37-38 When he finished that talk, a Pharisee asked him to dinner. He entered his house and sat right down at the table. The Pharisee was shocked and somewhat offended when he saw that Jesus didn’t wash up before the meal.
In the first verses of this text, we get an indication that Jesus’ previous teaching (Luke 11:1-36) has motivated this Pharisee to want to spend more time with Jesus. Based upon what Jesus said—he rebuked those who alleged that he used satanic power to exorcise a demon from a man—the Pharisee asks Jesus to share a meal with him. The text does not suggest the Pharisee has evil intentions. However, there is a measure of curiosity.
The man’s curiosity quickly escalates to shock and indignation as Jesus does not participate in the ceremonial washing that was a part of the Pharisaic tradition. According to Mark 7:1-4—which Luke uses as a source for his Gospel—the Pharisees would not eat unless they give their hands a ceremonial washing, holding to the tradition of the elders. With regards to ritual cleanness, the Pharisees observed haburot—strict rules outlining how they should cleanse themselves and whom they could take meals (Mark 7:3-4). Jesus outrages his Pharisaic host by not washing after interacting with crowds while teaching and exorcising a demon from a man.
It seems that Jesus’ opting to not wash is purposeful, deliberate, and perhaps a new phase in His ministry. It is likely that Jesus may have participated in this practice early in His ministry as a means of “getting along.” Clearly, there was nothing wrong with doing so, but now, His refusal to participate was a “statement” that He would no longer uphold the needless traditions of the Pharisees. These traditions had become more important to them than the written Word of God. Thus, Jesus deliberately refrains from washing here to demonstrate the difference between Him, His teaching, and His practice, and that of the Pharisees. Further, his lack of washing highlights how his interpretation of God’s law negates their man-made traditions which seek to divide people instead of unifying them.
39-41But the Master said to him, “I know you Pharisees buff the surface of your cups and plates so they sparkle in the sun, but I also know your insides are maggoty with greed and secret evil. Stupid Pharisees! Didn’t the One who made the outside also make the inside? Turn both your pockets and your hearts inside out and give generously to the poor; then your lives will be clean, not just your dishes and your hands.
After observing this Pharisee’s response to his lack of washing, Jesus confronts the man, debating his actions, motives, and ultimately, his theology. This is the third time in Luke’s Gospel where Jesus debates with Pharisees over a meal or eats in the home of a Pharisee (5:29-32, at Levi's house; 7:36-50, with Simon, the Pharisee; 11:37-54, with a Pharisee; 14:1-24, with a leader of the Pharisees). He contrasts between body zones—the outer man, which is secondary, and the inner man, which is primary. Jesus sees the heart as being more important than appearance. He sees attitudes and motives as more important than actions. The Pharisees believed that we are made holy by working from the outside, in. However, Jesus believed that holiness (and defilement) worked its way from the inside, out.
While the Law addressed external matters, its ultimate purpose was to condition Israel’s heart towards loving like God. Jesus could therefore summarize the whole Law in terms of love—love for God and love for one’s neighbor. He taught that obedience to the Law must be a matter of spirit, and not just of letter. The Pharisees did not see it this way. Jesus told the Pharisee that the way to “clean up” was to empty the contents of the dish—what was inside—and thus all things would be clean. One cannot clean the inside of a dish if the dish is full. One of the evils of the Pharisees was greed; thus, Jesus proposed generosity as its antidote.
42 “I’ve had it with you! You’re hopeless, you Pharisees! Frauds! You keep meticulous account books, tithing on every nickel and dime you get, but manage to find loopholes for getting around basic matters of justice and God’s love. Careful bookkeeping is commendable, but the basics are required. 43-44 “You’re hopeless, you Pharisees! Frauds! You love sitting at the head table at Church dinners, love preening yourselves in the radiance of public flattery. Frauds! You’re just like unmarked graves: People walk over that nice, grassy surface, never suspecting the rot and corruption that is six feet under.”
Before the host could respond to His words, Jesus follows up with three stinging indictments—called controversy statements that are indicated by “Woe” language—against the Pharisees. (The Message uses the word Frauds to indicate The Woes.)
1. The Pharisees’ focus on fine points, but missing fundamentals. Jesus did not criticize the keeping of the Law in its small points, but He did say that the major thrust of the Law—justice and the love of God—must be fulfilled. While both are important, one is secondary; the other, primary.
2. The Pharisees’ preoccupation with position, prestige, and the praise of people. According to Jesus, the Pharisees were “full of greed and wickedness.” Motivated by pleasing people rather than God, the Pharisees could not speak the truth, nor interpret the Scriptures accurately, for then they would have been hated and rejected, just as the prophets, who did interpret the Scriptures accurately and spoke truthfully.
3. The Pharisees were a source of defilement, rather than of purification. In the Law that the Pharisees revered (Numbers 19:16), the Israelites were taught that a person was rendered ceremonially unclean by coming into contact with a grave. The Pharisees considered themselves holy, and thought they were leading Israel holiness. However, Jesus says the exact opposite was the case. He indicates they are covertly unclean, like unmarked graves—they are frauds who may be clean on the outside, but they are not clean inside. Further, those who came into contact with the Pharisees were rendered unclean, like people who become ritually unclean by walking over unmarked graves.
The Pharisees prided themselves on being and doing the ritually “clean” thing, but in fact they are spiritually unclean.