This passage shows Jesus provoking two groups of Jewish leaders: the Pharisees and the Lawyers.
His confrontation with the Pharisees is recorded in verses 37-44. His provocation of the Lawyers is recorded in 45-54
In the midst of Jesus preaching, a Pharisee invited Jesus to dinner. No doubt he was curious about Jesus and wanted to observe him up close. There is no indication that the Pharisee was interested in the gospel. Rather, given his invitation to other Pharisees and Lawyers, he was interested in grilling Jesus and testing him.
Jesus went into this situation in a provocative manner from the beginning. He did this by walking straight in off the street and reclining at table. He did not wash his hands. This did not concern hand washing to remove dirt as you might do before dinner. It was about the ceremonial laws the Pharisees added to the Old Covenant Law. The idea was that you removed the corruption of the world from your hands so that, when you touched and ate your food, the food would not become corrupt and corrupt your body from the inside.
Both the Pharisees and the Lawyers were scrupulous observers of the ceremonial rules. Jesus knew this. Because he knew this, we see that he intentionally provoked them by not washing his hands while they were doing it.
The host, a Pharisee, was indeed provoked. Verse 38 says he was astonished. He was likely not the only one. We can imagine the man’s jaw dropping and his eyebrows going up. He, or others, may well have gasped. Jesus would have observed all of this and known what was going on.
Having gotten their attention with his provocation, Jesus went on the attack. He accused them of hypocrisy. Hypocrisy is a false appearance of goodness. A hypocrite appears to be one thing but is really another.
Since washing was the issue, Jesus used it as a metaphor. He said they only washed the outside of the cup and dish. If you did not wash the inside of the cup, the inside would remain dirty or corrupt.
It was a thinly veiled reference to hand washing. The Pharisees washed their hands, but their spirits were corrupt. They were greedy and wicked. (39) The Pharisees pursued wealth to the extent of hurting other people. They refused to support their parents by claiming they dedicated the money to God, yet they would later change the designation and not give the money. (Mark 7:11-12) They actually violated the commandment to honor their parents (Exodus 20:12) by making up a tradition to get around it.
They took widows’ houses when they fell into debt, rather than help the widows to survive. (Luke 20:47) Again, they violated the Lord’s clear instructions on the matter. Deuteronomy 10:18 says God executed justice for the widow. Psalm 68:5 calls the Lord the protector widows. Isaiah 1:17 tells us to plead the widow’s cause. Instead, the Pharisees took advantage of them to gain wealth. That is greed and wickedness.
Jesus called the Pharisees “fools”. (40) They had no moral judgment. They could act immorally while considering themselves moral leaders and guides.
In contrast, Jesus said they should give as alms those things that are within. (41) They should give love, concern, compassion and care. If they would do this, Jesus said they would be clean on the inside as they were on the outside.
But they were not clean. So, Jesus pronounced a “woe” upon them. It is a term of judgment, of misery to come. He said they tithed the smallest herb, but neglected justice and love of God. (42) In effect, he said they violated all of the commandments. Love of God is contained in the first table of the commandments and justice toward others in the second. This was a stunning condemnation of the Pharisees in the home of a Pharisee.
And still Jesus was not done. He accused them of pride, seeking the best seat in the synagogue and loving recognition in the market place. (43) In other words, their religion was not based on love for God, but on personal aggrandizement. They needed recognition. We must remember: we cannot seek our own glory and God’s glory at the same time.
His final condemnation was breath taking. He said they were like unmarked graves that people walked over without knowing. The context of this condemnation is the Old Testament rule that contact with a dead body make a person ceremonially unclean. (Numbers 19:16) If a grave was unmarked, a person could become unclean unintentionally. To avoid this, Jews marked their graves, often with white washed stone. Jesus was saying the Pharisees were corrupting people who did not realize it, for they looked good and their corruption was hidden by their apparent piety. He was also saying the Pharisees were dead inside. They were spiritually dead.
The Lawyers were experts in the Jewish law and traditions. They studied them. They taught them. They interpreted them.
One of the lawyers protested Jesus condemnations. He called them insults. (45) He pointed out that Jesus insulted them when he insulted the Pharisees. He was likely hoping Jesus would back pedal and say he did not mean to include them in the condemnation. Instead, Jesus went back on the attack and condemned them also.
The first condemnation was that they put burdens on people and did not help them bear them. (46) They made up rules which were burdensome for people already weighed down with rules and problems. Yet, they had no compassion. They did not help them with their burdens.
In contrast, Jesus offered rest and relief. In Matthew 11:29-30, he said:
“Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and i will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your should. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”
Second, they built tombs for the very prophets their ancestors killed. (47) They were complicit in their murders. Jesus, of course, knows they will kill him, too. So, Jesus said, the blood of all the prophets, from Abel to Zechariah, would fall on that generation of Jews. (51)
That is an incredible weight of guilt to bear. The guilt for killing every murdered prophet would fall on that generation. If the Lawyers and Pharisees had believed Jesus’ word, they would have fallen to the ground weeping and begging for mercy.
They did not repent and beg for mercy. And God did executed his judgment, having the Romans attack and destroy the city and, eventually, drive the Jews out of the area and forbid them to return.
Third, Jesus said they took away the key to knowledge. As experts in the law of God, they had the key to the knowledge of God and relationship with him. But they did not use the key. They did not enter into a relationship with God and they hindered others from entering by way of all of their rules.
The line was clearly drawn at this point with Jesus on one side and the Pharisees on the other. They began to openly oppose him. They tried to catch him saying something with which they could arrest him. (53-54)
Jesus' provocation of the Pharisees and Lawyers reveals his displeasure with hypocrisy. As the Son of God, he had, and has, the right to judge sin. But he also provoked them and revealed their sin to give them an opportunity to repent.
Jesus' provocation also serves as a warning to us. Be genuine. Be the same on the inside as on the out. If the inside is corrupt, allow Jesus to transform you. Receive him as Lord and Savior. Allow the Holy Spirit to transform and renew you, making you into the image of Christ. It will please him, help you and bring glory to God.