Alas, alas for you, lawyers and pharisees

Luke 11:37-40 from The Voice Bible

A Pharisee interrupted His speech with an invitation to dinner. Jesus accepted the invitation and took His place at his table. 38 The Pharisee was offended that Jesus didn’t perform the ceremonial handwashing before eating—something Pharisees were fastidious about doing. Jesus said: 39 You Pharisees are a walking contradiction. You are so concerned about external things—like someone who washes the outside of a cup and bowl but never cleans the inside, which is what counts!  Beneath your fastidious exterior is a mess of extortion and filth. 40 You guys don’t get it.  Did the potter make the outside but not the inside too? 41 If you were full of goodness within, you could overflow with generosity from within, and if you did that, everything would be clean for you.


A seminary professor told a story: There was once a rabbi, he says, who had a cat.  The cat loved the sound of the rabbi’s voice; and when the rabbi got up to preach, the cat would wander around the sanctuary and distract the listeners.  The elders decided that before worship began, they would tie the cat to a chair, and then it couldn’t wander.  So every Sabbath they did this. 

Worship started, the rabbi would climb into the pulpit to preach, and an elder would tie the cat to a chair.  Time passed.  Some years later the rabbi died.  A new rabbi came.  He got up to preach and was surprised to see an elder get up and tie a cat to a chair.  “What is this?” he said.  “Why are you tying this cat to a chair?”  “We always do that,” the elder replied.  “Before the sermon, we tie up the cat.”  The new rabbi shrugged and let it go, and to this day whenever a rabbi begins his sermon in that synagogue, there is an elder tying a cat to a chair, for a reason that no one remembers. 

The truth is that rituals can outlive their usefulness.  They can lose their grounding in that place of deep faith and turn into rules that we follow for no good reason–at least no reason anyone remembers.  This is a premise in this scripture in Luke.  Honestly, it’s not the most popular of scriptures.  There aren’t any miracles or healings and Jesus doesn’t invite anyone to sit down on the side of a mountain or a hill or on a flat plain for a parable or sermon.

The story is straightforward.  A Pharisee invites Jesus home for dinner, and when they sit down at the table, the man is a little surprised that Jesus hasn’t washed his hands.  After all, it’s basic, right?  Before you eat, you wash your hands.  The idea of somehow purifying yourself before asking God to bless food seems reasonable. Thoughtful. Good.  Rev. Anna Florence Carter, a Presbyterian pastor and professor understands ritual this way:

The Pharisees had a lot of rituals, and most of them were pretty good ones; they made sense.  It makes sense to wash your hands before you eat, doesn’t it?  Of course it does.  Let’s make a ritual out of it.  It is good to treat your guests with honor, isn’t it?  Yes.  Let’s make a ritual out of it.  The Pharisees did that all day long.  They kept track of the rules and the manners that structure our lives and keep things running smoothly.  She goes on to say: But rituals can also outlive their usefulness.  They can lose their grounding in that place of deep faith and turn into rules that we follow for no good reason, at least, no reason that anyone remembers.  It’s like continuing to tie the cat to a chair just before the preacher gives her sermon.  No one remembers why.

So, are rules good or bad?

Too much emphasis on rules will tarnish and eventually wreck relationships.  Truth is that we will never measure up to all the rules in the Scriptures.  And as long as there are people on guard telling others (or even you or me) that we have “messed up”, we will never feel worthy enough to come before the One who adores us.  The best that we can feel is repentance for our blame, shame, guilt and unworthiness.  This is not what our loving God desires. 

On the other hand, too few rules will make us reckless.  We do have a propensity to be self-centered.  And, the fewer the rules, the less we are concerned about others.  The less we will admit we need God.  The less we will show compassion and discipline and love. 

Before we start arguing the points of too many rules or not enough rules; let’s stop and remember that the rules and the rituals always have to reflect who we are as Christians:  We are called to love God and love our neighbor. Jesus told the Pharisees, stop washing only the outside of your cup.  The best way to clean inside your cup is with acceptance and generosity.  Nothing cleans us inside like giving from the inside of the dish to others!  How do you live your life?  As one who shows the good of God to others or are we caught up in “Looking Good” to others?

We read in Micah 6:8 how we to live: What does the Lord require, but to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God.  What if our rules and rituals reflected what Jesus is doing inside of us!  Remember that the point isn’t to show how clean you are and how dirty someone else is; it is to show the acceptance and generosity that Jesus shows us – to create a clean heart.  As we are bombarded with news of conflict, hurt and pain in our world this week, may our prayer be: Cleanse me, O God, from all unrighteousness. 

I just love being your pastor, Cason!  Joy, joy,

Pastor Alexis

One Response to “Alas, alas for you, lawyers and pharisees”

  1. Linda Weiss says:

    I believe the Pharisees are so busy “judging others “ that they have missed the most important part. They are “ rule followers” to say the least; and possibly blinded by trying to get it right. They have done this for years and no one ever questioned them. Then came Jesus— Jesus just showed them another way to look at what they are doing. Or what they are missing out. Did they listen to Jesus? Do I listen to Jesus when He shows me another way? I certainly hope I do listen. I hope I don’t become like the Pharisees. May God open my eyes to see His way, and His way only. All scriptures are God – breathed and are to teach, instruct and guide me to live in God’s way.
    God knows my heart and may I never become unteachable!

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