While he was speaking, a Pharisee invited him to dine with him; so he went in and took his place at the table. The Pharisee was amazed to see that he did not first wash before dinner. Then the Lord said to him, ‘Now you Pharisees clean the outside of the cup and of the dish, but inside you are full of greed and wickedness. You fools! Did not the one who made the outside make the inside also? So give for alms those things that are within; and see, everything will be clean for you. ‘But woe to you Pharisees! For you tithe mint and rue and herbs of all kinds, and neglect justice and the love of God; it is these you ought to have practised, without neglecting the others. Woe to you Pharisees! For you love to have the seat of honour in the synagogues and to be greeted with respect in the market-places. Woe to you! For you are like unmarked graves, and people walk over them without realizing it.’
One of the lawyers answered him, ‘Teacher, when you say these things, you insult us too.’ And he said, ‘Woe also to you lawyers! For you load people with burdens hard to bear, and you yourselves do not lift a finger to ease them. Woe to you! For you build the tombs of the prophets whom your ancestors killed. So you are witnesses and approve of the deeds of your ancestors; for they killed them, and you build their tombs. Therefore also the Wisdom of God said, “I will send them prophets and apostles, some of whom they will kill and persecute”, so that this generation may be charged with the blood of all the prophets shed since the foundation of the world, from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah, who perished between the altar and the sanctuary. Yes, I tell you, it will be charged against this generation. Woe to you lawyers! For you have taken away the key of knowledge; you did not enter yourselves, and you hindered those who were entering.’ When he went outside, the scribes and the Pharisees began to be very hostile towards him and to cross-examine him about many things, lying in wait for him, to catch him in something he might say.
Luke is like/loathe with Pharisees. In this scene, Luke paints Jesus in the way Luke might want; anything but meek and mild. This is a critical Jesus, no kindliness on show, an angry Jesus. This is the kind of Jesus we don’t see in Victorian blue-eyed blond images.
Then the lawyers – the scribes – have a go. Jesus comes right back even stronger. “…this generation may be charged with the blood of all the prophets shed since the foundation of the world” is a bit harsh to say the least. For those who want to see Jesus as the critical prophet, naming what is wrong and detailing the consequences, it feels like a breath of fresh air to read this passage. To those who want to interpret a loving Jesus as a nice Jesus, this is a very difficult read.
Jesus was a Jew. He was speaking to his own as a critical insider, not an outsider. It’s not unusual for rabbis to be blunt, and those gathered at this table, who called Jesus teacher, might very well have expected no less. What Jesus the critic is saying to us all is simply to match our actions with our words. If we say we love God, what does that look like in our lives? The Pharisee who asked Jesus over for a meal had been listening to Jesus talk about being a light – about not hiding the light which floods our bodies. This hearty dinner conversation is a significantly more blunt and graphic version of the same. How can we say we love God if there is faint sign of it in our lives? We may as well be that unmarked grave (v44) in early Jewish tradition, whitewashed to keep the corpse clean, but noticed by no-one.
Dear God, how many times do we hear the message to join our faith with our lived lives? That everything we do should show your love? But I do! Or do I? Give us deep grace to know our lives and motivations. Forgive us again for hiding your light for our own reasons. Allow us to hear clearly: what I do is who I am. Give me courage to see if it shares you.
The Rev’d Elizabeth Gray-King, URC Education & Learning Programme Officer, member St Columba’s URC (Oxford).