In this section, Jesus pulls no punches in his denouncement of false religion. Characteristically, Jesus reserves his most stringent judgment for those who are fake religious leaders. The “Pharisees” and the “scribes” fell into traps that it is worth all those who are “religious” taking note of and being beware.
The conversation begins because Jesus did not wash before dinner. This was a ceremonial washing. This context, and the criticism it provokes, provides the framing for Jesus’ denouncements that follow.
Focusing on the external, not the internal (11:39-41). The Pharisee made sure that he performed ritual cleaning. But inside he was impure—full of greed and wickedness. Instead, they must focus on what they are like inside, and let their behavior be transformed from the inside out. False religions—like Islam—and false versions of Christianity, all tend to focus on the external. Looking good is what matters. Sometimes there is literally a focus on ritual washings. Sometimes it is just a pretense that causes a focus on the external. Let us make sure that we love the Lord our God with all our heart.
Focusing on tithing and not also justice and love for God (11:42). Generously giving of our resources to the work of God is a good thing, and Jesus encourages it. But the damage was done here by the Pharisee utilizing their tithing as a way to assuage their conscience with regard to justice, and deaden their soul with regard to loving God. Let me us make sure that we love our neighbor with practical justice, and let us make sure that we love the Lord our God with all our heart.
Focusing on the external trappings of religious leadership (11:43). They enjoyed sitting in the best places in worship. And they enjoyed everyone greeting them in the market. This, for them, was the focal point—not worshipping God and serving God’s people. Let those of us who lead, make sure we lead to serve God and serve people (not to look impressive).
Because of these things they were like “unmarked graves” (11:44). In other words, though you could not tell from the outside (“unmarked”), they were actually dead inside.
The scribe objects to this denouncement of Pharisees because it makes the scribes (or religious “lawyers”) look bad too. Jesus then denounces this kind of false religious leader too. His criticism of them is different.
Making the standards too high for people and not helping them (11:46). They made sure that the standards were very high, legalistically high, and this meant that the people felt burdened by the standards and could not keep them. At the same time the scribes would not practically help the people keep the standards. Instead, we should not make God’s standards harsher than he intends. And we should teach the Bible in a way that preaches the gospel.
Praising dead past leaders that their fathers killed (11:47-51). Jesus’ insight is astute here. A faithful Bible teacher is likely to be opposed by some people during his lifetime. How can it not be if you teach the whole counsel of God? This does not mean that Bible teachers are to be rude! We are to be wise with how we attempt to win people. But by “building tombs” of the prophets, they were, as it were, acknowledging that their forefathers had killed them. They are not listening to what the prophets said, much less following their teaching. They build mausoleums for them as a way of looking good politically, but also avoiding taking what they said into account. Let us make sure to listen carefully to faithful Bible teachers, and not undermine them, much less attack them.
Making entrance to the kingdom impossible to understand (11:52). The scribes were making what the Bible said so hard to understand that people could not grasp how to use the key to enter into God’s presence and salvation, and they themselves were not entering either. Instead, we are to present the gospel clearly, simply, inviting people to only believe and therefore be saved. To believe ourselves. And not make coming to Christ harder.
The natural consequence of all this criticism is outlined in verse 53. They look to catch him, trap him in what he is saying.
This section is important for us to understand that one of the great enemies of true religion is fake religion. Let us make sure that we believe in Christ purely, simply, and not be legalistic or Pharisaic in our approach to God.
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