Pharisees and Lawyers: The Gospel Accounts: A Chronological Harmony

Pharisees and Lawyers

The Problems with Pharisees (Luke 11:37-44)

            Jesus was asked by a Pharisee to come to his house for lunch. Albert Barnes states in his commentary, “The Jews, as well as the Greeks and Romans, had but two principal meals. The first was a slight repast, and was taken about ten or eleven o'clock of our time, and consisted chiefly of fruit, milk, cheese, etc. The second meal was partaken of about three o'clock P.M., and was their principal meal. The first is the one here intended.” It is important to note the occasion because most of us are on our best behavior when we are guests in someone’s home. The idea doing or saying anything to upset the host is far from our minds. Yet, Jesus, knowing the traditions of the Pharisees (Mark 7:1-8), sits down at the table without first washing his hands. It also notable that Jesus dined with friends, enemies, the sinners, and the righteous. Opportunities to teach the gospel were not bypassed because of a person’s current standing.

            Jesus’ host marveled that Jesus would skip a ceremony which was held to so strongly by the Pharisees, but Jesus responded by pointing how worthless the ceremony was to a person’s life. They put strong emphasis on physical cleanliness, but allow spiritual uncleanliness to go unchecked. Calling them fools, Jesus points out that God made both the physical and spiritual man. Both should be kept pure. If they would do good with the things they had, then they would truly be clean.

            But this wasn’t the only problem exhibited by the Pharisees. Jesus points out that the Pharisees put heavy emphasis on tithing, down to the very spices in the kitchen, but they ignored things like justice and loving God. The latter could be called greater ideas because they have a broader application in a person’s life. It isn’t that following the law precisely is wrong, what is wrong is thinking that emphasizing small things is going to excuse the neglect of greater things. Both ought to be done. There is not excuse for leaving anything undone.

            Another problem Jesus points out is that the Pharisees are motivated by the admiration of other men. They are doing things for show instead of acting to please God (John 5:44).

            Finally, Jesus accuses them of being unmarked graves that people walk over without knowing it. Under Moses’ law, touching a grave made a person unclean (Numbers 19:16). The implication is that the Pharisees are harming people without the people’s knowledge. The Pharisees were not what they appeared to be. They seemed harmless, but they were causing others to sin (Psalm 5:9).

The Problems with Lawyers (Luke 11:45-52)

            We realize that there are other guests at this meal when a lawyer speaks up objecting to Jesus’ condemnation of the Pharisees. The lawyer thought Jesus’ words were too broad. In condemning the Pharisees, his words could include other people – including lawyers. He found the idea reprehensible and insulting. In essence, the lawyer is telling Jesus he needs to be more careful about how he states things.

            Rather than modifying his words to soften their blow, Jesus proceeds to pronounce three condemnations upon lawyers.

            First, in expressing their views on the law, the lawyers laid greater burdens upon the people than the law ever required. They had far more rules about the Sabbath than God ever gave. They had more rules about cleanliness than God asked of His people. And yet, they never for all their learning made living by the laws of God easier for other people (Isaiah 58:6). They strictly enforced the laws and traditions upon other people while inconsistently applying those same rules to their own lives.

            Second, they spent much effort in decorating tombs and memorials to the prophets. They did so with the intention of honoring the prophets, but what they were actually doing was honoring the fact that these prophets were dead. It was their ancestors who killed the prophets. Thus they are honoring the memory of the evil deeds of their ancestors. If they truly desired to honor the prophets they would have done so by heeding the prophets’ teachings.

            Jesus stated that to prove this very point, God would be sending prophets and apostles to them again. These people they would kill or persecute, thus proving they were just like all the evil men who came before them. God will then justly hold them accountable for all the murdered prophets who came before (II Chronicles 24:19-22; 36:14-16; Proverbs 1:20-33).

            Third, Jesus charges the lawyers with obscuring the meaning of the law. They don’t truly understand God’s law and they also prevent others from understanding it as well. This charge would particularly hurt because the duty of the scribes and lawyers were to teach God’s law and to help the people make application to their life. Jesus is stating that they have done the opposite.

The Reaction to Jesus’ Statements (Luke 11:53-54)

            Not surprisingly, Jesus’ charges did not go over well. The scribes and Pharisees became very angry and attempted to intently question him in order prove him wrong. Thus began in earnest their campaign to destroy Jesus by some means.