In Luke 11:42-44, Jesus continues a confrontation with the Pharisees. The Pharisees were the religious leaders of Israel during the 1st century. They were opposed to Jesus and his claims of authority. In this narrative, Jesus has accepted a dinner invitation from one of the Pharisees and the dinner host is bothered by the fact that Jesus did not ceremoniously cleanse himself before the meal. In the verses just preceding these, Jesus has confronted the dinner gathering with the idea that God is more concerned with the inside cleanness of a person than the outside. In other words, Jesus challenges their hypocrisy and calls them to repentance for their attitudes of greed and wickedness.
Now he pronounces three “woes” upon the Pharisees. “Woe” in the Bible is typically an expression of indignation. That is certainly true in this case as Jesus is indignant over the intense legalism of the Pharisees. The three “woes” demonstrate three different ways in which the Pharisees were promoting extreme legalism contra to God’s design of grace through faith.
The first woe was for being overly legalistic about tithing herbs and neglecting demonstrations of the love and justice of God. Jesus was indicating that there were weightier commands. The extreme emphasis on tithing was putting love and justice on the bottom rung. But these issues reflect the attributes of God and matter to him deeply. It is not that tithing is unimportant in God’s economy. This aspect is actually found in the Old Testament Law, unlike the tedious nature of cleansing that the Pharisee was concerned about in verse 38. The point is that love and justice should be shown a greater weight of importance, as indicated by the words of Jesus in verse 42.
The second woe was for desiring status, prestige, and recognition through the longing of the best seats and proper greetings. Jesus condemns this longing for status as it is simply a longing to be superior to someone else.
The third woe seems more general and likely refers back to the hypocrisy of the Pharisees. This is similar to verses 37-41. To come in contact with a grave was defiling according to Jewish tradition. Jesus tells the Pharisees that they are like unmarked graves. People regularly come in contact with them, and they see outward righteousness and piety. But they are coming in contact with something that is inwardly evil and has the potential to be truly defiling. The Pharisees are leaders who demand exacting rule keeping and proper respect–but do not know or understand Messiah and the grace of the gospel.
Don’t forget, these were religious leaders. We can learn from them–either by correction or warning. What are we to take away from the words of Jesus?
Do you hold people to a certain standard of spiritual living without demonstrating the love and justice of God?
Do you expect the “best seats” and “respectful greetings?” Do you long for status and prestige? Do you see yourself as spiritually superior to others?
Do you live and lead as a hypocrite? Are you placing exacting demands upon those you lead rather than living in and pointing to the grace of the gospel?