Guess who’s coming to dinner
The scene is about to change. Jesus had been engaging with the crowds and with his religious opponents in the open air. Now comes what might seem a somewhat unexpected invitation. A Pharisee steps up and invites Jesus to come for a meal at his house.
This wasn’t the first invite Jesus received to eat in a Pharisee’s home and it wouldn’t be the last. In Lk.7:36ff Jesus went to Simon’s house where he scandalised his host by declaring the sins of a fallen woman to be forgiven. Later in ch.14 we’ll find Jesus in yet another Pharisee’s home and there he will be under careful scrutiny as he challenges his host’s understanding of the law as it related to Sabbath observance.
It would seem that Jesus was always ready to accept invitations – he was always ready to reach out to others and to share his life with them. But that did not mean he was going to be soft and alter his views depending upon the company he was in: he was not a man to be intimidated or brow-beaten by the occasion. His acceptance shows us something of his warm humanity: Jesus loves people and that love extends to his critics and harshest opponents.
In accepting this invitation Jesus will use the occasion as a means of lovingly reaching out to those who are lost. The Pharisees were very very religious but also very very lost in their arrogant self-confidence. Jesus didn’t give up on them but challenged their thinking by exposing their errors – it was another example of him functioning as the light of the world, he would shine truth into their lives whenever he could.
We don’t know why this particular Pharisee invited Jesus to eat at his home on this particular occasion. Maybe he wanted to get Jesus away from the crowds and stop him influencing them. Maybe he wanted to try to put pressure on Jesus to toe the religious party line a bit more - after all he seems to have filled the other places at his dinner table with other religious people like himself. Or maybe it was simply that he wanted to know more about this most remarkable man.
People have many reasons for their interest in Jesus. Whatever your reason is this morning, Jesus would do you good – the question is: will you let him? Jesus accepted the invitation that day and now he issues an invitation of his own:
Rev.3:20 "Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me."
Things don’t get off to a good start
The scene has now changed. Jesus is in the Pharisee’s home and he has taken his place at table.
He hasn’t washed his hands!!
We don’t know whether anything was said – was there any open criticism? Were there any whispers of disapproval? Or was it just a look of censure in the eyes?
Whatever it was Jesus knew and understood that he was being judged. He knew too however that the criteria of judgment was all wrong and needed to be tackled. He was not concerned to defend his own actions but he did want his host to begin to see clearly as far as spiritual matters were concerned.
Now, before we go any further let’s be clear as to what the issue was. It was not a question of personal hygiene. The hand-washing before a meal that the Pharisees practised had nothing whatsoever to do with germs or dirt.
Jewish rabbis in the past had decided that certain washings were necessary as a means of removing ceremonial defilement that a Jew might have contracted through inadvertent contact with a non-Jew, the hated Gentile. You see they thought that a Jew was made ceremonially unclean if he handled something that a Gentile had touched before him. In the same way he would be rendered unclean if his hand had brushed against a Gentile in a crowded street as he returned from market. To wash your hands before a meal was to deal with this kind of defilement and the practice was just a human tradition with no divine backing.
Jesus could of course had gone along with this tradition – there is nothing wrong after all with washing your hands before a meal – but the Pharisees’ emphasis on such things betrayed a deep underlying problem. Jesus knew that such a problem was crippling and destructive of true spiritual life and so took this opportunity of tackling it head on.
How glad we should be when Jesus shines light into our lives. He does so not to be awkward or difficult but because he loves us and wants us to live our lives according to the truth and not according to anything else.
And so Jesus responded to the criticism (spoken or implied) and pointed out just how the Pharisees were getting it wrong.
In v.39 he says "you Pharisees" – there were evidently several others at table along with his host.
How were they getting things so badly wrong? They were focusing on externals and leaving the heart untouched. What is the point of washing the outside of a bowl if the inside is filthy? You wouldn’t appreciate that if you went to a restaurant now would you?
The explanation is followed by a stinging rebuke:
vv.40-41 "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."
It is no use to occupy yourself with externals and appearances if the inside is rotten and selfish.
Religion that deals only with outward shapes and forms etc does appeal to so many. It does so in part because however rigorous it might be appear to be it is always founded upon human effort and we love to think we are able determine our destiny on our own. But unaided human effort is simply unable to cleanse the inside. Jesus came not in order to give us a new set of instructions as to how we might clean up our lives but in order to give us a new start, a fresh beginning, a new birth. You can tinker with your outward behaviour but it is only Jesus who can give you a new life that is clean on the inside!
Of course outward behaviour is important but the right outward behaviour will flow when the inside is right. To put the focus on the outside is akin to papering over the cracks. It might look fine to the casual observer but will it pass the test of the qualified surveyor?
Did any of those who heard this stinging rebuke of Jesus allow it to work to their advantage? Did any face up to the challenges it confronted them with? I wonder whether any of them later became Christians and followers of the Lord Jesus? It’d be nice to know but we don’t have the answer.
And what about you? Perhaps the real Jesus with his stern rebuttals is challenging you and your preconceived ideas this morning? What will you do with him? Will you take offence and shut your ears or will you respond with repentance; faith and trust and become, you too, one of his disciples?
Jesus Denounces Formal Religion
It must have turned into quite a dinner party as Jesus launched into a sustained critique of the pharisaical approach to religion.
What followed was series of six woes or denunciations: and Jesus did not mince his words! He used these "woes" as a way of highlighting the systemic failure of the Pharisees to get their focus right. Again and again they missed the point, put the emphasis where it didn’t belong, and consequently ended up with a faulty set of values by which they judged themselves and others.
The first three "woes" Jesus directed towards the Pharisees who were present, but it wasn’t only Pharisees who felt targeted. After the third woe, one of the lawyers present objected that Jesus with his stern denunciations was not only hard being on the Pharisees he was also insulting them too.
This should perhaps make us aware that words that look like they’re addressed to someone else may also be very relevant to us as well!
Following the lawyers intervention Jesus pronounced a further three woes. This morning we will limit ourselves to the first set of woes.
Let’s look at them in turn:
"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." v.42
The Law of the Moses did indeed include the requirement of tithing the produce of the land. In context what was required was a tenth part of the main grain crops that grew in the fields. There is nothing wrong with this principle of tithing and many Christians have found it to be such a helpful guide for their own giving. But the Pharisees had extended and extrapolated and over-applied this law to cover even the smallest of herbs. They were overly concerned and full of scruples when it came to tiny matters not specifically covered by the law but they were totally unfazed by the weighty and far more important aspects of the law that were clearly and specifically required.
Centuries earlier the prophet Micah had already given God’s pronouncement concerning the Lord’s own concerns and priorities:
Mic.6:7-8 "Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?"
He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?"
Do they really expect God to be pleased with their careful scruples when they ignored the important things? Did they really think that little acts of so-called obedience could substitute for large scale acts of disobedience? Do we?
Now we come to the second woe:
"Woe to you Pharisees! For you love the best seat in the synagogues and greetings in the marketplaces." v.43
The best seat in the synagogue was not just the seat with the best view it was, more importantly, the seat that was best seen by others! If you were interested in positions of status this was the seat you wanted to be seen sitting in.
The Pharisees too loved to be recognised and greeted in public places. This wasn’t that they just liked seeing a friend who would stop and say "hello" – this was about honour and prestige. They greetings they prized so highly were those greetings that recognised their religious worth and status.
How they longed to be well thought of by others and this was their overriding concern.
And how easily we can slip into a similar mode – no-one of us wants to be unloved and unappreciated and this can lead to us making little trade-offs. Instead of seeking the approval of God we can so easily end up wanting and working for the approval of men.
In several places Jesus had to combat this misplaced emphasis where show and appearance were deemed more important than solid inner substance. Of course they believed that any large gift they gave was to be celebrated and so before they made a gift they sounded the trumpets so that everyone could see what they did and speak well of them – but Jesus commented a poor widow woman who quietly and unostentatiously put in just a couple of small coins but which was worth so much to God as they represented not a part of her resources but all of them.
The truth is that God looks on the heart while it is men who look on the outside, on the surface. We know the Pharisees looked for the plaudits of others – are we like them or are we more concerned to hear that "well done good and faithful servant" of our Lord who sees all that is done in secret?
The third and final woe we will think a little about this morning is this:
"Woe to you! For you are like unmarked graves, and people walk over them without knowing it." v.44
Now what on earth is this all about? On another occasion Jesus used a similar picture and spoke of the Pharisee as a whitewashed tomb full of dead men’s bones and that picture would fit well with the context here where Jesus is contrasting inner attitude and behaviour with external performance. But that is not what Jesus wants to emphasise now.
Let me explain a little more for you.
Already you know that the Pharisees had an inflated opinion of themselves, they thought that they were the bees-knees, the "crème de la crème" as it were. When it came to religious matters they were the bigwigs, important ones, the successful ones and such had been the success of their self-promotion the common people generally thought so too.
Their concern about careful washings reflected this concern – how easy it was for them to be contaminated by others.
Keep this in mind.
Now what is this about white-washed tombs?
First a word about tombs in general and then we’ll think about the whitewashing.
Well tombs were the places where dead people were buried and Pharisees maintained that contact with a tomb made a person ceremonially unclean. It is true that the OT did indeed teach that contact with a dead body made a person unclean but here is a further example of how the Pharisees exaggerated and over-extended the reach of the law.
Now some tombs were easy to recognise – they had a headstone or something like that. Other tombs however had no such headstone and over time the grass might grow back and after a time become virtually unrecognisable. If you lived there then you’d know where the tombs were but a visitor might not. And there were plenty of visitors who came to Jerusalem each year for the religious feasts. But you would be excluded from the feast if you were ceremonially unclean.
Do you begin to see the importance of those graves now? A visitor not knowing they were there might by misadventure touch one and so would be excluded from the religious celebrations! To prevent this from happening the tombs were whitewashed to make them visible so that visitors and others could avoid them and so not be contaminated.
Now do you see what Jesus was saying to the Pharisees when he addressed them as unmarked tombs? Instead of being the ones who might be contaminated by others they are themselves the ones who will contaminate others who come into contact with them! They who think so highly of themselves are in Jesus’ estimation dead, spiritually dead. For the moment the common people didn’t know it and held the Pharisees in high esteem but how wrong they were!
There are some lessons here for us. Let me highlight just two
Firstly, don’t be duped into thinking that those whose interest is all for show have found the right path and we should follow them. They haven’t found the right path and as far as their teaching and example goes we should avoid them like the plague!
Secondly, we should make sure that we are not living our spiritual lives as little Pharisees – if we do the only influence we will have on others will be negative.
Let us heed the warnings that are found for us in this section of the NT. Let us go to Jesus and ask him to give us true heart religion, that he will make us clean on the inside and that being made clean on the inside we might live our lives bearing fruit to the honour and glory of his name.