More dramatic and intense than the woes to the rich of Luke chapter 6 are the severe and dramatic warnings Jesus levels toward the Pharisees and lawyers, the cultural religious and political elite, at the end of chapter 11.
Luke 11:37-38 (ESV)
37 While Jesus was speaking, a Pharisee asked him to dine with him, so he went in and reclined at table. 38 The Pharisee was astonished to see that he did not first wash before dinner.
When Jesus is judged by a pharisee for not following the custom of ritual washing before a meal, it seems that he's finally had enough. Whether because they've followed him looking for criticisms (Luke 5:30-6:11 and notes), or seem to honestly come upon them at dinner parties (Luke 7:36-50 and notes), Jesus can't make one decision trivial or righteous without some comment by these cultural watchdogs. And he's had it.
Here come the woes.
Here come the woes.
And the Lord said to him, “Now you Pharisees cleanse the outside of the cup and of the dish, but inside you are full of greed and wickedness. 40 You fools! Did not he who made the outside make the inside also? 41 But give as alms those things that are within, and behold, everything is clean for you.
WOE #1 – You have greed instead of integrity (vv39-41)
Jesus uses the metaphor of cleaning a dish only on the outside to look good for others. But he goes further than just suggesting the inside of their dishes must be cleaned. He says that the contents should be given to the poor. So this double edged sword suggests that not only are their outer lives a false front, but that their inner lives are full of greed and self indulgence. Only generosity can cure this ill.
(Jesus doesn't actually say “woe” here. He just calls them fools. He's still warming up. Some put this first woe with the next one, making only six woes total.)
42 “But woe to you Pharisees! For you tithe mint and rue and every herb, and neglect justice and the love of God. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others.
WOE #2 – You have wrong priorities (v42)
The pharisees interpreted every action of the law. Defining every command to the finest detail. Yet in the details, they'd forgotten the entire point of the law to begin with. In Chapter 10, a lawyer tries this same trick, asking Jesus the specifics of who he is commanded to love or not love when told he must love his neighbour. Jesus did not allow him the control and comfort of a perfect legal boundary. The purpose and point of the law is love and justice. Beyond that is missing the point.
43 Woe to you Pharisees! For you love the best seat in the synagogues and greetings in the marketplaces.
WOE #3 – You are people pleasers (v43)
It is the nature of the empires of the world to seek the affirmation of others. It is the nature of the Kingdom of God to be a servant of all. In taking praise and honour from people, they are stealing credit that belongs to God alone, and tempting others with idolatry. There is only one Rabbi, and we are all disciples. The humility of discipleship in Jesus is greater than the greatest honour of being a teacher or spiritual leader in the world.
44 Woe to you! For you are like unmarked graves, and people walk over them without knowing it.”
WOE #4 – Your influence makes people unclean without their knowledge (v44)
Jesus tells the pharisees they are like unmarked graves. This is a terrible accusation. The Jewish law said that to come into contact with a grave made a person ceremonially unclean. Jesus is suggesting that the pharisee's influence actually makes people unclean before God, but the appearance of holiness and religion makes it appear as though this is not so. Their laws and regulations do nothing to purify a person, but they do ease the conscience. This would make a person even worse off then they were to begin with. It's a double hypocrisy.
Here is where a lawyer speaks up, saying that Jesus is insulting them as well.
45 One of the lawyers answered him, “Teacher, in saying these things you insult us also.”
Rather than letting up, he turns his fury from the pharisees onto the lawyers that accompany them.
46 And he said, “Woe to you lawyers also! For you load people with burdens hard to bear, and you yourselves do not touch the burdens with one of your fingers.
WOE #5 – Your religious rules are unbearable (v46)
By quantifying every detail of the people's lives, the lawyers had taken a faith intended to let people know the God that had set them free from slavery, and turned its practices into a slavery itself. What a perversion. Ironically, as “experts” in the law, they likely knew ways to follow its letter without the same depth of consequence, just as a person with greater resources may do today. This is probably why Jesus implies that the burdens aren't as great for themselves.
47 Woe to you! For you build the tombs of the prophets whom your fathers killed. 48 So you are witnesses and you consent to the deeds of your fathers, for they killed them, and you build their tombs. 49 Therefore also the Wisdom of God said, ‘I will send them prophets and apostles, some of whom they will kill and persecute,’ 50 so that the blood of all the prophets, shed from the foundation of the world, may be charged against this generation, 51 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 required of this generation.
WOE #6 – You are as guilty as your forefathers (vv47-51)
Jesus accuses the lawyers of being the same as all the generations before them who had ignored the pleas of prophets who had called on the people to return to justice. He is crying out in the same way for people to leave behind their control and striving and burdensome selfish powergames for the truth of the gospel of the Kingdom found in himself. They reject him as others rejected the prophets of old. Their guilt is the same.
52 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.”
WOE #7 – Your perversion of scripture has hidden the truth of salvation from yourself and all you teach (v52)
Because the lawyers had turned the faith intended to teach of justice and love into a meaningless set of minute personal rituals, the path of faith in Jesus had been obscured. The scriptures revealed Jesus, but they had turned them into an impossible set of rituals. They were self deceived, and they in turn deceived others. Woe indeed.
The pharisees and lawyers are not convicted by Jesus' angry sermon. Their efforts to trap him are redoubled.
(Jesus is not given the right to remain silent.)
53 As he went away from there, the scribes and the Pharisees began to press him hard and to provoke him to speak about many things, 54 lying in wait for him, to catch him in something he might say.