Summary: The burden of righteousness that God lays on us is not cumbersome, but freeing, for it opens the door to restoring us to the places God created us for.
Introduction: I want to begin today by taking you back in time 2000 years ago to the common scene at the table of any Jewish Scribe or Pharisee. You will notice that here on the table are a few seemingly simple items, a jug of water and a small wash basin, but to the Pharisees, these items made all the difference between those considered righteous and those who were rejected by God. Allow me to demonstrate the typical hand-washing procedure required to make a person ‘ceremonially clean’.
Now that you understand what this looked like, and the significance it held in the religion of the Pharisees, perhaps you can understand the shock that came to the Pharisee who had invited Jesus to dine in his home, when Jesus went straight to the table without even glancing at the water basin. The table was set, the tension was high, and Jesus was getting ready to scrub some dishes. Let’s listen in as the scene unfolds:
‘Then the Lord said to him, ‘Now you Pharisees make the outside of the cup and dish clean, but your inward part is full of greed and wickedness. Foolish ones! Did not He who make the outside make the inside also? But rather give alms of such things as you have; then indeed all things are clean to you.”
Jesus then mentions three woe’s against the Pharisees. We need to understand that the term woe carries not only a judgmental element, but also a degree of pity. Some have translated this term as ‘Alas, for you Pharisees.’ Jesus has tried many tactics to open their eyes, this will be the last; opposing them head on.
I. The Models of Righteousness - Pharisees
The 21st Century believer has a certain picture in mind whenever he or she hears about the Pharisees. But in order to understand this situation, we need to see the Pharisees through the eyes of the Jews of Jesus day. How did the Pharisees view themselves? How did their contemporaries see them? What did Jesus think of them?
In their own eyes they believed that they were the righteous van-guard of Israel; leading the way to righteousness by their exemplary conduct. To the Pharisee there was nothing more important than ritual purity, and they prided themselves on following the letter of the law. There was nothing more anathema to a Pharisee than being defiled by something unclean, whether it was food, foreigner or fool.
The contemporaries of the Pharisee’s would have shared a similar view of these men. Even Jesus makes comment about the righteousness of the Pharisees in a somewhat positive way in scripture. Interestingly, being a Pharisee was not a job. No one gained an income from being a Pharisee, you couldn’t be a professional Pharisee; rather it was like a religious club. A club with special standards and rituals. Like as hyper-religious Lion’s Club or Rotary but rather than work to solve social needs in the community, the Pharisee’s mandate was to solve moral needs, to make the community of Israel more holy.
To this end, they believed themselves to be the exemplar of holiness. Anyone who desired to have a standing with God would surely join the ranks of the Pharisees and learn the intricate code of holiness. Even the common Jew on the street knew enough to pattern his or her life in such a way.
Jesus did not share this view.
Jesus did not join the Pharisees.
Jesus did not agree with the Pharisees measure of purity.
Declaring his first woe against the Pharisees gathered around the table, he said, “You tithe mint and rue and all manners of herbs and pass by justice and the love of God.”
Mint and rue were among the smallest of the garden herbs in Palestine. In fact the law omitted the need to give 10% of these tiny things. But that wasn’t good enough for the Pharisees. This same group that was so meticulous in washing their hands and asking the blessing were mathematically precise in giving a tithe of everything they possessed.
They were convinced that their rigid obedience to the law, even to the extent of going over and above would earn them good standing with God. But Jesus points out the Achilles Heel in their reasoning. They have focused so much on minutia of the law that they have lost sight of the big picture. While they tithed even to the smallest amount they walked past people who didn’t have anything to tithe. While they sat at their tables to bless every acceptable food, their neighbours sat and ate locust rolled in flour and fried – not asking a blessing, for no blessing was required over locust, that were considered a curse.
While the Pharisees are still digesting Jesus statement he brings a second woe: ‘Woe to you Pharisees! For you love the best seats in the synagogue and greetings in the marketplace.’