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The Life of Jesus - Series 8: Episode 12

Jesus confronts religious hypocrisy & lack of true faith

| Martin Charlesworth
Luke 11:37-54

Jesus directly criticises the Jewish leaders for their love of money and social standing, for their legalism and leading the crowd astray.

Jesus directly criticises the Jewish leaders for their love of money and social standing, for their legalism and leading the crowd astray.


Hello and welcome to Series 8 and Episode 12, 'Jesus confronts religious hypocrisy and lack of true faith'. We're in Luke 11, where we've been for the last couple of episodes. If you've been following through those episodes you'll get a feel of the story. We're going to study Luke 11: 37 - 54.

Introduction and Recap

Let's remind ourselves where we are in the story in Series 7. As I've stated a number of times in recent episodes, we see the turning point in Jesus' ministry moving from Galilee, towards the south of the country, Jerusalem, and the surrounding areas of Judea and Samaria. We have the transfiguration on the mountain near Caesarea Philippi, in which Jesus states clearly to Peter, James and John that, in conversation with the resurrected Moses and Elijah, he is going to head for Jerusalem and bring his ministry to a climax through his death and resurrection. We're on the journey south. In Series 8, we started in John's Gospel. John told us that as Jesus headed south, he made two quick visits to Jerusalem, which were not designed to be the final big event. He came in very quickly and quietly and left very quickly as well. We see those described in John's Gospel chapters 7, 8, 9 and 10. 

Now we turn to Luke's Gospel, and we're following Luke's narrative. Luke devotes a large proportion of his material to this section. Luke is particularly interested in this part of Jesus' ministry, not so much in Galilee, but on the road travelling around the country, with all sorts of unknown factors involved in that. We don't always know exactly where he is because he's obviously moving around from place to place. He's sent out 72 of his disciples, including the Apostles, in pairs. They've been travelling all over the country: that's 36 teams of evangelists and preachers who've gone to villages and towns in small communities all over the place, trying to spread the message as thoroughly in the central and southern parts of the country as they'd already done in the north, in Galilee, through earlier missionary trips of the Twelve and Jesus, travelling around in his three tours of Galilee. This is the momentum - all sorts of things happen along the way. Luke includes quite a number of parables as Jesus teaches principles of the Kingdom. Many of those parables are unique to Luke, so that's a very rich resource for our teaching. He describes a number of incidents uniquely and brings to our attention the general framework of what's actually happening. Jesus is attracting significant crowds and following, as he's going south. He's also attracting significant opposition as I've stated a number of times previously. The opposition to Jesus was strongest in the south, in Jerusalem, where the Sanhedrin, the ruling Jewish council, who looked after their religious life met and were based in the Temple and that surrounding area, with the priests, and the Pharisees and Teachers of the Law. They had already declared their hand. They were opposed to Jesus; they considered him to be a deluded, a false messiah, and empowered by demonic forces. A terrible thing to say about Jesus. That message was being spread around the crowds. That's what the religious leaders thought and this was provoking conflict. This conflict is getting more severe and in the last incident, in the last episode, we saw a spark took place; a moment in which there was a confrontation between two different views of Jesus. When Jesus healed the man who was mute, driving out an evil spirit, this provoked people in the crowd to accuse him of using a demonic power to drive out demonic spirits. Jesus responded very robustly, in the teaching that was given in the last episode. If you haven't heard or read that episode, I'd encourage you to do so because it is closely linked to this one.

This simmering conflict is the background of what's going to happen in the episode today, and reaches a kind of red hot, confrontational moment by the end of this episode. It's absolutely electrifying to see what happens because Jesus doesn't disguise his thoughts. He's very clear and his opponents declare their hand. They come out against him very clearly by the end of this episode. This is not comfortable reading; this is not a simple situation; this is not Jesus enjoying the height of his popularity. You'll remember in earlier episodes, if you've been with us on this journey, that the height of Jesus' popularity took place earlier in Galilee, and towards the end of his time in Galilee his popularity was overwhelming. Immense crowds believed he was the Messiah, and actually thought he'd probably continue his work by becoming politically active and overturning Herod Antipas, their local ruler, overturning the Romans in Jerusalem, and in the province of Judea, and basically reforming the whole country, setting them free from all sorts of oppression. That popular period has come to an end. Now, what we see in the narrative is that whilst lots of people are hugely drawn to him and he is attracting many people in the crowd, there's a very strong move amongst other people to resist him. There's direct conflict happening. That conflict is headed up generally speaking, by members of the sect called the Pharisees and other Teachers of the Law, who are probably travelling around, watching what Jesus is doing and challenging him. It's a pretty tense situation that we see in this episode.

An Invitation to Eat

We're going to start by setting the scene, reading Luke 11: 37 - 38,

‘When Jesus had finished speaking, a Pharisee invited him to eat with him; so he went in and reclined at the table. 38But the Pharisee was surprised when he noticed that Jesus did not first wash before the meal.’

Luke 11:37 - 38, NIV

The Pharisee's invitation could have been seen as a real blessing to Jesus. Pharisees sometimes invited him into their homes - we have another example described in Luke 7: 36 onwards, where something very dramatic happened in a Pharisee's home. A woman came in who'd been involved in prostitution and anointed Jesus' feet.. Here's another example of a Pharisee inviting Jesus in for a meal. Jesus reclined at the table; if you remember earlier discussions of the social habits of Jews at that time, you'll know that when eating a formal meal, they laid down and rested on their side; they didn't sit at a table with chairs as so many modern people do. Jesus was reclining and the Pharisee noticed that Jesus didn't go through an elaborate washing of his hands in preparation for the hospitality. This reminds us that there is a background issue behind this. In an earlier episode, I was looking at a passage in Mark 7, in which there is a direct confrontation between Jesus and some Pharisees and Teachers of the Law around various things. This issue of ceremonial washing was very much at the centre of it. I'm going to quickly read it, to give you the context, what was said in Mark 7: 3 - 4. This is a description of what the Pharisees and other Jews did in terms of ritual washing.

‘(The Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they give their hands a ceremonial washing, holding to the tradition of the elders. 4When they come from the marketplace they do not eat unless they wash. And they observe many other traditions, such as the washing of cups, pitchers and kettles.)’

Mark 7:3-4, NIV

This is not washing your hands for hygienic reasons with just a very small amount of water and some soap, as modern people might do. No, this is a ceremonial process involving lots and lots of water. A huge amount of water was kept in jars in homes. You see an example of this in John 2, at the wedding scene in Cana of Galilee, when Jesus filled those jars, miraculously turning the water into wine. Lots of water was used for elaborate ceremonial washing and this is because the washing had not just a hygienic significance but a spiritual religious significance - trying to wash off the spiritual dirt of contamination from outside society, particularly Gentiles, non-Jews, and particularly unclean Jewish people - ritually unclean people you might bump into in the marketplace. There was a very great emphasis on this. Jesus did not follow these traditions and this Pharisee was surprised, perhaps even offended. This was the trigger for Jesus's comments, which follow in verses 39 to 52. This observation and this mutual awareness, that there is a difference here, trigger Jesus to say some pretty firm things. Verse 39


‘Then the Lord said to him, “Now then, you Pharisees clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside you are full of greed and wickedness. 40You foolish people! Did not the one who made the outside make the inside also? 41But now as for what is inside you—be generous to the poor, and everything will be clean for you. 42“Woe to you Pharisees, because you give God a tenth of your mint, rue and all other kinds of garden herbs, but you neglect justice and the love of God. You should have practised the latter without leaving the former undone. 43“Woe to you Pharisees, because you love the most important seats in the synagogues and respectful greetings in the marketplaces. 44“Woe to you, because you are like unmarked graves, which people walk over without knowing it.” 45One of the experts in the law answered him, “Teacher, when you say these things, you insult us also.” 46Jesus replied, “And you experts in the law, woe to you, because you load people down with burdens they can hardly carry, and you yourselves will not lift one finger to help them. 47“Woe to you, because you build tombs for the prophets, and it was your ancestors who killed them. 48So you testify that you approve of what your ancestors did; they killed the prophets, and you build their tombs. 49Because of this, God in his wisdom said, ‘I will send them prophets and apostles, some of whom they will kill and others they will persecute.’ 50Therefore this generation will be held responsible for the blood of all the prophets that has been shed since the beginning of the world, 51from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah, who was killed between the altar and the sanctuary. Yes, I tell you, this generation will be held responsible for it all. 52“Woe to you experts in the law, because you have taken away the key to knowledge. You yourselves have not entered, and you have hindered those who were entering.”

Luke 11:39-52, NIV

I think you can now see what I was saying earlier on, about how serious this conflict has become. Jesus didn't hesitate to explain exactly what he thought about the Pharisees and the Teachers of the Law, who are representing the wider Jewish religious authority of the Sanhedrin, and also of the priests, who operate in the Temple in Jerusalem. They've spoken against him; they have accused him of being a false messiah, as we saw in a number of places, notably Matthew 12: 22 - 24. They've been very clear that they don't believe in him and it appears as the Pharisee is inviting Jesus to this meal, he's got a number of friends with him - the Teachers of the Law are there, no doubt other Pharisees too. These people who are travelling around observing Jesus, are drawing him into a private setting away from the crowds, probably in order to try and trick him into making unwise statements, or trying to challenge him, or observe him - to see if he is inconsistent in any way, and particularly if he breaks their laws.

What Jesus did at the beginning of this incident was that he broke one of their religious laws and traditions. As I explained when we first looked at this issue in Mark 7, but I'll say it again for clarity, there was a fundamental distinction in Israel between the Laws of Moses given in the Bible in the Old Testament, which were divinely inspired for the Jewish people, and the religious laws that had been added in over the centuries by a number of different groups of religious leaders, including the Pharisees and the Teachers of the Law mentioned here. There were hundreds and hundreds of extra regulations which were not found in the Old Testament, and Jesus all the way, through his ministry, consistently refuses to obey those traditions. He considers them to be oppressive and dangerous, misleading and unworkable for ordinary Jewish people seeking to find a living faith, and that's what he explains here. That's the background, and that's why we very quickly move into a conflict situation.

Jesus' Criticisms

What is Jesus actually criticising them for? Verses 39 to 42, he criticises them for having an external, outward faith that lacks any real internal, spiritual dynamic. It's not what's going on in the heart; it's what people are doing on the outside, just for show. He makes this startling statement in verse 41,

‘But now as for what is inside you - be generous to the poor and everything will be clean for you.’

Luke 11:41, NIV

That's going right to the heart. We know from evidence in the New Testament and elsewhere that many of these religious leaders were quite wealthy and we know from Jesus' statements elsewhere that they tended to really enjoy materialism - money, and wealth. Jesus cuts to the heart of that and he says what would show your true attitude is if you give away substantial amounts of money and material resources to the poor, something that they were very reluctant to do for the most part.

He criticises them in verse 40 - 43 for having pride in their social status. They love those important seats in the synagogue; they love the fact that at the front there are some seats reserved for the most important people in the community - that is them. As soon as they go into the synagogue, people will know they're not going to sit amongst the ordinary people, they're going to sit in the important seats at the front. They love it when they go down the streets and people will go out of their way to greet them, ‘Hello Rabbi, hello teacher; welcome to our community; come and teach us; we want to come and learn from you; and we honour you.’ They loved it! 

Verse 44, they're misleading ordinary people in matters of faith, like unmarked graves people walk over without knowing. In many cultures of the world today, and in those days, it was a tradition that you don't walk on a grave, as a sign of respect to the family and to the dead person. In fact, in those days graves were generally marked with a whitewash very clearly, so that you wouldn't tread on them, you'd see them. Jesus said here ‘you're like graves that haven't got marking on, so people are walking all over’. In other words, they're being misled and are becoming defiled by walking on the grave. It's a metaphor; it's an image to explain they're misleading people.

Verse 46, he says they're creating unjustified burdens, unsustainable legalism - lots and lots of rules that simply cannot be sustained. ‘You load people down with burdens they can hardly carry whilst you're not going to do anything to help them.’ These are terrible statements, seriously worrying statements but they're true. This is what was really going on. This is the background to so much of the Gospels, particularly in the latter part of the story, and we're entering into that latter phase; towards the end, this conflict is so great. Jesus' view is that God's choice of the Jews from Abraham and Sarah onwards was for a particular purpose, which was to be a place in the world and an ethnic context in the world, in which the Messiah can come and be given to the world from the Jews. His view is that the history of God's dealing with Israel through the early days of Moses and Joshua, through the period of Judges and the kingship, and the return to the land after the exile, and through the work of the prophets - all this process was to prepare the way for this very moment, the coming of Jesus. If the Jews had responded well to that process then they could, as a nation, by and large, have received the Messiah and given tremendous energy, impetus and strength to the worldwide mission of the Church as a nation.

Jesus' Reading of History

Jesus' statements in the next few verses indicate something tragic and terrible had happened over the years, which was now reaching an awful climax and was about to burst into action. The tragedy is that, over the years, the Jews had generally rejected the prophets who were leading them in the right direction. They'd even killed many of them and they were bringing judgement on themselves. Jesus predicted they would do exactly the same to him. That's why he says,

‘So you testify that you approve of what your ancestors did; (verse 48), ‘they killed the prophets, and you build their tombs. 49Because of this, God in his wisdom said, ‘I will send them prophets and apostles, some of whom they will kill and others they will persecute.’ (The next verse is very sinister and sad). ‘ 50Therefore this generation will be held responsible for the blood of all the prophets that has been shed since the beginning of the world, 51from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah, who was killed between the altar and the sanctuary. Yes, I tell you, this generation will be held responsible for it all.’

Luke 11:48-51, NIV

Abel, in the Bible narrative, was the first person to be murdered and Zechariah, the prophet Zechariah, was the last recorded prophetic person to be murdered, according to Old Testament history. The reference to Abel is in Genesis 4; the reference to Zechariah is in the history book, 2 Chronicles 24: 21. The first and the last martyrs, who were prophets of God, speaking of God, following God - Abel and Zechariah - these were murdered, and all that had happened in between, in terms of the opposition to the voice of God coming through the prophets, was building divine judgement into the nation of Israel. Jesus said this generation will be held responsible for it all. You see, that generation had all the resources available they needed: they had the whole of the Old Testament fully assembled - It had been assembled sometime before the time of Christ, probably coming into its final form about 150 years before Jesus came; and they had all the prophecies, all the prophecies about Messiah, all the prophecies about the Son of David, which we've referred to in other episodes. He concludes, speaking of the experts of the law, with these words,

‘you have taken away the key to knowledge. You yourselves have not entered, and you have hindered those who were entering.”

Luke 11:52, NIV

Isn't that amazing? If you want to get in a house, you need a key, If someone knows you want to get into the house and you have a right to get in the house and he's got the key and takes it away, hides it, throws it in the river - he's locking you out of an amazing blessing; he's locking you out of what you're being invited into - the key of knowledge. That key of knowledge is all the spiritual history of Israel, as recorded in the Scriptures. If the Teachers of the Law, and the Pharisees but particularly the Teachers of the Law in these verses in the second half of this passage - that's the focus - had looked very carefully and humbly at the Old Testament prophets, they would have seen clearly the prophecies of the Messiah in books such as Isaiah. If they had used that knowledge and said to the crowds who are asking them, ‘what should we make of this man?’ If they'd said, ‘well, look, actually he's fulfilling the prophecies of the Old Testament. You should believe in him’, then they would have been giving the key of knowledge to these people. But no, they closed the door, and tried to stop them entering in. In fact, that's what they were doing at that very time, generally speaking in this part of Jesus' ministry; there were Pharisees, there were Teachers of the Law, and other religious leaders, who were speaking within the crowds and speaking to the crowds behind the scenes - undermining what Jesus was saying and doing.

The Outcome

The shocking outcome of this is what happened when they left the meal and went outside and engaged with crowds because there are always crowds around. The crowds were waiting for Jesus to re-emerge from the Pharisee's house. Verse 53,

‘When Jesus went outside, the Pharisees and the Teachers of the Law began to oppose him fiercely and to besiege him with questions, 54waiting to catch him in something he might say.’

Luke 11:53-54, NIV

It's clear what's happening. The crowds will be witnessing this incredibly confusing scene. The people they respect - their religious leaders - are actively undermining this amazing prophet, teacher and healer whom they love, and they're fascinated by. They're amazed at the things he's done. They are confused. The key of knowledge is being taken away from them. They are being hindered from entering into the Kingdom of God. That's exactly what happened in this open conflict between Jesus and the religious leaders being played out in front of vast crowds as they travelled along the road. This is not a comfortable time in the ministry of Jesus. This is not a comfortable time for the twelve disciples, who were involved in all this and seeing it going on.


What are our final reflections as we come to the end of this fascinating but hugely challenging episode? We've been reminded again that legalism is powerful and deadly. Legalism being the view that religion is essentially about obeying a code of rules imposed by somebody else, that will hopefully gain you acceptance from God if you do well enough. Christianity, and the message of Jesus is fundamentally different from this. Jesus was opposed to all this legalism. He says it's deadly and ineffective and he offers a different path to salvation, which is through repentance, faith and belief in Jesus' death on the cross, his resurrection and his substitutionary, atoning sacrifice for us, to pay the price for our sins. He offers the power of the Holy Spirit to be the transformer within, rather than hundreds of laws which we have to obey to try and shape us, to make us different. We see here the strength and the intensity of the conflict between Jesus and the religious establishment. We see Israel on the point of judgement. The storm clouds are gathering over the nations. We see Jesus' painfully powerful prophecy in Luke 11: 49, ‘‘I will send them prophets and apostles, some of whom they will kill and others they will persecute.’ It has been in the Early Church, and in the history of the Church, that those who declare the Gospel and the message and bring a prophetic understanding of it - the original Apostles and all who followed them - are at risk of persecution and even losing their lives. It happened to John the Baptist, it happened to the first martyr Stephen in Acts 7. It ultimately almost certainly happened to Paul and Peter, the two great Apostles who Church tradition tells us died a martyr's death shortly after the end of their writings in the New Testament. The story has continued.

Where the Church is growing, one of its main challenges and oppositions will be various forms of religious legalism. You can interpret this narrative and this story into your culture. You'll probably quickly see a version of this conflict going on in your culture, in your religious traditions and in your social framework. There are very different workings of this conflict that can go on, and we intuitively know what is the main issue in our own culture. We need to follow Christ wholeheartedly; we need to avoid legalism very keenly. We need to trust Christ in times when the Church will be opposed outright, firmly, because of its faith in Jesus the Messiah, the one who died, rose again and saved us from our sins through his atoning death on the cross and sent his Holy Spirit. These truths we must hold onto firmly, following in the footsteps of Jesus, and knowing that the Kingdom we inherit will be an eternal one. Thanks for studying this.

Study Questions

The following questions have been provided to facilitate discussion or further reflection. Please feel free to answer any, or all the questions. Each question has been assigned a category to help guide you.

  • Exploring Faith
    Exploring Faith
    1. When have you felt in need of ‘cleansing’? Is this always easy to see to others?
  • Discipleship
    1. Is there anything you do that puts a distance between you and those who live their lives around you? Could this be like the ‘ceremonial washing’ of the Pharisees?
    2. The Pharisees were legalistic in their approach to religion. Consider the concept of legalism in your life, both at an individual level and within the church.
  • Further Study
    Further Study
    1. Remember the difference in following the Law of Moses, and the traditions that existed within the Jewish faith. Series 04 Episode 04
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