Jesus Insults Religious People (On Purpose!)

We continue our series LOVE PRAY EAT, with this week’s message on Luke 11:37-54…

Jesus once again eats with the religious elite (see also 14:1-12), when one Pharisee is surprised by Jesus’ failure to wash before eating—something Jews did before meals, Bible study and prayer. Jesus is not long reclined at table when he issues four strident rebukes regarding the hypocrisy and abject failure of the Pharisees in their attempted devotion to God (11:39-44). 

We need to keep in context that the fact that Jesus is eating with the Pharisees indicates acceptance of them and fellowship with them. And as such, the early church, and us too, are being counselled on managing relationships with other hostile groups—perhaps even members of their own families. Jesus’ example is to continue table-fellowship with anyone. Being on the receiving end of a rebuke from Jesus does not necessarily mean exclusion and judgement (cf. 9:51), and Jesus will teach later “If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him” (17:3). To Jesus, the Pharisees are brothers.

In this meal scene, Jesus rebukes the Pharisees and lawyers because of their exclusion of the poor from their tables. Though these Jewish leaders are fastidious and disciplined in outward observances of purity such as ritual washings, and tithing their mint and rue, they are withholding alms for the poor (v. 41), neglecting justice and the love of God (v. 42), coveting places and positions of public honour (v. 43), burdening people and failing to help them (v. 46), persecuting the prophets sent by God (vv. 47-51), and withholding knowledge from the people and obstructing them in devotion to God (v. 52).

Jesus’ mission of salvation to bring good news to the poor, the prisoners, the blind and the oppressed is implicit in his rebuke. Jesus does not shy away from challenging those who obstruct this good news, even when he is the meal guest in someone else’s home. As C.S. Lewis once said, “If the Divine call does not make us better, it will make us very much worse. Of all bad men religious bad men are the worst.” Jesus seeks to save them by his rebuke.

Jesus is passionate for the Word of God, passionate for holiness and utter obedience for God, moves in the power of the Holy Spirit and calls sinful people to stop sinning. On the other hand, he is scathing towards injustice, greed, empty religion and rituals, and is devoted to helping the poor and oppressed. How does he so beautifully integrate holiness and devotion to God with actions of justice, mercy and compassion? How can we integrate both faithfulness to God and His Word, and live lives of love, justice and service?

Nicholas Tuohy

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