When Kris and I got married I owned a 1973 Renault 4L. It’s a rearity in New Zealand but it was the first ever mass produced hatch back. Renault made it with little changes from 1954 right through to 1992. It was there equivalent to the volkswagon, the people’s car. Mine had a real rust problem, it had been in England and r driven on roads that were salted during winter. AS a wedding present my best man actually welded in a floor pan into the car so it would get a warrant.
We took it on our honeymoon up north. Just before Whangarei we hit a pothole in the road. Bang and It just about ruined our honeymoon. It hit so hard that the top hinge on the driver’s door broke. The only thing that stopped the door from falling off was the bottom hinge was less rusty than the top one and the mechanism that stopped the door from opening beyond about 90 degrees didn’t break. Now when I say mechanism I mean a leather strap that was riveted to the door and the chassis of the car. Renault 4’s were designed to be very basic. Anyway we found a panel beater welder out in some small back country place who welded it up for us at a price we could afford, and the car survived the honeymoon and the few first year of our marriage as we got enough money together to replace it.
In the passage we had read out to us today Jesus continues his conflict with the Pharisees and the scribes of the law. At a dinner party he confronts them about some of their religious practises and thinking that were counter to Jesus revolution of grace. There is a series of very formal woe sayings… pronouncements of judgement. It’s important for us as we follow Jesus on the Cross road to hear those woes because they challenge us about possible potholes and pitfalls that the church has managed to fall into down through history that can stop us experiencing the gracious love of God and set us off course ending up in empty religious observance and slavish legalism: a whole list of do’s and don’t s not a loving relationship with God through Jesus Christ.
We are working our way through Jesus journey to Jerusalem, a journey that ultimately lead to the cross, and our forgiveness, a journey that takes up the central third of the gospel narrative in Luke, and contains large amounts of teaching on what it means to follow Jesus. AS we saw last week a journey that lead more and more into conflict with the religious and political leaders of the day. A conflict that acts as a warning for us about those pitfalls and potholes we need to avoid. In fact straight after the passage we had read today, Jesus turns to his disciples and says they/we are to be on guard against the yeast of the Pharisees…the same pitfalls of the Pharisees.’
The passage we had read today started with Jesus concluding comments in his conflict with the people who were writing him off as doing miracles in the power of evil, not God. It’s a parable about light being on a stand filling the whole room. He uses that to talk about our inner life, that we need to let the light of Christ illuminate and fill our whole lives. If that happens it will shine in us and dispel the darkness and shine out of us to the world around. If our eyes are healthy we will clearly see the light of Christ and it will fill us up. But if our eyes are not healthy then we cannot see the light clearly and we have darkness inside. It dovetails in with Jesus other teaching about the spiritual blindness of the religious leaders who do not see God at work in Jesus. Then to illustrate what Jesus means we have an encounter with Pharisees at a dinner party, where Jesus eats without taking part in their hand washing rituals. Jesus uses that to point out the unhealthy eyes that the Pharisees and scribes of the law have that stops them and those around them from seeing the truth of who Jesus is and God’s love and grace.
Hand washing for the Pharisees wasn’t about hygiene. On Wednesday morning down here at the church we have a wonderful regular handwashing ceremony, at mainly music in between the programme and the morning tea the kids all head down to the bath rooms and wash their hands, it is a hygiene thing. We had the plumber in on Wednesday and I think he was a bit surprised to be suddenly surrounded by all these excited pre-schoolers happily washing their hands. That’s good handwashing, the Pharisees however were a group within Jewish society that focused on rigorously keeping the law, hoping that as they did this God would respond and send his messiah and liberate them from roman rule. They had devised this hand washing ritual, it wasn’t an Old Testament law, as a way of showing that they were ritually clean; it was sort of a thing that set them apart from other less strict people. It makes them suspicious about Jesus when he does not join in this ritual.
Jesus challenges them. He says they are concerned with the outside, outward appearances not with what is on the inside. Didn’t God make both? NT Wright says it’s like a journalist who sets themselves up as societies moral watch dog and points out the moral failings in others but whose own life is full of the same moral issues and failings. The Pharisees had a thing for ritual cleanliness but as Jesus points out what about a heart that loved God and showed that love in care for the poor and justice. one of the most challenging emphases in Luke’s gospel is that the condition of our heart will be reflected in the use of our resources and our care and concern for the poor. That is the gauge of how our heart has been changed by encountering Christ.
Jesus then gives a series of ‘woe’ statements, they are the opposite to beatitudes, the blessed are statements, they act as warnings about behaviour that leads to Gods judgement. He says they are so caught up in the trivial like making sure that every single piece of food is tithed and a tenth given over to God, that they neglect justice and the love of God. They’ve majored on the minors and missed the main thing. They should look to both. I couldn’t help but think of the way in which some churches will focus on tithing as a big issue, they will call their people to make sure they tithe so God will bless them, and not curse them and in the worst cases it goes with lavish lifestyles for those in leadership. They forget that yes the tithes were given in part to care for the Levites, the priests who didn’t own land and were devoted to working in the temple and the Lord’s work, but also where given for community storehouses to care for the poor, the fatherless, the stranger, the widows… it was the Jewish social welfare system. It wasn’t to be seen as a religious duty but as giving thanks for God’s provision, God’s goodness, his faithful love for Israel.
He goes onto say that they seemed more concerned about social acceptance than God’s. In verse 42 he had said they neglected the love of God and in the very next verse we see they love the important seats in the synagogue, and the acknowledgement of the people in the market place. Later Jesus will encapsulates the religious pride of the Pharisees in the parable of the two men who went up to the temple to pray in Luke 18, where the Pharisees prayer revolves around how righteous he is, and the tax collector is sharply and simply aware of his need for God’s grace, and the punch line is the question who went home that day justified and put right with God?
Jesus finishes with a woe that they are like an unmarked grave. In Jewish culture graves were always marked because people were aware of the ritual uncleanliness associated with dead bodies, it’s part of why in the parable of the good Samaritan the priest and Levi pass by on the other side of the road, just in case the man set upon by robbers is dead. But just like an unmarked grave there dead religion takes people away from God.
Then a scribe of the law, a person whose role it was to interpret the law says that Jesus insulting them as well and Jesus agrees and gives another series of three woes. Instead of making it easier for people to understand and keep the law which is what the scribes were supposed to do, by applying it to everyday life they made it harder for people, more complex, more and more clauses and does and don’t without giving them relief and help. The focus was on the many ways you could fail not on the grace and forgiveness of God and guidance of the Holy Spirit. He says they had built tombs for the prophets, that their ancestors had killed in their laws and religious structures they had built a monument to the prophets of old, but hadn’t listened to their message and were going to be like those ancestors and kill the prophet in their own day, one who encapsulated and fulfilled all that teaching and truth. He finishes by saying that they think they have the key to knowledge but in actual fact they do not they are outside and hinder those who want to go inside. The key to knowledge is that it is in personally knowing God, knowledge and wisdom come from personal relationship with God through Jesus Christ.
That is a very hard series of woes to look at and I would have liked to just skip this passage, but I believe it’s important systematically work through the scriptures and let them all speak to us so how does it apply to us?
They act as a warning about the tendency in Christianity to fall into legalism. Darryl Bock says that the legalistic person feels he or she has the right to be everybody’s spiritual keeper, using a list of requirements that are not scriptural. Legalism block knowledge of God , so that people are damaged not edified. He gives four surprising symptoms that we might have hit the pot hole or pitfall of legalism.
Frequently legalists refuse to speak directly to those whose behaviour offends them. The Pharisees didn’t like Jesus non hand washing and spoke about it only in private. Jesus spoke about things openly in the hope for truth and grace to have it way.
Legalists major in the minor and ignores the major relational requirements God asks of his followers. In doing that we can lose sight of the condition of our heart and fail to notice the needs of those who are really hurting… My mum always tells the story of a woman who sat down next to her at Church one day and started to complain about that group of scruffy young men who came to church with their longhair and bare feet, dressed in t-shirts and dungarees. My Mum, God bless her, replied well that one is my son and I’m so pleased he knows Jesus and wants to come to church. And that the dungarees were the uniform of our church drama team.
The third is that the close association of pride to this condition is no accident; pride tends to make us into non-listeners. If we lose that ability to be teachable, and open to change we cut ourselves off from the guidance of God’s Holy Spirit. We become like unmarked graves.
Lastly, a legalist is quick to criticise but slow to help. I wonder if our social media age hasn’t exacerbated that as well, people are quick to troll or flame someone feeling safe because of distance of anonymity to cut each other down. I think in New Zealand this tendency we simply call tall poppy syndrome.
As I said it’s hard to speak about this stuff, because it can sound like its judgemental or without grace. Maybe we don’t see Jesus redemptive and gracious side in this because the Pharisees and scribes, opposed Jesus fiercely and tried to catch him out… But Jesus hope is always redemptive to invite people back to knowing God, God’s love, God’s grace and God’s forgiveness and finding their lives overflowing with the presence and joy of Knowing Jesus Christ: That we will allow the light of Jesus to shine into our lives and bring repentance and change. Don’t get stuck in these potholes and pitfalls…