this mistake in addressing, pondering, considering and applying a passage like this, not to trivialize the Lord’s condemnation of the Pharisees as if everyone should easily have seen through them as particularly bad and obviously hypocritical men: the kind of people who twirl their mustaches and foreclose on little old ladies. These men were impressive in some ways. There were only about 7,000 of them among the Jews at this time. They were small in number because you had to be serious to join their company. Their religious seriousness was noted by everyone. They were men, Josephus says, who “made no concession to luxury.” [Ant. Xviii 1, 3] They could fairly be said to be the finest and most consistent representatives of the religious spirit of the Judaism of that time and place. They had high views of the transcendence of God, of his sovereignty over human affairs, and of the reality of heaven and hell. They were the conservatives of their time, as the Sadducees were the liberal skeptics. They believed, for example, in the resurrection and in the existence of angels which the Sadducees did not. They were Jewish patriots and proud of their place among the people of God and they were thoroughly religious men and held that all the issues of life had to be considered from a distinctly religious viewpoint. They stood ready to suffer for their convictions. No wonder they were generally popular with the common people. They were particularly popular among Jewish women who held them in very high esteem. [cf. Schurer, The History of the Jewish People in the Age of Christ, rev. ed., vol. ii, 388-401]

But the fact remains they had for all their vaunted Jewishness and their religious seriousness substituted another faith, another doctrine, indeed another savior, for that revealed in the Word of God. Is this not also entirely typical? Unbelief usually makes its entrance in the church in the teaching of able, gifted, and charismatic men. Bores rarely carry the day; nor do men whose lives are unimpressive. But let a great mind, whose life seems to be a recommendation of his teaching, suggest that there is a better way, a more modern way than the old biblical way and he will always find an audience in the church!

And what does all of this theological and spiritual declension have in common — from ancient Israel, to the Jews of Jesus’ day, to Christians by the generation ever since? What is the thread that connects the pagan idolatry of King Ahab to the legalism of the Pharisees, to the superstitious ritualism of so much of Medieval Christianity, to the rationalism of the 18th and 19th century church, to the social gospel and relativism of the World Council of Churches in our time? It is that every one of these malformations of the biblical faith, every one of these highly religious forms of unbelief amounts to and finds its essence in a repudiation of the gospel.

Whatever else these so-called believers are for, they are no longer for, indeed they are either indifferent to or actively hostile to the biblical description of themselves as guilty sinners, helpless apart from the intervention of God, to their need for redemption by the sacrifice of the Son of God, to the summons to such a living faith in Christ as must transform their life, to obedience to the law of God because it is a  transcript of the demands God makes upon us precisely because he is the living God of perfect holiness, and looming above all of this the mighty specter of heaven and hell. Whatever they are for, they are not for that!

It is always fundamentally and finally the gospel that is rejected, or, better it is always God himself as the Savior who is rejected. Apostasy in a Christian context is always and fundamentally the assertion of man’s pride over against God. The Pharisee continued to give place to God — indeed he would have said that he gave first place to God — but not to God as his savior. Salvation he could manage on his own. Whatever God was to him, he was not the only answer to his desperate need. The folk at ITC in Atlanta do not lose sleep wondering if they are right with God. They do not look out upon a world that justly lies under divine judgment and the threat of doom. They are not anxious that others should hear first and foremost of the way that Christ has opened to heaven and to peace with God. They don’t even worry that the Lord Christ might disapprove of homosexual practice or heterosexual behavior outside of marriage. They are furious with people who don’t agree with them, they can’t tolerate dissent from their new orthodoxy, but the plain-speaking of the Bible on its primary themes is of little interest to them because the Gospel of Christ is of little interest to them. It was of little interest to the Pharisees and the scribes and has been of little interest to generations of so-called Christians throughout the ages since.

We face a text like this and ask ourselves — if we are spiritually alive and concerned we ask ourselves — what will prevent us from going down this same road, eventually comforting ourselves with our religiousness while, in fact, we have drifted away from God and from God’s salvation? What will keep this church from ever following the path of the Pharisees and the lawyers and their descendants in the Christian church? It is probably too daring to think that this church will never falter in just this way. So few churches have lasted for centuries, maintaining their original enthusiasm for the gospel and their original loyalty to Jesus Christ as the incarnate, living God, and as their Lord and Master.

But I can tell you how to prevent this in your own case and that of your children. It is to remain perpetually on guard against any beginnings of doubt regarding the fundamental teaching of the Word of God concerning your sin and God’s salvation. That’s what led to the externalism and hypocrisy that characterized the scribes and Pharisees and that is what has led to post-modern relativism and indifference to the Gospel in so much of liberal Protestant seminary teaching.  Have any of you read G.K. Chesterton’s Father Brown detective stories?

Father Brown is a character somewhat like the Hercule Poirot, but with a theology. He once explained his method of detection in this way:

“You see, it was I who killed all those people…”

He was saying that he could understand the mentality of the criminal; he could get into his head because he found that same mentality in himself. Chesterton has Father Brown philosophize about that:

“No one’s really any good till he knows how bad he is, or might be; till he’s realized exactly how [little] right he has to all this snobbery, and sneering, and talking about ‘criminals’ as if they were apes in a forest ten thousand miles away…till he’s squeezed out of his soul the last drop of the oil of the Pharisees…” [Cited in Packer, I Want to be a Christian, 290]

Keep your eye fixed on your own sin and need and nothing will beguile you away from Jesus Christ as the Son of God and the Savior of sinners. Keep your eye fixed on him and you will never satisfy yourself with mere external compliance with religious activities.  You will want to serve him because you love him and because you are so grateful that he loved you; and you will obey him because you know that obedience to his commandments pleases him more than anything else.

The problem is always the same: God and Christ recede from view and the Christian faith becomes something else than personal trust in him, love for him, and life for his sake. Never let the Lord Jesus recede from your view; not for one hour, not for one moment!