Luke 11:37–54 . . . Bible Study Summary with Questions

Woe to the Pharisees and Teachers of the Law

Jesus, now thirty years old or more, is a widely acclaimed, popular rabbi. While teaching, a prominent Pharisee in the local community takes an interest in Jesus. What a marvel, this Jesus, the man ponders. Though he's obviously unschooled according to Judaism's elite rabbinical education, he has a huge following. I must admit that he has a somewhat primitive grasp of Old Testament Scriptures; of course he heals, too. He'd make an interesting dinner guest. Perhaps my friends and I can even teach him a thing or two about appreciating our deeper understanding of the Law.

The Pharisees were a sect of Judaism, made up largely of laymen rather than priests or religious professionals. They were zealous to obey every minute law that God had given, and to please him fully. To the Pharisees, the Law (a.k.a. the Torah) is preeminent; they take it very seriously. But they've since developed a system to obey "the commands" of the Law, as opposed to the Law itself, by following an accepted interpretation of that Law called "the Tradition of the Elders." This tradition forms a sort of "hedge" or "fence" around the Torah's actual provisions, so that by obeying the Tradition of the Elders one wouldn't break the Law itself.

Jesus' Rebuke of the Pharisees (vv. 37–44)

Jesus had just finished speaking when a Pharisee asked him to come to his house to eat. What surprised the Pharisee was the fact that Jesus didn't wash prior to eating. This isn't the kind of "washing up" that our mothers insisted we did before eating meals, nor is it the washing of dirty hands that good hygiene requires. For Pharisees, a failure to wash before a meal amounted to ceremonial defilement. Theirs was a washing that was required by Pharisaical tradition, rather than by the Law.

The Pharisee's surprise is all the more interesting in the light of what Luke has already written in chapter 7, wherein Jesus was also invited to dinner by Simon the Pharisee (v. 40). This is the occasion when Jesus' feet were washed by the "sinful" woman who accomplished her task using her tears and hair. Note that Jesus pointed out to Simon that he hadn't greeted him with a kiss, washed his feet, or anointed his head. The Pharisees were meticulous with unnecessary washing, but careless in beneficial and practical washings.

It's possible that in today's passage the Lord's failure to wash was purposeful, deliberate, perhaps a new phase in his ministry. The Pharisee would have had to provide for the ceremonial washing. Seemingly, all of the others at the table that day must have excused themselves and gone to wash ceremonially. Jesus, however, remained where he was. They may have waited, politely, for Jesus to also wash, only to realize that that wasn't going to happen. Jesus began to eat without first washing. He didn't forget to wash, he likely refused to wash. He seems to have not washed ceremonially as a matter of principle, taking a firm stand against Pharisaical traditions, which had become more important than the written Word of God.

We'll focus next on "Cleaning the outside, but not the inside" (vv. 39–41). Jesus' host is surprised that Jesus doesn't ritually, ceremonially wash his hands before eating. He responds by asserting that their practice of cleansing the outside of a cup and dish had an external character focus. Apparently the cleanliness of the outside of pottery was distinguished from and considered more important for ritual purposes than inner cleanliness. Jesus uses cups and dishes as an analogy regarding the Pharisees' character: They're very concerned with outward purity and observance, yet their hearts are full of greed and wickedness.

Every Pharisee wasn't wicked and selfish. Likely, some were sincere, godly people. But Jesus is characterizing the entire movement to expose its essential flaws. The Pharisees' understanding of religion was essentially selfish — performing every requirement of the Law, in order to justify themselves before God and receive salvation. Motivated by greed, many performed good works, not for others' sake but to ensure their own salvation. Jesus' statement in v. 41 — "But now as for what is inside you — be generous to the poor, and everything will be clean for you" — talks about how to cleanse one's inside character, by turning the analogy of "dirty and clean pottery" to "food-containing dishes that can be given to the poor."

Jesus' Hearty disciples: What's the message for us? It's that love and mercy require us to help the poor. Indeed helping the poor is one antidote for greed and selfishness.

Six Woes Directed to the Pharisees and the Experts in the Law (vv. 46–52)

Three stinging woes directed to the Pharisees — First of all, a "woe" isn't so much a stinging rebuke as it's an expression of grief. When we say, "Woe is me," we're not rebuking ourselves, but expressing grief.

The first woe of our Lord concerns the Pharisees' focus on the fine points, while missing the fundamentals; they majored in the minors. Luke addresses Jesus' statement about tithing (v. 42a), which is another important antidote for greed. However, the Pharisees succeed in turning tithing itself into an isolated, selfish act. Tithing is the practice of giving to God's work one tenth of one's net income. But while tithing itself is good, it's not enough. Jesus lampoons the Pharisees' scrupulous tithing practices. In Jesus' caricature (and perhaps in real life), the Pharisees would go out into their herb gardens and pluck one leaf for the tithe for every nine leaves they used in their meals. Luke follows in v. 42b with Jesus' reprimand of the Pharisees neglecting justice and mercy, both of which are foundational. If you neglect justice and mercy toward the poor, Jesus calls on you to prioritize your mind-set of mercy toward them. Jesus didn't criticize the keeping of the Law's small points — the tithing of mint, rue, and other garden herbs — but he said that the major thrust of the Law — justice and the love of God — must be fulfilled.

The second woe concerns the Pharisees' preoccupation with position, prestige, and the praise of men (v. 43). According to Jesus, the Pharisees were "full of greed and wickedness" (v. 39), though they weren't publicly regarded as such. These hypocrites loved the praise of men while being placed in positions of privilege and honor. In short, they sought the praise of men, rather than the praise of God, driven to win man's approval, rather than God's. Interestingly, Jesus accused the Pharisees of desiring "greetings in the marketplaces." It was in the marketplaces that they'd have contact with those they considered "unclean," probably those from whom they received honor and praise. In their minds, this very defilement necessitated the ceremonial washings that they so diligently observed.

The third woe is the most painful and pointed. Jesus accused the Pharisees of being a source of defilement, rather than of purification: "Woe to you, because you are like unmarked graves, which people walk over without knowing it" (v. 44). In the Law, which the Pharisees revered (Numbers 19:16), the Israelites were taught that a person was rendered ceremonially unclean when coming into contact with a grave. The Pharisees thought of themselves as holy; they saw their contribution as leading the nation in the direction of holiness. Jesus told them that the exact opposite was the case; they were both unclean (sinful) and defiling to others. Those who made contact with the Pharisees were thus rendered unclean, which was a most stunning blow to the self-righteous Pharisees.

Three additional woes directed at the experts of the Law — As we know them today, "experts in the law" are considered "lawyers." However, "lawyers" conveys an inaccurate picture of these men, who were not lawyers at all. If the Pharisees were the "laymen" of this large group committed to practicing and producing holiness, the experts in the Law were the "clergymen," who were theologians and teachers of the Law, i.e., the "horse's mouth" of Pharisaism.

Because the "experts in the law" were but a subset of Pharisees, one of its "experts" (v. 45) felt that Jesus' words were applicable to them, too, so he sought to have Jesus clarify his teaching in their favor, since Jesus didn't mean to condemn the experts. (Or did he?) Jesus' answer is a follow-up to his first three woes, with three new woes specifically addressed to these experts.

The first woe directed against the "experts in the law" was that their teaching produced a burden, not a blessing (v. 46). What God had graciously given, they'd perverted by their teaching to become an unbearable code of conduct, so complicated they couldn't even understand it, let alone obey it. In contrast to their teaching, Jesus' "Law" was light (Matthew 11:28–30). While Jesus said that he was "gentle and humble in heart" (Matt. 11:29), the hearts of the Pharisees were full of wickedness and greed (v. 39). The difference between Jesus' teaching of the Law and that of the Pharisees' was that his teaching was motivated by compassion, theirs by self-seeking and sin.

The second woe is directly related to the first. Note that it's the lengthiest "woe" (vv. 47–51). As already noted, the experts in the Law and the Pharisees both majored on the minors, prioritizing the small details, missing the design, while focusing on the Law without the prophets. After all, it was the prophets who called Israel to address the major matters of loving God and men and of mercy and justice. In his second woe directed to the experts, Jesus shows us how strongly the Pharisees resisted the prophets. Not only did they reject their teaching, they were guilty of being accomplices in the prophets' deaths.

How could these experts in the Law be guilty of the blood of prophets whom their forefathers had slain? First, they'd rejected the teaching of the prophets, just as their forefathers had done. Second, they were presently rejecting Jesus' teaching, which was consistent with the teaching of the prophets; soon they would kill him. And third, some of those prophets and apostles yet yet to come — namely Jesus' disciples, after Jesus' death and resurrection — will be rejected, persecuted, and sometimes killed by them. All of this puts these Law experts in the same category of sinners, along with their forefathers. The very things they condemned, they were guilty of themselves.

The third woe is the capstone: "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" (v. 52). Jesus said that they'd taken away "the key of knowledge," which likely was the divinely revealed knowledge of the Scriptures. The experts in the Law, the ones self-appointed to teach the truth of the Law to their nation, were the very ones who were withholding, indeed, concealing that truth. They set aside the written Law for their oral law using man's distorted interpretations of the Scriptures. They also set aside the prophets and all of the inspired insight that God had revealed through them. They made themselves so-called experts who discouraged men from studying the Word of God for themselves.

Fierce Opposition (vv. 53–54)

Up until now, Jesus' confrontations with the Pharisees have been a "glancing blow." Jesus would heal someone and they'd object that it had been performed on the Sabbath. But as Jesus' popularity grew, the scribes, Pharisees, and experts saw Jesus as a threat: He challenged their sway over the minds of people and the direction of religious belief in Palestine. By their open slander that Jesus cast out demons by Beelzebul, they've declared war on Jesus while they now actively try to discredit him. At this dinner with the Pharisees and experts, Jesus faces head on their sins and the responsibility they bear for preventing people from hearing the truth.

[Please read vv. 53 and 54 now.] . . . The warfare is out in the open now! Instead of being sideline critics, the Pharisees and experts deliberately seek opportunities to discredit him in front of the people.

Jesus' condemnation to the religious leaders likely doesn't speak loudly to modern-day readers. However, next week's study begins with Jesus' warning to his disciples (vv. 12:1–3), which we need to hear with all its power. Don't miss next week, Hearty disciple!


It Makes You Wonder . . .
  • Q. 1  How could giving food to the poor bring about spiritual cleansing, as implied by v. 41?
  • Q. 2  Did Jesus fault or compliment the Pharisees on their scrupulous tithing? Where did he find fault with them? (v. 42)
  • Q. 3  In what ways do you see Pharisaical attitudes in yourself? What are you doing to counter them?

This Week's Passage
Luke 11:37–54 (Lukas)

New International Version (NIV)
[To view it in a different version, click here; also listen to chapter 11]

Woes on the Pharisees and the Experts in the Law

37When 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.

39Then 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 practiced 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."

53When 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.