37 Now when He had spoken, a Pharisee *asked Him to have lunch with him; and He went in, and reclined at the table. 38 When the Pharisee saw it, he was surprised that He had not first ceremonially washed before the meal. 39 But the Lord said to him, “Now you Pharisees clean the outside of the cup and of the platter; but inside of you, you are full of robbery and wickedness. 40 You foolish ones, did not He who made the outside make the inside also? 41 But give that which is within as charity, and then all things are clean for you.
42 “But woe to you Pharisees! For you pay tithe of mint and rue and every kind of garden herb, and yet disregard justice and the love of God; but these are the things you should have done without neglecting the others. 43 Woe to you Pharisees! For you love the chief seats in the synagogues and the respectful greetings in the market places. 44 Woe to you! For you are like concealed tombs, and the people who walk over them are unaware of it.”
I think reading through the gospels as we have, it’s pretty clear that strict adherence to chronology isn’t something to which the gospel writers pay much attention. Often times, the message or the theme of the section is more important to them than the order of events. With that in mind, Matthew 23 places these statements in the context of Jesus’ passion week when He is being challenged in the Temple by the Pharisees and He unloads on them before the assembled crowd, condemning their piety as nothing more than fraud.
Luke places them within the context of Jesus’ clash with the Pharisees wherein they called Him a servant of the devil.
When did it happen? I don’t know. It’s likely there were two sources involved with two different memories of the events. Luke adds the details that Christ was at a dinner thrown by a Pharisee and includes some interaction with another guest, so it’s possible Matthew either didn’t remember the details of when this happened, included it in the Passion section of his gospel because it blended into Matthew 24 which deals with the destruction of the Temple and shows that the Pharisees that rejected Christ were not the faithful stewards of God, but corrupt; or it’s possible that there were two separate occasions when Jesus unloaded on the Pharisees, but the language in the two passages is almost identical, so that seems unlikely.
Regardless, in this account, after the clash with the Pharisees, surprisingly, Jesus is invited over to be a guest for lunch at the home of a Pharisee.
Was this one of the Pharisees who wanted more proof? Or did he find Christ’s answer to the charges of his fellows to be satisfactory and wanted to talk more in private with the Lord? Or was he hoping for greater esteem from his friends for having the talk of the town in his home?
What sets off this section is the Pharisee either commenting negatively or showing some sort of disdain that his guests did not follow the traditions and wash their hands ceremonially. I don’t know if that meant that Christ and the disciples did not wash their hands at all or did so simply without observing the accompanying religious traditions that signified a deeper cleansing than a simple washing. But apparently Jesus has had enough of it all.
He first starts by condemning the Pharisees for being more concerned with their appearance of piety before others than the state of their hearts and minds. You wouldn’t wash just the outside of a bowl you just ate from, leaving the food residue to mold and putrefy , and then put it back in your dish cabinet. It’s disgusting, it stinks, and it’s harmful to anyone who would come into contact with that bowl later. If our religion only focuses on making us look holy before other people by our dress, our abstinence, our politics, our religious public displays of affection (T-shirts, bumper stickers, crosses), but does not move us towards charity and acts of love towards others, than we are nothing more than modern day Pharisees.
Christ moves on and describes how meticulous the Pharisees are at certain aspects of their faith. They would harvest spices and count out the grains to ensure that exactly 1/10th was given to God in accordance with the Law and the traditions. They were so focused on following the rules that they had no time or consideration for others, for doing what was right towards others, and by neglecting their fellow man, they were neglecting God.
Christ lastly condemns the Pharisees for desiring esteem. Esteem is something that we all crave. We want to be well-thought of by others. We want respect.
But according to Christ, it was this that the Pharisees served with their piety, not God. They did all of the ‘holy’ things they did to be well-thought of by their fellow Jews. They liked being put on a pedestal. Outwardly holy, they were indulging and delighting in pride and vanity. Christ compares them to hidden tombs. In Judaism, touching something dead made you ceremonially unclean. Thus Christ says that they are hidden dangers to the corruption of others. Because of their outward holiness and piety, people unsuspectingly elevated them as spiritual authorities, not knowing that their religion was self-serving.
And so I wonder what Jesus would say to us and our churches.