Luke 11:37-52, The Religion Trap

[July 26, 2009] As we hear today’s Gospel (Luke 11:37-52), we need to keep in mind that even though Jesus is speaking to the Pharisees and “lawyers,” Luke is writing for us. In other words, we are privy to these words of Jesus, not so that we can be judgmental about the Pharisees (and maybe the Jews), but so that the light of Jesus might shed its light on us. Many Christians use these words to bolster their anti-Semitism, and many commentaries use passages such as this to say things about the Jews. We need to be careful here and not follow their example. Recent events in the news can tempt us to do so. However, when we point our finger at others, we may be unconsciously trying to steer the guilt away from ourselves. We may be in denial of our own complicity. While we imagine we see others clearly, we often are blind when it comes to ourselves. When anyone points out our inconsistency or double standard, we are quick to let them know how it is different with us: we are an exception; they are only looking at the surface; they do not really understand.

Though Jesus speaks of Pharisees and lawyers, He is not even speaking of all Pharisees and lawyers. Pharisees have many different schools, depending on which rabbis they follow. The Rabbinical Judaism of our own day is the successor of Pharisaism, particularly the school of Hillel. Since New Testament times it has learned many of the lessons Jesus taught. Jesus Himself had more in common with the Pharisees than with any other group among the Pharisees. He was not a Pharisee, but He had so much in common with them that He almost sounds like a reformer among them. Many Pharisees believed Jesus to be the Messiah. Saul of Tarsus fought hard not to. He even hired himself out to the High Priest, a Sadducee whose beliefs were abhorrent to him, to fight against the realization that Jesus was the Messiah. In a short time, he too was converted. He became Paul the apostle, but he never gave up being a Pharisee.

This passage also speaks of lawyers. Scribes were literate people who copied scrolls. Lawyers were scribes who were also scholars. Because they had access to books and knew what was in them, they had the “key of know-ledge.” Before we write them off as a group, we need to realize that the Old Testament Scriptures is the fruit of their labor. Without them we would not have the “Law and the Prophets and Psalms.” Scribes and “law­yers” are also necessary for the church (see Matthew 13:52). Without them we would not have a Bible at all, and we would not have translations of the Bible into English. Keeping these two points in mind gives us some perspective.

The Invitation (Luke 11:37-38)

With this in mind, we should not be surprised when a Pharisee invited Jesus for breakfast. This is the second time in Luke that Jesus was invited to dine with a Pharisee in their home (see 7:36), and in general we see that the Pharisees are very interested in Jesus and many of them like Him and even watch His back (see 13:31). In Luke Jesus frequently goes to people’s homes to share a meal. It is often in this kind of setting that Jesus gives His teaching. We should pay attention, then, when He sent out the Twelve and the Seventy (ch. 9 and 10) to do the same. The apostles were to rely on the hospitality of others, staying in their homes, and “eating and drinking from them.” The dining room table of their hosts—was to be their main platform for spreading the Gospel. Jesus set the example for us.

Jesus’ host is shocked that Jesus does not ritually wash his hands before eating the way the Pharisees do. Jesus eats like a commoner. The Pharisee either says something or Jesus can tell what he is thinking by his expression, and Jesus seizes this as a cue to launch an attack on the hypocrisy of the Pharisees. He is so insulting to his host that a lawyer who is present is insulted, and when he says something Jesus starts to insult the lawyers too. Here Luke gathers the accusations that Jesus makes elsewhere. Many of the more public and ostentatious Pharisees were greedy for money, reputation and power, and used religion to put themselves above others. They used the “oral tradition” (auxiliary rules) to erect a wall between themselves and the common people. It protected their status.

The Accusations (11:39-52)

There are seven accusations. Let us summarize them. First (vv. 39-41), Jesus says they care only about the outside. The outside is what people can see. The inside is what (you think) only you can see, but God also sees it. If we give away to others that for which we are greedy, we will purify ourselves of greed. If we take care of the inside, the outside will change.

Second (v. 42), they are overly scrupulous about minute details, but ignore the real issues—the issues that give meaning to the details. The real issues are twofold: justice toward others, and love for God. We can impress others with our piety by observing the outward details, but we render them meaningless or even antithetical to their real purpose if our intention in doing them is not justice toward others and a genuine love of God. We often follow rules instead of God so that the rules come between us and God. We then use the rules to justify ourselves before God and others.

The third accusation (v. 43) highlights their underlying motive. “They loved the glory of men more than the glory of God,” Jesus says (John 12:43). This is why they pay so much attention to the outside and to the minute details: it is to win the praise of others. This is what happens when we are not impressed enough with the reality of God. If we really know that God is real, and that that is what matters, then we live before God, we live in His sight and in His presence. Our concern for others is not whether they like us but with whether we can please God as far as they are concerned. Paul, the Christian Pharisee says, “Am I now trying to win the assent of men or of God? Or am I seeking to please men? If I were still trying to please men, I would not be a slave of Christ” (Galatians 1:10).

Fourth (v. 44), Jesus compares them to unseen tombs. Touching the dead makes a Jew unclean. If they walk on a tomb, they become unclean even if they do not know it. In Matthew Jesus says, they “outwardly appear beautiful but inwardly are full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness” (23:27). We feel tainted by them but we do not know why. A truly holy person can make us feel judged before God, but a holy-than-thou person just makes us feel shame. The first can be life-giving, the second deals out death.

Fifth (v. 45-46), they multiply laws for others. Religious authorities seem to be concerned about “outward morality” and “legalism” as a way of control people. It is about maintaining their status and authority. These rules are not about our inner state but about outer things, many of which are impractical. People need to come to them to know what to do and when they cannot keep up with the rules, they need the authority to grant them dispensation, absolution and forgiveness. This can be the hierarchy of Rome or the local Pentecostal or Baptist preacher.

Sixth (vv. 47-51), they honor the prophets after their ancestors killed them at the same time that they hypocritically honor the an­cestors who did the killing. They are only concerned with appear­ances, and so they perse­cute prophets and apostles because they do not care about their “author­ity,” but they honor them after they are dead (they even become “saints”) be­cause they are no longer a threat. By honoring them now they can thus con­trol the people who continue to admire them and appropriate this admiration.

Last (v. 52), the lawyers are stewards of the Scriptures and their inter­pretation; thus they have the “key of knowledge.” To enter the “gate,” they must take the Scriptures to heart and apply it to themselves. Instead, they abuse the Scriptures to make them serve themselves and reinforce their status. Thus they obscure the meaning of the Scriptures to those whom they teach instead of fulfilling their responsibility of delivering to the people the counsels of God, of being to the people the voice of Moses and the prophets.

The Problem Is with Religion

We can use this passage to teach us to hate the Pharisees and support our anti-Semitism, or we can hear this as a warning to ourselves. After all, we all know that this kind of hypocrisy is just as prevalent among Christians as it is among Jews. The hypocrisy of clergy and pious church goers is a com-mon place, we know it well. So we could use this passage to attach other Christians. But pointing the finger at others only hides from us our own hypocritical attitude. Instead, let us use this passage to examine ourselves.

Some people think hypocrisy is to not live up to the standards in which you (are supposed to) believe. This becomes an excuse not to come to church. If I go to church, they say, I will be expected to live by certain standards, and since I cannot, I would be a hypocrite. People do hold church-goers to strange standards, but since when do other people’s expectations become our standard? Our not living up to those standards does not make us hypocrites. The word “hypocrite” refers to someone who wears a mask. A hypocrite is not someone who cannot be consistent with his or her own standards. (That would make hypocrites of all except those with exceptionally low standards!) A hypocrite is someone who pretends to be what they are not. The cure for hypocrisy is to know yourself well and to have the humility and meekness that comes naturally from that self-knowledge, and to be honest and genuine with others, to not pretend to be what you are not, but to honestly be who you are.

What Jesus is talking about is caring more about what other people think than about what God thinks. That is what tempts us to use religion to impress others. We need to live in the sight of God, with God always before us. This is the essence of Matthew 6.

We also need to care about the inside more than the outside. The outside is important too, but it must come from the inside. If the inside is right, then the outside will straighten out. So we need about our spirit and our soul, the condition and attitude of our mind. We need to take care of our emotions. If we pretend we are not angry when we are, our anger comes through in unconscious ways. It is all this unconscious stuff that we are in denial of that causes us so much grief. We need to be aware of ourselves. Ironically, a narcissist is not.

Also, we need to know what matters. All our attention can be on secondary matters and we can miss the boat. Our whole lives can be wasted because we missed what is important. What are you really devoting your attention to? Justice and love for God is a rewording of the Great Commandment and the Second like it. Christians sometimes have a reputation for hatred, intolerance and ignorance. How can this be? It is because we fight the wrong battles. We are so mixed up. When we read the Bible, we must find the center and work out from there.

How to Avoid the Trap (James 1:21-27)

This problem seems to be part of “religion,” because it crops up every­where, whether we are Jews, Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Tao­ists, or even atheists. The problem is that we try to apply religion from the out­side. We hear what we should do and we try to conform to it. This does not work. First, because of our worldly conditioning, we fight it. But second, and more importantly, the form of religion actually comes between us and God.

James says that before we can become doers of the word, we must first “receive in meekness the implanted Word.” When we believe into Christ, the Holy Spirit enters our spirit and stays there. This means that Christ Him­self enters us. According to Paul and John and the other writers of the New Testament, He is the implanted Word. His presence and His revelation are within us. He fulfills the image of God in which we are made; He fills it with its natural content; and thus we have the potential to become who we were always meant to be, who we were made to be, who we most naturally are.

So when we hear the word of Scriptures, and perceive Christ in it, it is like looking at our natural face (the face we were born with) in the mirror. That which we see then, is the law of freedom, because it calls us to be ourselves. When we look into this Word, we can be a doer of the word, because the Word itself liberates us from within.

First we must let the Good Samaritan rescue us from the religion trap that has left us half-dead on the side of the road. Then we must sit at the feet of Jesus and listen to His word. This means hearing the Scriptures and the preaching, reading the Scriptures on our own, memorizing it so that we can mull it over in our minds, and meditat­ing on the Scriptures day and night (Psalm 1:2). It must be our constant companion. We also need to cultivate a life of prayer. We need to live in God’s presence by spending a lot of time in prayer. This is easy—any child can pray—but it is also very difficult. Anyone who has spent time in prayer knows this. In prayer we stand naked before God, not comparing ourselves with others, not hiding in the repetition of formal words, but really being in His presence. Prayer is a practice, so that when we leave our prayer mat, we can continue in God’s presence, living in His sight, all day long. When we forget the reality of God and live only in the eyes of others, we are in trouble.

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