But what are its signs and symptoms? And as we read God’s Word today, the Lord Jesus meets such religious hypocrisy with six sharp blows. Six times He says, “Woe to you…” The medicine can be hard to take, but we pray, “Please God, give us tender conscience, so that we hear what Jesus our Lord has to say, and that in light of Him, we will honestly examine ourselves.”
Jesus is traveling to Jerusalem and He is invited by a Pharisee to dine with Him. He accepts the invitation and goes along as a dinner guest. But Jesus also knows this Pharisee and He uses this occasion to lay bare the rot within him.
Straightaway, though, there is an issue. Jesus didn’t wash before the meal as He was supposed to in order to be ritually clean before God. And when the Pharisees see Jesus not washing His hands before the meal, they are surprised.
I remember once speaking to a man who was a printer and he said that in the early days of his apprenticeship he had to hold and handle lead. He said that the company had a policy that if you touched the lead, you had to drink two-litres of milk that day. Apparently, they believed, that the milk helps to purify you in some way from the lead and prevent lead-poisoning.
It’s a similar thought here. They thought that if you come in contact with a sinful world then you must wash first, both your hands and the pots, pans and cups, in order to be clean or ritually pure before God. And it was especially important to wash before holy meals, such as on the Sabbath or the Passover.
There was a series of steps to be followed. A Jewish man named Alfred Edersheim has described the steps. He says, “as the guests enter, they sit down on chairs, and water is brought to them, with which they wash one hand. After this the cup is taken, when each speaks the blessing over the wine partaken before dinner. Presently they all lie down at table. Water is again brought to them, with which they now wash both hands, preparatory to the meal, when the blessing is spoken over the bread… the company respond by Amen.” Now none of this was commanded by God – and for us, this is a vital lesson about the dangers of adding to God’s Word.
Yet, here, in front of them all, Jesus deliberately did not wash, knowing that it would upset them. But He did it in order t be able to speak to them about true purity before God.
So He begins – verse 39; "Now then, you Pharisees clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside you are full of greed and wickedness. 40 You foolish people! Did not the one who made the outside make the inside also? (in other words, “you are all concerned about outward living, but it is the inside that matters – the heart! For God made that too.” And when that is changed – the heart – then the living changes) 41 But give what is inside the dish to the poor, and everything will be clean for you.”
Jesus said something very similar in Mark 7. He said,
“There is nothing outside a person that by going into him can defile him, but the things that come out of a person are what defile him… 21 For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, 22 coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. 23 All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”
Dinner has become tense…
Yet, our Lord doesn’t back off here - this is not the time - He says the first of His “woes” to religious hypocrisy - verse 42;
42 "Woe to you Pharisees, because you give God a tenth of your mint, rue and all other kinds of garden herbs (“you give a tenth even of your herbs – now who does that! You must be good people.” But Jesus says it is a sham, for even though you do that), but you neglect justice and the love of God. You should have practiced the latter without leaving the former undone.”
Woe One: to be concerned about trivial things, rather than the deep things and true things that concern God: justice and love for Him... O Lord, forgive us... Forgive us when we are hypocritical in this way.”
Woes Two and three;
43 "Woe to you Pharisees, because you love the most important seats in the synagogues and greetings in the marketplaces.
44 "Woe to you, because you are like unmarked graves, which men walk over without knowing it." “Woe to you because of your pride and vanity, but do you want to know your true spiritual condition? You are actually a grave containing dead bones and those who come in contact with you are defiled. You defile those around you, but you don’t realise that is what you are doing. You are full of ego and you justify yourselves, but really you have the greatest impurity.”
And, forgive us, Lord, when we by our pride and our actions cause other people to stumble. Forgive us.
So far, Jesus has given three signs of spiritual decay: No love for justice or God, pride – our ever-present foe, and us causing other people to become unclean.
Then someone at the meal tries to broker a ceasefire… or at least tries to clear his own reputation. Verse 45,
45 One of the experts in the law answered him, "Teacher, when you say these things, you insult us also." “Surely, you don’t mean that! Surely not us!” … He is trying to do what we naturally do. Do you ever try and deflect away or defend yourself? Of course we do. I am an expert at other people’s sin and even applying God’s word to them. They say, “Don’t paint us with the same brush, Jesus. Your upsetting me. You insult us and we are not that bad.”
But, if this man hoped that Jesus - God the Son, Jesus whose eyes blaze like a flame of fire, who knows all things so that we are unable to hide anything before Him - would apologize to him, then he was wrong. This man was only making excuses.
Jesus gives three more woes as strong as the first, only this time aimed at the experts in the law.
Woe four - Verse 46;
46 Jesus 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.
The experts in the law made hard rulings – even invoking the Name of God – and people had to follow them. They were hard on their fellow Israelites, instead of loving their neighbour as themselves. And you notice how in doing this they have distorted and twisted God’s holy character and His purpose in giving the law to His people.
47 "Woe to you, because you build tombs for the prophets (“you say you are going to honour them”), and it was your forefathers who killed them (“and you are the exact same as them!”). 48 So you testify that you approve of what your forefathers did; they killed the prophets, and you build their tombs. 49 Because 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.' 50 Therefore this generation will be held responsible for the blood of all the prophets that has been shed since the beginning of the world, 51 from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah, who was killed between the altar and the sanctuary.
Jesus means, “You will be held responsible for the first murder: Abel in Genesis chapter 4. You are like Cain, who murdered Abel. And you are responsible for all other murders of God’s prophets, right the way to the last murder in the Old Testament: Zechariah, who was killed at the temple in 2 Chronicles 24. First to last….).
Yes, I tell you, this generation will be held responsible for it all… “because ultimately you will kill the very Son of God.”
Woe six - verse 52;
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." (You had God’s Word, but you have not understood it, or obeyed it, or come to God in humility – and even worse: You have closed it to others!)
53 When Jesus left there, the Pharisees and the teachers of the law began to oppose him fiercely and to besiege him with questions, 54 waiting to catch him in something he might say.
From what Jesus says, what are the signs of spiritual decay and rot that can be within us, our families, our churches? Spiritual rot undermines, like a house where the foundations have been eaten away and are weaker than chalk.
Notice three things from what Jesus says;
• Ego and godliness cannot mix. Ego is a sign of rot.
• A second sign of spiritual rot is that we become defensive, instead of humbled. We make excuses.
• A third sign - and this is getting closer to the source of the rot – we don’t listen to God’s word. Remember that these were people who said that they believed in God… they knew their Bibles, and yet their behaviour was so bad that they actually kept others back from truly knowing God.
What is the cure? The antidote? The gospel of Jesus Christ.
• It kills ego. It must. It makes be lay down my defences and to say I am sorry God – and I am sorry to others. To repent is hard business, but I cannot know God with pride in my heart. When I lay down my excuses and am laid bare before God, I am humbled before all else. All my excuses are pitiful and lame.
• But then I look to Christ – to my Saviour – and God’s grace – that my Saviour died for my sin.
• And this Good News comes as a breath of flesh air. His mercies are new each day and His grace brings life.
• The answer to Luke 11 is the foot of the cross. A weigh is lifted from me – but in a humbling way - and Christ now fills me and all that I do.
The danger is spiritual hypocrisy and decay. We must be awake to it, but also filled with Christ our Lord in every way.