In the Home of a Pharisee (Luke 11:37-54)

Submitted by admin on Fri, 2008-06-06 12:34.

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After Jesus finished speaking to the crowds, a Pharisee invited him for a meal. The account does not reveal the Pharisee’s objective, but Jesus’ later words suggest that the motive may have been questionable. Jesus, though, did enter the home and reclined to partake of food. (Luke 11:37)

It surprised the Pharisee that Jesus did not first “immerse” (a form of baptízo, meaning “baptize” or “immerse”) before eating. (Luke 11:38) The Pharisee must have been disturbed to see what he would have considered to be a serious violation of the tradition of the elders. According to ancient Jewish sources, immersion was one way to cleanse the hands ceremonially. (Tosefta, Yadayim, 2:3)

Jesus must have noted the Pharisee’s reaction and then spoke about the more important purity. “You Pharisees,” he said, “clean the exterior of the cup and the dish, but your interior is full of greed [or plunder] and badness.” In view of their failure to be primarily concerned about their inner moral condition or their deep inner selves, Jesus spoke of them as “senseless,” and asked them, “Did not the one who made the exterior also make the interior?” The Pharisees would have agreed that God is the Creator of the whole person, including the inmost self. Jesus then exhorted them to give “for alms” the things of the interior, with the result that all things would be clean to them. (Luke 11:39-41) The rightly motivated generous giving in response to needs made the whole person clean. It revealed the purity of the deep inner self, which could not be produced by means of ceremonial cleansing with water.

Jesus then pronounced “woe,” grief, or distress for the Pharisees, as he continued emphasizing where their attention should be directed. They scrupulously tithed mint (an aromatic plant), rue (an herb with bitter gray-green leaves), and a variety of other herbs. (Luke 11:42) Instead of “rue” (péganon, a third-century papyrus manuscript (P45) reads “dill” (ánethon).

With their emphasis on external minutiae, the Pharisees made themselves guilty of failing to manifest the more important justice and “love of God.” As Jesus called to their attention, they were under obligation to practice justice and love. Compassionate care and concern for others should have been the discernible evidence of their love for God. At the same time, they were not to be neglectful about tithing. The Mosaic law did include commands about tithing, and Jesus upheld the law when he added that those things should not be neglected or carelessly overlooked. (Luke 11:42)

Through the tradition of the elders, an extensive body of commands came into existence. These commands went far beyond the requirements of the Mosaic law, and often made it appear to be harsh and unreasonable. There were times when the commands of men interfered with doing just, compassionate, and loving deeds. On an earlier occasion, Jesus used the example of corban to illustrate this. According to the tradition of the elders, a son could not help his needy parents with any part of what he had declared to be “corban” or an offering for God, even though he continued to retain control over the property. (Mark 7:11-13) Similarly, the many traditional stipulations about what constituted work caused the Pharisees to consider the loving and compassionate relief that Jesus brought to the sick and afflicted on the Sabbath as something evil.

“Woe to you Pharisees,” Jesus continued, reproving them for loving the “front seats” in the synagogues and having others greet them in the marketplaces. The front seats faced the audience. They were the seats of honor reserved for synagogue officials and notable guests. Wanting to be known for their godliness, the Pharisees desired to be seen occupying these seats of honor. When passing through the marketplaces, they wanted to be greeted or respectfully acknowledged as pious men. While craving to appear holy in the sight of others, they did not reflect the loving and compassionate disposition and inner purity associated with true godliness. (Luke 11:43)

When again pronouncing woe for them, Jesus likened the Pharisees to unidentifiable burial places over which people walked inadvertently. According to the law, anyone who touched a grave would be ceremonially defiled for seven days. (Numbers 19:16) When likening the Pharisees to unseen graves, Jesus exposed them as being seemingly clean on the outside but internally impure. What they appeared to be in the eyes of others concealed their inner defilement. (Luke 11:44)

One of the legal experts or scribes who heard Jesus’ words objected, “Teacher, the things you say also insult us.” In response, Jesus did not spare exposing those who knew the law well and also declared woe for them. (Luke 11:45, 46)

He accused them of loading the people down with heavy burdens but being unwilling to lift a finger to lighten their load. As persons learned in the law, the scribes should have been concerned about conveying its true meaning and spirit to the people. Instead, they burdened them with many additional regulations that went far beyond what the law required. Although they must have been aware of the oppressive effect the many rules and regulations had on the people, they were unwilling to look at matters reasonably and humanely. As Jesus said, they refused to lift a finger to ease the burden, doing nothing to eliminate unreasonable regulations. (Luke 11:46)

After voicing another expression of woe for them, Jesus called attention to their building of the tombs of the prophets whom their “fathers” or ancestors had killed. It appears that the legal experts felt that they were distancing themselves from the wrongs their forefathers had committed, making amends by giving attention to the tombs of the prophets who had been unjustly killed. They did not, however, give serious consideration to the factors that had given rise to the murderous hatred their ancestors manifested. The building of the tombs was merely an outward act. In disposition, the legal experts did not differ from their forefathers. Their building of the tombs constituted a testimony or an acknowledgment of their link to murderous ancestors. In spirit, the legal experts, despite their building of the tombs, approved of what their forefathers did. (Luke 11:47, 48)

The “wisdom of God” may be understood to mean what God, in his wisdom, expressed through his Son. To the unbelieving generation, he would send prophets and apostles. When killing and persecuting those sent, the people would add to the record of bloodguilt that began with the murder of Abel and continued to be made for centuries thereafter. When the priest and prophet Zechariah spoke out against the people for transgressing God’s law, he was stoned at the order of King Joash and died “between the altar and the sanctuary.” (2 Chronicles 24:20-22) Jesus reference to “the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah” thus represented all the blood that had been unjustly spilled “from the founding of the world” or from the beginning. The unbelieving generation would be charged with all this blood. This pointed forward to the dreadful calamity associated with the Roman military campaign that totally desolated Jerusalem. (Luke 11:49-51; see the Notes section for additional comments on Luke 11:49)

Another reason the legal experts were to experience woe involved their having taken away the “key of knowledge.” They knew full well what the law said and should have been able to identify the promised Messiah. Among the people, they should have been the first to respond in faith and used their knowledge to promote faith among the people. Instead, they refused to impart the vital knowledge that was available to them, depriving the people of what they needed to know to become part of the realm where God reigns by means of his Son. The experts of the law did not want to enter that realm, and their attitude and actions served to prevent those wanting to enter from actually doing so. (Luke 11:52)

Jesus’ words greatly angered the Pharisees and scribes. In a spirit of hostility, they questioned him about many things, with the intent of trapping him into saying something they could use against him. (Luke 11:53, 54)


Ancient Jewish sources contain numerous rules about tithing. The following are examples: A man who wanted to lighten his load by trimming away the leaves of vegetables should not throw them away until he tithed them. (Tosefta, Demai, 4:2) If a man gave his female neighbor a container of food for her to cook for him and he had not added the spices, he should scruple about the tithing of the spices. (Tosefta, Demai, 4:31) If fruits found in the road are not then eaten but are stored for later use, they should be tithed. (Tosefta, Demai, 4:3)

In Luke 11:49, the “wisdom of God” is personified as speaking. The words about sending prophets and apostles parallel those in Matthew 23:34, where Jesus referred to himself as sending “prophets and wise ones and scribes.” As the representative of his Father, Jesus expressed his Father’s wisdom or his Father’s wise purpose.