Lk.11:45-54 - "Sunnyhill" Herne Bay Evangelical Free Church

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Luke 11:45-54


More Criticism is Called For

Many people’s assessment of Jesus is that he was a good, or even a great, teacher. And we like to think that a great teacher would not only be interesting and informative but gentle too with a winning style. A great teacher would be unlikely to ruffle too many feathers.

How different is the Jesus we encounter in the Bible!

Yes, I know there were occasions when he would hold huge crowds spell bound with his memorable stories and parables. And yes, I know that ordinary people flocked to hear him and listened gladly to all he had to say. At least they did during the early part of his ministry – as things moved to a climax the crowds had already begun to seriously diminish as his teaching was seen to be demanding and uncompromising. Many in the crowds began to take offense at him

Others had never found him congenial seeing him as a dangerous fanatic who was a threat to their vested interests.

Now if Jesus had simply taught the kind of things people wanted to hear – things like "be nice to others", "don’t be critical of one another" and "do your best, no-one can do more than that" – he would never have been nailed to a cross and left hanging there until he died.

No, this assessment of Jesus as simply a good teacher won’t fit with the facts.

The trouble with Jesus was that he was no respecter of persons. You see he told the truth as it was and that is a dangerous thing to do. The truth can unsettle us and it can hurt us as we are brought to consider that we are perhaps not quite the people or person we thought we were.

The truth that Jesus spoke that day as he dined at the home of one of the Pharisees was hard for his hearers to take. A short while before Christmas, we considered some of what Jesus had had to say on that particular occasion and now it is time for us to think about the rest.

The Story so far...
Invited to the home of a Pharisee for a meal Jesus had launched a withering attack against the whole Pharisaical value system calling into question their very way of doing things. What was striking about this was the fact that the Pharisees were the religious zealots or extremists of their day. They were convinced they had it right and they liked to think of themselves as the cream of the cream.

Jesus’ assessment was totally different. They were, in his eyes, wrong where it mattered most – in the heart - as they emphasised form over substance. All their purported religious interest did not impress Jesus who saw through their facade: they were attention seeking hypocritical frauds whose influence on others was entirely negative.

You can imagine the atmosphere at that dinner party. Jesus could hardly be accused of pussy-footing around or of holding back in the interests of diplomacy. No, he told it as it was.

Maybe there was something of a stunned silence at that point in the proceedings before another guest spoke up. This man didn’t see himself as a Pharisee; he was a lawyer. There was a certain closeness between these two groups with Pharisees being primarily interested in religious practice whereas the lawyer was more interested in how the law was to be applied than he was in personally applying it.

Nevertheless he had been stung by Jesus’ words. He felt insulted by what Jesus had said. Perhaps he was hoping that Jesus would make it clear that he wasn’t including lawyers in his earlier criticisms.

Before we look at just how Jesus did respond to this expert in the law we should stop for a moment and consider how we react when we are criticised for we must be in no doubt: Jesus had been criticising the way the Pharisees did things. His woes are evidence of a deep disappointment and should be understood more as groan than of declarations of judgment. They were if you like "gracious woes" pronounced with the intention of being a wake-up call, a call to repentance and to a changing of the ways.

But how do you respond to criticism? Do you evaluate the truthfulness of it all with a desire to learn and to change? Or do you retreat into your defensive shell and deny it all? Do you respond by acting as though you too are being insulted?

Don’t you find that it is all too easy to go into a defensive mode and try to justify yourself in one way or another? The strategy of the ostrich may help diminish the pain of being called into question but it won’t help in making any kind of spiritual progress.

If this religious lawyer was expecting an apology from Jesus he was in for an even bigger shock – Jesus had more, and more specific, criticism to make of the behaviour and attitude of his legal outlook.

I wonder whether Jesus would have to say some of the same things to us today as he did then to that company.

Three Further Woes
Jesus had just been accused of insulting the lawyer and his colleagues but it is surely wrong to dismiss reasoned criticism as "insult". In the first three woes that Jesus pronounced he had explained the reason why he made such a declaration. Now as he turned to reply to the lawyer he did the same again. This lawyer, and others like him, was guilty of three more failures and their failures were very important indeed.

v.46 "Woe to you lawyers also! For you load people with burdens hard to bear, and you yourselves do not touch the burdens with one of your fingers."

v.47 "Woe to you! For you build the tombs of the prophets whom your fathers killed."

v.52 "Woe to you lawyers! For you have taken away the key of knowledge. You did not enter yourselves, and you hindered those who were entering."

We’ll look at each of these in turn.

v.46 "Woe to you lawyers also! For you load people with burdens hard to bear, and you yourselves do not touch the burdens with one of your fingers."

This first criticism (or woe) related to the way in which these lawyers overloaded others with burdens that God never intended them to bear.

The type of thing they did was to try to define and define and define what the Bible text actually meant. For example, the fourth commandment said "Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labour, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work," Ex.20:8–10a. It was a simple straightforward command – at least it was until the lawyers got their hands on it! Lawyers over time classified 39 different types of labour and each of these categories was capable of endless subdivision. One of these thirty-nine categories forbade the carrying of burdens on the Sabbath – but how heavy did something have to be before it was considered a burden? And so it went on and on.

These unbiblical burdens were no help to the people who were left discouraged and wearied by it all. The law which was designed to be simple and helpful and delightful had been made anything but that by all these legal additions and riders. Small wonder that on another occasion Jesus issued a call to just such as those felt the strain:

Mt.11: 28-30 "Come, all who labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light."

Not only did the lawyers make the whole business of trying to order one’s life in accordance with God’s plan and purposes impossible they did nothing at all to help others do so. Jesus words were stinging for indeed they suggest even more than a failure to help others they imply that the lawyers were themselves adept at finding all the necessary loopholes so that they didn’t have to do anything much themselves.

There was real hypocrisy here: on the one hand it looked as though God’s law was being respected with all this minute concern for the detail while at the same time ways were found how to get round laws that they might find personally uncomfortable.

We might be tempted to smile at this approach to the God’s law but we should be careful for Christians have not been immune from a rules-based approach to Christianity. It is easy to understand something of the appeal for we have a built-in dislike it would seem to receiving a totally free gift. We all want to imagine that there is something we must do and can do to contribute to our own salvation. How easy it is to slide from describing a Christian as a person who does this or that (or who doesn’t do this or that) to saying that you become a Christian by doing (or not doing) this or that! It is appealing because such things as these often lie within our power whereas new birth which is the essential thing doesn’t lie within our power at all but is a gracious intervention of God!

Beware when you find yourself being drawn overly much to rules and regulations! It might look interesting and promising from the outside but reflect no genuine spiritual life on the inside at all!

v.47 "Woe to you! For you build the tombs of the prophets whom your fathers killed."

This second woe that Jesus pronounced might look, at first glance, to be a little harsh. It seems as though Jesus is criticising the lawyer for honouring the prophets that his ancestors had been guilty of murdering in the past. Surely constructing memorial tombs was their way of demonstrating their respect for those earlier prophets.

But that was not at all how Jesus interpreted their actions.

Yes, it was true they memorialised dead prophets by constructing their tombs but once again it was all show and no substance. The true and genuine way to honour a prophet from the past was to accept his teaching and order one’s life accordingly but that is not what these lawyers were concerned to do at all. Indeed their own attitude and behaviour remained exactly the same as that of their ancestors!

How so?

Well, when God sent them new prophets and apostles they dealt with them just as forefathers had done the prophets in the past – some they would kill and others they would persecute. Their present hostility towards Jesus here was a case in point.

This present reaction showed that their "honouring" of the prophets of the past in building monuments for them was mere pretence. In reality they were simply completing the works which their forefathers had begun when they murdered the prophets by constructing their tombs.

Before we move on it is important that we should pause a moment and take note of the fact that Jesus spoke very soberly about the reality of judgment. The whole notion of divine judgment is not some medieval human invention to try to coerce obedience from a reluctant but a reality that Jesus was quite prepared to talk openly about.

As we read the NT matters concerning judgment, hell etc. are most frequently to be found on Jesus’ lips. He is the one who speaks most and most freely about such things. Therefore if we want to take Jesus seriously we must face up to this question of judgment. We live in a world where God has determined a moral order: we will be called upon to give an account for what we do and have done in this life.

Now thoughts of judgment should be sobering thoughts. Can I really expect God to approve of the way in which I’ve spent my life? Will he really be well pleased with every single attitude I’ve adopted and every single action I’ve carried out?

Thoughts of judgment are meant to bring us up short and ask if there is anything I can do to prepare for the inevitable. The wonderful answer offered in the gospel is a resounding "yes". The answer is not to try harder or to become a religious fanatic like the Pharisees but the answer tells us to stop looking to ourselves and look to Jesus. He came into the world to live a life that was 100% acceptable to God the Father and then he gave up this life as a substitutionary sacrifice for us. He died taking the condemnation that was coming our way at the judgment that we might be declared not guilty and be given a new start as members of God’s family.

Have you looked to Jesus in this way trusting him to deliver you or are you still trying to "do your own thing"?

The only way to prepare for the inevitable judgment that is coming is to receive Jesus Christ as both Lord and Saviour of your life. The good news is that he is ready and willing to have you if only you will repent and turn to him.

v.52 "Woe to you lawyers! For you have taken away the key of knowledge. You did not enter yourselves, and you hindered those who were entering."

The final woe is devastating. The scribal lawyers with their close attachment to the inspired texts of Scripture were proud of their knowledge and understanding. If anyone had the truth, they thought, it was them. And it was at this very point where they thought they were strongest that Jesus declared them to be utterly useless and worse a positive hindrance!

Yes, they worked with God’s word but failed dismally to understand it, to apply it and to live it. They had the key but didn’t recognise it or how to use it and in that failure they effectively took it away from everyone else too.

How was this possible?

Well just think back to Jesus’ first woe in v.46. The lawyers turned God’s word into a burdensome list of impossibly detailed regulations – two effects of this were the following:

  • it discouraged ordinary people who knew that they couldn’t do what the lawyers taught was demanded of them and it left them crushed

  • it fostered the view (always present in the human breast) that salvation and religion belonged to the self-help camp

You see God’s word was never designed to be burdensome and God’s law was never designed to be a way of salvation.

The good news that God has been sharing through the centuries (and which focuses centrally upon Jesus Christ) is that salvation is his free gift which he offers to all. Failing to understand this the lawyers failed to profit themselves from God’s grace and by constantly focusing upon what they thought men should do they kept others from entering into God’s freely offered blessings.

How tragic that this goes on still today in so many places where men and women possess the Bible but then fail to teach the good news that it contains. Our first and greatest need is not for lessons of morality but to learn what God has done for those, like us, whose lives are marked by moral and spiritual failure and shortcomings.

Pray for your pastors and teachers that they might grasp the key of knowledge and then that they might make it available and accessible to others.

It’s not always easy to accept criticism is it? Criticism says: something is wrong and change is required. The lawyers along with the Pharisees at that dinner party had been severely criticised and now it was up to them to react. Would they take it all to heart and learn from it and allow ithe truth to change their lives? Or would they reject it all and with it the opportunity of salvation?

Sadly, they chose to reject outright everything that Jesus had said and compounded their rejection with deliberate attempts to trip him up and catch him out in things that he might say.

You are faced with a similar choice this morning. Your sins and your mistakes may not be the same as those of the scribes that day but in one way or another you come short of God’s standards. The Bible speaks plainly to us all and it doesn’t mince its words: all have sinned and come short it says to us. What then will you, a sinner, do with Jesus today? Will you turn to him in faith and trust calling upon him to save you or will you go on rejecting him?

I urge you to look to Jesus Christ and live.


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