Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Woe Unto You Pharisees

Life of Christ 110

Note: This is the first of an eight part mini-series on the errors of the Pharisees.

          Jesus and His Apostles are on a preaching trip through Judea in the months immediately prior to His crucifixion. Along the way, in some village, He was invited to eat at a local Pharisee's house. This sounds strange, but hospitality was ingrained in their culture, and from the Pharisee's perspective it would put Jesus' on his turf, and give him an opportunity to berate and/or convince Jesus of the error of His ways. In so doing, said Pharisee got a whole lot more than what he bargained for on this occasion.
Woes of the Pharisees by James Tissout, 1886
         What is so remarkable about our story today (Luke 11.37-54) is the utter vehemence with which Jesus tore into the Pharisees. It is matched or exceeded on only one other occasion in His entire ministry. It seems, on the surface, completely disproportionate. The Pharisees reprove Him for His lack of ritual washing before the meal, and His response is a veritable tirade of accusation and judgment that goes on for the rest of the chapter. If you didn't know better you would think Jesus was having a bad day, and lost His temper. Of course, that isn't the case, but something clearly set Jesus off here, and it behooves us to look at this a little closer.
          For years now the Pharisees have been, not only antagonistic to Jesus personally, but taking the Jewish people that He loved so much in the completely wrong direction, religiously. Their desire to erect an extra-biblical fence around the garden of the Torah had resulted in a religion that was full of an astounding number of rules, and one that tore the heart out of the people's obedience to the Lord.
          On this occasion, that of a meal, it is helpful to see some of the Pharisees' concept of approach. The psalmist said, 'The earth is the Lord's and the fulness thereof' (Psalm 24.1). Thus, if you ate without thanking the Lord for the food you were stealing. So far so good, but they wanted to ascertain if a separate blessing was needed over each item, or just the principle item? If it is just the principle item how do you determine that? Doesn't that depend on the dish and the ingredients in the dish? And since we now have classes of items in which we have ranked, in order of importance (so we can know when to bless which one) each ingredient we also now have an opportunity for tremendous theological argument. Which blessing should be used for which ingredient when?
The caper plant
This sounds silly to us, but to the rabbis of Jesus' day this was prime debating territory. For instance, the schools of Hillel and Shammai had a terrific row about whether the blessing should be said over the berries or the leaves of the caper plant. And this was just about the blessing before the meal! There were similar kinds of pharisaic theological arguments over who should sit where, and who ought to wash, in what way, in what order, and at what times. It was all a useless pre-occupation with completely superfluous details, and it was further set within the context of a religious group that totally missed the main points of the Law.
The Pharisees had chosen to spend an exhaustive amount of time and energy debating and establishing arcane rules for items of minute importance, and had absolutely neglected the matters of primary importance in the Scripture. On this day, in that Judean Pharisees' home, Jesus has had enough. He is driven to a sudden, justifiable, righteous anger at their whole religious system.

Over the next seven blog posts I am going to walk you through this diatribe against the Pharisees, and reveal seven specific areas in which He reproves these Pharisees and lawyers. I invite you along for the journey. It might not be fun, but it will certainly be educational.

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