PassageThe ESV translators came up with a very apt title for this section, as that’s exactly what it is: Jesus pronouncing woes on the Pharisees and the lawyers.
It starts with a Pharisee inviting Jesus to a meal, and being astonished when Jesus doesn’t wash before eating. Jesus responds by calling all Pharisees to account: they wash the outside of “the cup and the dish” (which we can view as a metaphor for their bodies, since that’s what started this conversation), while inside they are full of greed and wickedness.
But Jesus isn’t done. He goes further, calling the Pharisees fools for not understanding that He who made the outside made the inside too—if they would “give as alms those things that are within” (verse 41 (ESV)), then everything would be clean. But instead, as alms, the Pharisees are very careful to give God a tithe of everything they have, even down to their spices, but they neglect justice and the love of God. Not that it’s either/or; Jesus tells them that they should have been doing all of the above: they should be just and promote justice, they should love God, and they should be giving Him His due tithes.
And he’s still not done: he then pronounces woes on them because they love to have the best seats in the synagogues, and they love it when people greet them in the marketplace (I’m presuming this is a form of respect being conferred on the Pharisees). He tells them they are like unmarked graves, which people might walk over without knowing it. (Walking over a grave would make a person unclean; if that grave was unmarked, however, someone might walk over it and become unclean without even knowing it.)
At this point, one of the lawyers speaks up, because in saying these things Jesus is insulting not only the Pharisees, but the lawyers as well. I’m not sure if he expected an apology, but what he gets is more of the same, as Jesus then turns his attention to the lawyers. He pronounces woes on them for loading up the people with heavy burdens, which the lawyers do nothing to ease.
He then gets a bit arcane (to the modern reader), pronouncing woes on them for building tombs for the prophets, who were killed by the lawyers’ fathers. So the lawyers are witnessing the fact that their fathers killed the prophets. Jesus tells them that this generation will be charged with the blood spilled by all prophets, from the foundation of the world. (See below for some thoughts on this.)
He concludes by telling the lawyers that, with their erroneous interpretations of the Scriptures, they have taken the key of knowledge away from the people, needed for properly understanding God and His ways. The lawyers themselves did not enter God’s kingdom, but worse still, they are actively hindering others from entering as well.
After this, verses 53–54 (ESV) tell us that the Pharisees and lawyers start trying to step up their game, to catch Jesus in saying something wrong or sinful or blasphemous.
ThoughtsIt should be noted that the “lawyers” Jesus is talking to are different from the lawyers of today. These weren’t people who were helping people write wills or representing them in courts of law or that type of thing; these were religious lawyers, concerned with interpretation of God’s law, and what it means to obey Him. Which is, in a sense, analogous to what today’s lawyers do, since Israel had formerly been a theocracy—meaning that the nation’s laws were handed down by God, and He was the overall ruler of the nation. But since the Israelites were under Roman rule/law in Jesus’ day, the Jewish lawyers’ role was somewhat limited, concerned with rules and regulations around pleasing God, not obeying Roman law.
The point about building tombs for the prophets is a bit nuanced, but here are my thoughts on it: In reading the Scriptures, especially the Old Testament, we can easily see God’s people rejecting His prophets, over and over again, sometimes even going as far as to kill them. Why? Simple! The prophets brought messages that the people didn’t want to hear—that was, after all, the reason God sent those prophets in the first place, to point out the people’s sin to them—and the people so badly wanted to ignore or disregard these messages that they simply rejected the prophets altogether. The prophets would come and tell the Israelites that they were persecuting the poor and needed to stop, and the people who were in charge would say, “That doesn’t sound right, I’m rich, which means that God is blessing me, so He can’t possibly be angry with me.” Or the prophets would say that God was going to punish the nation by sending another nation to conquer them, and the people would say, “That doesn’t sound right, we’re God’s people, He can’t do that!” In retrospect we can easily see that the people were sinning, having their sin pointed out to them, and then sinning even further by ignoring or rejecting or even killing the prophets God was sending to them. The hypocrisy that Jesus is pointing out here is that, while the lawyers of his day were building tombs to the prophets, they were actually doing the same thing in rejecting God’s current prophets, including people like John the Baptist and Jesus himself. So, for example, they might build a monument to Micah, because God sent him to Judah to preach about their mistreatment of the poor, and then along comes Jesus saying, “but guys, you’re mistreating the poor,” to which the lawyers respond, “that can’t be right, we’re religious leaders, we do nothing but study the law!”
Are we still suffering from this today? Well… I did a quick Google search for “old testament prophets and their message”, and went through a half dozen pages claiming to do exactly that. On each one, I did a search for the word “poor,” and yet not a single page mentioned the poor. Perhaps if I’d kept going down my search results I would have found a page in which someone, who was claiming to summarize the messages of the various Old Testament prophets, might deign to mention the poor. But I think it’s absolutely scandalous that anyone could write something which claims to be summarizing the messages of all of the Old Testament prophets and never mention the poor—a major theme brought up by numerous prophets. The lawyers of Jesus’ day didn’t get the point; we don’t seem to get it either.
To me, verse 41 (ESV) is the heart of this passage:
But give as alms those things that are within, and behold, everything is clean for you.If the Pharisees and lawyers of Jesus’ day, not to mention modern day Christians, would give God our hearts/souls/minds, then everything would be good, but they were trying to get by with only outward appearances, which isn’t good enough, and we can fall into that same danger.
The best non-religious comparison I can think of is that of racists, who want to get away with holding racist beliefs and saying racist things, but think that nobody can call them racist as long as they avoid certain language, such as saying the n-word. Whether you say the n-word or not is not the measure of whether you’re racist; the content of what you’re saying is the measure of how racist you are. If you say “n*****s are criminals,” it’s racist; but if you say, “black people are prone to crime,” or, “people of colour are prone to crime,” or, “African Americans are prone to crime,” or any other variant you want to come up with, it’s just as racist. Avoiding one word doesn’t change the fact that what you’re saying is racist. (Not to mention wrong, but that’s beside the point for this example.) Racists will sometimes try to dress up their message on non-racist-sounding language, but it’s just as racist; the Pharisees and lawyers of Jesus’ day tried to dress up their outward appearance, as if they were pleasing God, but their hearts and minds and souls were far from Him, and He wasn’t fooled.