52. Woe to the Pharisees (Luke 11:37-44)

Audio (23:34)
Gospel Parallels §154

James J. Tissot, detail of 'Woe unto You, Scribes and Pharisees' (1886-94)
James J. Tissot, detail of 'Woe unto You, Scribes and Pharisees' (1886-94), gouache on gray wove paper, Brooklyn Museum, New York.

"37  When Jesus had finished speaking, a Pharisee invited him to eat with him; so he went in and reclined at the table. 38  But the Pharisee, noticing that Jesus did not first wash before the meal, was surprised. 39  Then the Lord said to him, 'Now then, you Pharisees clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside you are full of greed and wickedness. 40  You foolish people! Did not the one who made the outside make the inside also? 41  But give what is inside [the dish] to the poor, and everything will be clean for you.

42  Woe to you Pharisees, because you give God a tenth of your mint, rue and all other kinds of garden herbs, but you neglect justice and the love of God. You should have practiced the latter without leaving the former undone.

43  Woe to you Pharisees, because you love the most important seats in the synagogues and greetings in the marketplaces. 44  "Woe to you, because you are like unmarked graves, which men walk over without knowing it.'"  (Luke 11:37-44, NIV)

Picky, picky, picky. Some people can grate on you with their doing everything just so. My grandmother and her sisters were like that, children of the Victorian Age. Their rules of etiquette and what was proper seemed kind of silly to me. And when they insisted that I conform to their way of doing things, I would bristle -- at least inside. Some of it made no sense to me. No sense at all. It was an outward nicety that masked what they really thought -- not that I'm ever like that!

Jesus is now thirty years old or more, a widely acclaimed popular teacher. While he is teaching, one of the prominent Pharisees in the local community begins to take an interest. What a marvel, this Jesus, the man ponders. Though he is obviously unschooled according to Judaism's elite rabbinical education, he had a huge following. And one has to admit that he has a kind of primitive grasp of the Old Testament Scriptures. Of course, he heals, too. He would make an interesting dinner guest. Perhaps my friends and I can even teach him a thing or two about our deeper understanding of the Law.

The Pharisees

The Pharisees were a sect of Judaism, made up largely of laymen rather than priests or religious professionals. Their burden is a zeal to obey every minute law that God has given, and so please him fully.

Though the Pharisees are not the only sect of Judaism at the time, they are a very important one. And they are not all wrong. We find that Jesus takes their position on a number of points. For example, Jesus agrees with the Pharisees about the resurrection of the dead, while the Sadducees -- made up largely of priests and their followers -- deny a resurrection of the dead. The Pharisees also believe in the existence of angels, as does Jesus.

To the Pharisees, the Law, the Torah, is preeminent, and they take it extremely seriously. But they have developed a kind of system to obey the commands of the Law. Usually their obedience isn't to the very Law itself, but to an accepted interpretation of that Law called "the Tradition of the Elders." This tradition forms a sort of "hedge" or "fence" around the provisions of the actual Torah, so that by obeying the Tradition of the Elders one wouldn't break the Law itself.

These Pharisees are not a little proud of themselves for their scrupulous observance of the Law, and look down on other Jews as "sinners" who don't observe the Law as carefully as they do. Contemporary Jewish historian Josephus, who considers himself a Pharisee, describes them this way:

"The Pharisees have delivered to the people a great many observances by succession from their fathers, which are not written in the laws of Moses; and for that reason it is that the Sadducees reject them, and say that we are to esteem those observances to be obligatory which are in the written word, but are not to observe what are derived from the tradition of our forefathers. And concerning these things it is that great disputes and differences have arisen among them, while the Sadducees are able to persuade none but the rich, and have not the populace obsequious to them, but the Pharisees have the multitude on their side."468

There is much that is admirable about the Pharisees. They don't take their religion casually. No, they are very serious about it indeed. Their particular slant is a devotion to the Law, and a belief that full observance of the Law will justify them before God. They, like their present-day descendents, the Hassidic Jews, are the epitome of what we sometimes call a "works-righteousness" approach to religion. And in that they have a lot in common with some very serious and very holy Christians today.

The Pharisee who invites Jesus to dinner is quite concerned about holiness. Yes, Jesus will make a very interesting dinner guest indeed.

Eating at a Pharisee's Home (Luke 11:37)

"When Jesus had finished speaking, a Pharisee invited him to eat with him; so he went in and reclined at the table." (11:37)

The Pharisee invites Jesus and his disciples to dinner that day, and doubtless invites several Pharisees and scribes to join them. In a more affluent home, the table is likely to be low, 18 inches (45 cm) off the floor or less. Guests recline on cushions, leaning on their left elbow and eating with their right hand. (Tough luck for left-handers like myself!)

Ritual Washing (Luke 11:38)

"But the Pharisee, noticing that Jesus did not first wash before the meal, was surprised." (11:38)

The word translated "wash" is Greek baptizō, which means "dip, immerse" or, in the middle voice, "dip oneself, wash," and is used of Jewish ritual washings as well as of baptism.469

The Pharisees took ritual cleansings very seriously. For example, at the wedding at Cana that Jesus attended, six stone water jars were present "the kind used by the Jews for ceremonial washing, each holding from twenty to thirty gallons" (John 2:6).

When we read about Jesus not washing his hands before eating, we want to hide this from our children. We teach our children to wash their hands thoroughly before eating in order to prevent diseases. But the Pharisees didn't wash in order to get rid of germs. They washed as required by the "tradition of the elders" in order to cleanse their hands from spiritual defilement that might be taken into the body (Mark 7:3, 5). The actual washing didn't involve soap or scrubbing, but rather dribbling some water over the hands. It was an act of spiritual cleansing, not physical cleansing.470

But Jesus and his disciples don't participate in the ritual at the table that day. And their Pharisee host -- in a most unhostlike manner -- shows surprise. The Greek word is thaumazō, "wonder, marvel, be astonished."471 He probably remarks to Jesus on his surprise, and is met with a sharp response.

Cleansing the Outside, Not the Inside (Luke 11:39-41)

"Then the Lord said to him, 'Now then, you Pharisees clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside you are full of greed and wickedness. You foolish people! Did not the one who made the outside make the inside also? But give what is inside the dish to the poor, and everything will be clean for you.'" (11:39-41)

His host is surprised that Jesus doesn't ritually wash his hands before eating, as if to keep defilement from entering his body. Jesus retorts that their practice of cleansing the outside of a cup and dish is just as external. Apparently the cleanliness of the outside of the pottery was distinguished from, and considered more important for ritual purposes than, the inside.472

Jesus uses cups and dishes as an analogy regarding the Pharisees' character. They are very concerned with outward purity and observance, but their hearts are full of greed and wickedness. The word translated "wickedness" is Greek ponēria, "state or condition of a lack of moral or social values, wickedness, baseness, maliciousness, sinfulness."473 The word translated "greed" is Greek harpagē, "robbery, plunder, greediness." It is derived from the verb harpazō, "steal, carry off, drag away, take or snatch away."474 In another context, Jesus is even more specific about the Pharisees: "They devour widows' houses" (Mark 12:40). He is talking about tricking widows, some of the most vulnerable people in their society, out of the homes they had dwelt in with while their husbands were living. This is certainly wickedness motivated by greed.

At the root of greed and covetousness is a focus on self, selfishness. It has been well-depicted in the Disney rendition of "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" (1996). The chief villain is Judge Frollo. On the outside he looks -- and sees himself as -- righteous and pious. But, in fact, his past masks a dark sin, and then years of control to cover it up lest the real truth be known.

I am sure that all Pharisees are not wicked and selfish. I am sure that some are sincere, godly people. But Jesus is characterizing the whole movement to expose its essential flaws. The Pharisees' understanding of religion is essentially selfish, too -- performing every requirement of the law in order to justify themselves before God and receive salvation. Good works are performed not for the sake of others necessarily, but to ensure one's own salvation. What looks pious to outsiders can easily mask intense selfishness and self-centeredness. A person who is motivated by greed, an inner longing for greater wealth, more "things," has a serious problem. If greed is a root sin, then everything gets twisted to meet the person's desire. People become a means to an end, not important in themselves, but only in what they can do for the greedy person.

Jesus calls the Pharisees, "Foolish people!" Greek aphron, "foolish, ignorant."475 This is a different word than the one Jesus instructed his disciples not to use in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:22). That word was mōros, "foolish, stupid,"476 and seems to deal more with character than to the degree of knowledge a person possesses.

Jesus calls on the Pharisees to see the obvious -- that cleaning must include the outside and the inside. As teenagers today, say, "Duh." Real cleaning must involve the whole vessel, not just the part that is obvious to observers. God made both, the outer person and the inner person. Both need cleansing.

What he said next was a powerful criticism of the Pharisees as a whole.

Showing Mercy to the Poor (Luke 11:41)

"But give what is inside the dish to the poor, and everything will be clean for you." (11:41)

I am most familiar with the part of this conversation recorded in Matthew's Gospel which emphasizes cleansing the inside of the dish:

"Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean" (Matthew 23:26).

But in Luke, Jesus' statement talks about how to cleanse the inside. He turns the analogy of dishes that are dirty and clean to dishes that bear food that can be given to the poor:

"But give what is inside the dish to the poor, and everything will be clean for you." (Luke 11:41)

The phrase "give ... to the poor" comes from two Greek words, didōmi, the common word "to give," and eleēmosunē, "kind deed," then specifically "alms, charitable giving."477 Jesus is saying, if you want to cleanse the inside of the dish (which is a metaphor for the inner man), then give food from inside that dish to those who are hungry -- a very powerful metaphor indeed. Jesus faults the Pharisees for their selfishness and greed (11:39), on the one hand, and their neglect of showing mercy (11:42b), on the other. Cleansing that kind of selfish heart only takes place through the cleansing action of giving unselfishly.

What is the message for us disciples? It is that love and mercy require us to help the poor. Indeed, helping the poor is one antidote for greed and selfishness.

Tithing Scrupulously (Luke 11:42a)

I've always thought that the practice of tithing is another important antidote for greed. Greed and fear are two main motivators that seem to drive Christians I know who do not tithe. But somehow, the Pharisees succeed in turning tithing itself into an isolated, selfish act.

Tithing is the practice of giving to God's work one tenth of one's net income. For a business, it is tithing on the profits after expenses are paid. For a wage earner it is tithing on the weekly or monthly paycheck. The tithe was what supported the priests' ministry to God in Jesus' day.478 Paul implies that what is owed to the priests under the Old Covenant is now transferred to Christian pastors, evangelists, and teachers.

"Don't you know that those who work in the temple get their food from the temple, and those who serve at the altar share in what is offered on the altar? In the same way, the Lord has commanded that those who preach the gospel should receive their living from the gospel." (1 Corinthians 9:13-14)

But while tithing itself is good, it is not enough. Jesus lampoons the Pharisees' scrupulous tithing practices:

"Woe to you Pharisees, because you give God a tenth of your mint, rue and all other kinds of garden herbs." (Luke 11:42a)

In Jesus' caricature (and perhaps in real life, who knows?), the Pharisees would go out into their herb gardens and pluck one leaf for the tithe for every nine leaves they used in their meals.

Some people seem to believe that tithing is not taught in the New Testament. But in this passage Jesus clearly advocates tithing. Though he pokes fun at the Pharisees' extreme care to tithe on everything, he affirms it in the second part of the verse: "... without leaving the former (i.e. tithing) undone."

Did Jesus tithe on his income as a carpenter? Surely he did. Did the disciples tithe on their catch as fishermen? I would hope so. Jesus gives absolutely no grounds in this verse to let the Pharisees or anyone off the hook about tithing to support the ministry.479

If you were a disciple listening to this rather pointed dinner conversation, would you conclude that tithing is optional for Jesus' followers, or that tithing is expected? What is the lesson for you and me?

Neglecting Justice and Mercy (Luke 11:42b)

"But you neglect justice and the love of God. You should have practiced the latter without leaving the former undone." (11:42b)

Justice and the love of God are foundational. The Prophet Micah said,

"He has showed you, O man, what is good.
And what does the Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
and to walk humbly with your God." (Micah 6:8)

Again and again Israel's prophets called the nation to account for injustice to the poor and a lack of mercy. The Prophet Amos was a spokesman for God who ties together giving and justice:

"Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings,
I will not accept them.
Though you bring choice fellowship offerings,
I will have no regard for them.
Away with the noise of your songs!
I will not listen to the music of your harps.
But let justice roll on like a river,
righteousness like a never-failing stream!" (Amos 5:22-24)

Isaiah, too, spoke of God's anger at acts of piety amidst a disregard for the poor:

"Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:
to loose the chains of injustice
and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free
and break every yoke?
Is it not to share your food with the hungry
and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter --
when you see the naked, to clothe him,
and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?" (Isaiah 58:6-7)

Now the Pharisees hear the same message, this time from God's own Son.

The phrase "the love of God" is somewhat ambiguous. It can mean "love for God" or "the kind of love demanded by God."480 But in one sense, both meanings merge together.

Dear Christian friends, do you or your church neglect justice and mercy toward the poor? Jesus calls us to a mindset of mercy.

Loving Acclaim (Luke 11:43)

"Woe to you Pharisees, because you love the most important seats in the synagogues and greetings in the marketplaces." (11:43)

Jesus also accuses the Pharisees of seeking public honor. I've seen the same kind of jostling for position present in Christian churches. A desire to sit in the seat of honor, perhaps on the platform where you can be seen by everyone. Perhaps just a desire to be noticed and greeted as an important person. As I look into my own heart I have had those motives, and still fight them. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus teaches us,

"Be careful not to do your 'acts of righteousness' before men, to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven." (Matthew 6:1)

Self-seeking and self-aggrandizement is one form of pride that is difficult to see clearly in oneself, but easy to see in others.

Unmarked Graves Defiling Others (Luke 11:44)

"Woe to you, because you are like unmarked graves, which men walk over without knowing it." (11:44)

Jesus parting shot at the Pharisees is intense. Jews concerned with ritual purity avoided touching corpses that might defile them and require them to purify themselves again.

"Anyone out in the open who touches someone who has been killed with a sword or someone who has died a natural death, or anyone who touches a human bone or a grave, will be unclean for seven days." (Numbers 19:16)

For Jesus to call the Pharisees unmarked graves means that they defile people with their teachings and practices who are unaware of their defilement -- a very strong condemnation.

Modern-Day Pharisees

We face Jesus' sharp rebuke today, too, when we:

  • Are more concerned with how we look to other people than how we look to God,
  • Fail to show mercy to the poor,
  • Fail to tithe,
  • Fail to do justice,
  • Have hearts motivated by greed, or
  • Seek positions where we will be acclaimed.

This is not just an historical lesson in the errors of first century Judaism. It is a cogent commentary on the dangers that pious professors are subject to in the twenty-first century. Lord, help us!


Father, we do ask for your help. Many of us in this study have a lot in common with the Pharisees -- their desire to obey you as well as some of their sins. I can see myself in some of Jesus' word portraits. Forgive me and cleanse me. Change my motivational system so that it is based on love for you and others, rather than love for only my own welfare. Create in me an unselfish heart. I pray in Jesus' name. Amen.

Key Verse

"You Pharisees clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside you are full of greed and wickedness." (Luke 11:39)


Click on the link below to discuss on the forum one or more of the questions that follow -- your choice.

  1. Why do you think Jesus and his disciples didn't follow the Pharisees' practice of ritual washing before meals? (11:38; see also Mark 7:14-23)
  2. What modern-day examples can you think of that illustrate cleansing the outside of the vessel but leaving the inside unwashed? (11:39-40)
  3. How could giving food to the poor bring about spiritual cleansing, as implied by 11:41?
  4. Did Jesus fault the Pharisees on their scrupulous tithing or compliment them? Where did he find fault with them? (11:42)
  5. What is wrong with seeking to be seen and approved of by others? (11:43) What in us might tempt us to seek acclaim?
  6. Did Jesus go out of his way to insult the Pharisees with 11:44? What purpose did his comment serve, if any?
  7. In what ways do you see Pharisaical attitudes in yourself? What are you doing to counter them?
Discipleship Training in Luke's Gospel, by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson
Lessons compiled in 805-page book in paperback, Kindle, & PDF.


Abbreviations and References

[468] Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, 13.10.6.

[469] Baptizō, BAGD 181.

[470] Stephen Westerholm, "Clean and Unclean," DJG, p. 129.

[471] Thaumazō, BAGD 352.

[472] Westerholm, p. 130.

[473] Ponēria, BDAG 853.

[474] Harpazō, Shorter Lexicon, p. 26.

[475] Aphron, Shorter Lexicon, p. 31.

[476] Mōros, Shorter Lexicon, p. 131.

[477] Eleēmosunē, BAGD 249-250.

[478] You can see this spelled out much more fully in my article, "Does Your Church Run a Spiritual Sweatshop?" https://www.joyfulheart.com/church/sweatshop.htm

[479] For those of you who teach, consider my article on "Tithing Demonstration Sunday." joyfulheart.com/church/tith-dem.htm

[480] Marshall, Luke, p. 498.

Copyright © 2024, Ralph F. Wilson. <pastor@joyfulheart.com> All rights reserved. A single copy of this article is free. Do not put this on a website. See legal, copyright, and reprint information.

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