“Of all the bad men, religious bad men are the worst.” – C.S. Lewis
As the gospel of Luke moves along, Jesus can be seen to be on a collision course with the religious and political Jewish leaders. He becomes more and more outspoken. The Gospel of today is the third and final part of this larger pericope. It began with a Pharisee who invited Jesus to a meal (verse 37) but he judged Jesus for not washing first, to which Jesus launched into an attack on the Pharisees as an institution calling them “fools” and pronouncing three woes on them. So much for a light dinner conversation!
It was then that a lawyer, who perhaps in an effort to distance his tribe from Jesus’ attack on the Pharisees, attempted to defend himself prompting Jesus to launch into round two. The scribes or lawyers were not lawyers in the common sense but rather those who were responsible for the academic study of God’s law. For Jesus, they were contaminating people’s lives with legalism. It is weight without leverage. They chose to create a system that focused on outward behaviour that could make them feel righteous rather than facing the true nature of sin.
Jesus hauled this lawyer and his tribe over the coals for making their religion more burdensome to others, but easier on themselves. The scribes shut the people off from scripture. Their interpretation of scripture was so fantastic that it was impossible for the ordinary man to understand it. In their hands scripture became a book of riddles. Now instead of taking the opportunity of repenting and being forgiven, they opposed Jesus and attacked Him. I guess that lawyer probably wished he kept his mouth shut!
The Pharisees and the lawyers also claimed to be great supporters of standing in the tradition of the prophets. In reality they rejected the message of the prophets. The prophets called the people to change their hearts. It was the prophets who declared that God saw obedience and responsiveness as more valuable than ritual sacrifice. The Pharisees and lawyers were guilty of the very thing that the prophets preached against. So they gave lip service to the prophets without paying attention to their message. They claimed the prophets without living out their message. Jesus lived so differently from what the Pharisees did. The Pharisees wanted people to change so that they could join them. Jesus wanted people to follow Him so that they could be changed.
Jesus harshly reprimands the lawyer and his tribe for opposing the Gospel and obstructing the progress and success of it. “Alas for you lawyers who have taken away the key of knowledge! You have not gone in yourselves, and have prevented others going in who wanted to.” What a terrible indictment to people who possess knowledge they are called to share with others!
Then again, the Pharisees and lawyers had not, faithfully explained to the people those scriptures of the Old Testament which pointed at the Messiah, which if they had done so, the people may have accepted Jesus. But, instead of that, they had misrepresented those texts, and had blinded the people to the truth. Matthew called this, “Shutting up the kingdom of heaven against men”, (Mt. 23:13). They did all they could to hinder and discourage, by threatening to cast them out of the synagogue, and otherwise terrifying them.
It was this body of religious leadership that laid upon men the thousand and one burdens of the ceremonial law whiles creating loopholes for themselves. They were experts in the law; they; but they did not keep them themselves, because they were experts in evasion. For example, they had put a walking limit on the distance a Jew could go from his or her home on the Sabbath. The limit of a Sabbath day’s journey by their tradition was 2,000 cubits (1,000 yards or 914 meters) from a man’s residence. But the religious scribes/the lawyers found a loophole, that enabled them to get around this limitation. They simply defined their home as anywhere their personal possessions were. So if they sent a servant out with a bag of worthless possessions one thousand yards up the road, and then repeated that again and again and again; they could go on long journeys because they were never away from their home, because their possessions were their home.
What is our take away?
One of the things we find so difficult to understand is the powerful presence of evil in our midst. Yet it is most certainly there. The chosen people had killed God’s prophets, and the contemporaries of Jesus ratify this by attacking him furiously, and finally kill him too. Our generation too commits unspeakable acts of cruelty and oppression against innocent persons and peoples.
The attitude of the scribes to the prophets was paradoxical. They professed a deep admiration for the prophets. But the only prophets they admired were dead; when they met a living one they tried to kill him. They honoured the dead prophets with tombs and memorials, but they dishonoured the living ones with persecution and death. Sometimes the most ostentatious markers on cemetery graves can reflect guilt, more than of love. Or similar desires to express lavish symbols or words at the funeral
We might wonder: Why would the lawyers or any of us pile up expectations that are more a burden? I suppose it can help us feel better about our own commitment. It can become a false means of feeling we are more responsible and committed than we really are. I may not actually be the most responsible in an area but I FEEL more responsible if I espouse a bunch of ideals on others. Or perhaps we find pride in what we are gifting in doing and so we lay these ideals on others without appreciating that they need more grace and help.
Jesus brings us back from behaviour to the heart. God is no attorney general planning to prove us guilty. He looks into our hearts, and loves us as his children.