Luke 11:37-54 – “Woe” to Religious Leaders


Luke 11:37-54


At a meal with Pharisees and Jewish legal experts, Jesus harshly denounces them for their greed, hypocrisy, and violence.


These are some of Jesus’ most stinging words in the Gospel of Luke. Upon people generally known and revered for their commitment to live in faithful accord with the law of Moses, Jesus unleashes a stream of indictments concerning false and hypocritical piety. What Jesus says goes beyond calling Pharisees and scribes misguided; he assaults their character and motives. At the root of his criticisms is the claim that they have failed in their ability to provide authentic spiritual leadership. The hypocrisy, greed, and desire for acclaim that Jesus sees on display in their lives make them dangerous people. Pharisees purport to promote purity, but they actually serve as a source of impurity that others cannot easily recognize, just as an unmarked grave gives no warning to people who might accidentally defile themselves by walking over it. Scribes are guilty of violence against prophets that God sends. Jesus pronounces them culpable for everything from the Old Testament’s first murder (Abel, in Genesis 4:8) to its last one (Zechariah, in 2 Chronicles 24:20-21). (In some orderings of the books of the Jewish Scriptures, 2 Chronicles came last, thus Jesus is referring to murders at the beginning and the end of the Scriptures.)

It is important to note that Jesus is here criticizing specific people whom he believes have misunderstood the nature and function of the law of Moses. He is not critical of the law; nor does he proclaim the law and its rituals as obsolete. He is not critical of Judaism; nor does he condemn all Jews or their desires to live in obedience to God’s law. His point is that these particular people who have assumed responsibility for aspects of Judaism’s religious life have misunderstood what God intends for humanity and are adhering to the law in the wrong way. Their guise of holiness ensnares others. It is vital to note that this depiction of Pharisees and scribes is a caricature, assuming that the whole lot of them are corrupt and hypocritical. Jesus’ criticism is exaggerated and over-the-top, probably a lingering reminder of hostility or resentment between Jesus’ followers in the first century and Jews who remained unconvinced by claims that Jesus is the Messiah. Christians who appeal to this passage to demean Pharisaism in general and to despise devotion to law-obedience risk perpetuating long standing anti-Jewish assumptions, which have too often captivated the Christian church and its people, with terrible consequences.