Luke XLIII: 11-37-54
Theodore Dalrymple points out in Life at the Bottom that leaders have a tendency to construct theories that do not actually match reality. Frequently, commitment to a particular vision or ideology works as a filter that strains out inconvenient facts that would call our vision into question. The “rightness” of a vision can often become a self-justification that functions as a blindness to the actual effects of their theories on the weak and poor and powerless. What Dalrymple points out in 20th century England, Jesus is explicitly exposing and confronting in the leadership of first century Judaism. The six woes of Jesus are a vehement pronouncement of judgment, driving home the central point that self-justification is the self-inflicted moral blindness at the root of all violence and bloodshed. And the only way for us to avoid this for ourselves is for Jesus to open our eyes.
Six Woes for Conservatives
The Pharisees were a highly respected conservative movement in Israel. Descending from the reforms of Ezra and Nehemiah, the Pharisees were concerned with moral and ethical fidelity to the law of Moses. But as Jesus pronounces these six woes, He systematically exposes the fact that a deep rot of hypocrisy has set in. Jesus has just said that an eye that is healthy fills a body with light, but an eye that is evil fills a body with darkness (Lk. 11:34-35). This has everything to do with judging rightly, understanding what is most important and least important. Bad eyes distort reality, causing people to be zealous for unimportant things and indifferent to the most important things. And this is a demonic sort of darkness because people are self-deceived, believing they are actually doing good. The only thing worse than a bad guy is a bad guy who’s absolutely convinced he’s a good guy. So notice the bad eyes: The Pharisees were concerned with ceremonial washing, but couldn’t see the greed and wickedness going on in their lives (Lk. 11:39). They are scrupulous about tithing herbs but neglect to do justice (Lk. 11:42). They are obsessed with proper greetings and etiquette, but do not actually live out the love of God (Lk. 11:43). They are obsessed with ceremonial uncleanness, but they are unmarked graves, secretly spreading uncleanness to everyone they come in contact with (Lk. 11:44). Likewise, the lawyers instruct people in burdensome laws but do not actually help anyone keep them (Lk. 11:46). They are very concerned about building monuments to the ancient prophets, but Jesus says that by their very obsession over the graves, they demonstrate that they are just like their fathers who killed those prophets (Lk. 11:47-48). The lawyers were supposed to teach the people of God in order to welcome them into the house of God, but their teaching had the opposite effect: locking everyone out (Lk. 11:52). All of these woes have this in common: they are lopsided priorities, which are causing great harm and evil. They ought to have done these things without neglecting the others (Lk. 11:42).
So how do people with good intentions become bad guys? How do people like the Pharisees, conservative Jews who care about the law of God – how do they become hypocrites? How do they become ministers of uncleanness? How do they become murderers? Jesus implies the answer in His condemnation of the lawyers: they build monuments to the prophets of God that their fathers killed (Lk. 11:47-49). Rene Girard points out that there is a deep tendency in all human cultures to divinize or deify their victims. In other words, it’s a universal tendency to build the tombs of the old, martyred prophets. This is because violence and murder often give the impression that peace has been restored. In Cain’s view, Abel was the problem. Abel was getting in the way of Cain’s blessing from God. Cain wanted God’s blessing, so he got rid of the problem. Once Abel was gone, Cain could worship God in peace. And so on with all of the prophets that God sent to Israel: if they could just be silenced, there would be peace and quiet. So for example: Has a father or mother ever been harsh or critical of their kids and justified it by saying they’re just trying to help them? Yes. Many clean cut, middle class Christian parents are violent with their words and attitudes in the name of excellence, in the name of Christian values. Has it ever produced good grades, musical prodigies, or successful businessmen? Yes it has. It appears that our method works, and so not only do we justify it, we begin to celebrate it. We build a monument on the grave of our son or daughter’s crushed soul.
The Blood of All the Prophets
But Jesus says that something unique is taking place during “this generation” – all the blood of the prophets from Abel to Zechariah (cf. 2 Chron. 24:20-22) is being charged to this generation (Lk. 11:50-51). It may appear to the Pharisees and lawyers that their way has worked, but Jesus says the consequences are coming. Everything is coming to a head. The seductiveness of living according to your own wisdom (justifying yourself) is that there is often a certain lag time to consequences. Sometimes lightening strikes the moment you take a cookie from the cookie jar, but often it doesn’t. That doesn’t mean there aren’t consequences, but sometimes people think so. Proverbs says that the house of the seductress leads to death (Prov. 7:27). But how many men (or women) have begun harboring lust in their hearts, giving into it, and justifying it since it doesn’t seem to be causing any immediate harm? In fact, since we want to be in the right, we do not merely excuse our sin, but eventually, we come to celebrate it. We deify our victims. We call good evil and evil good. We justify ourselves and gouge out our eyes. We find ourselves with a “stubborn refusal to face inconvenient facts… an ideological filter of wishful thinking…” But the guilt, the lies, the shame, the theft, the violence, the facts are not really gone at all; innocent blood cries out to God from the earth.
We cannot consider a passage like this without applying it very directly to our own situation in the Church and public square here in America. What we see in this text is that when a society is led and ruled by leaders who are characterized by hypocrisy, and the people find themselves helpless to do anything about it, God’s woe, God’s curse is upon that people. America is under the judgment of God. We call evil good and good evil, and the Church has been largely impotent.
However, the judgment of God in this world is never the last word. In Isaiah 5, six woes were proclaimed against Israel for their greed, for calling evil good and good evil; who put darkness for light, and light for darkness, for their drunkenness. But in Isaiah 6, there is a seventh woe. Isaiah sees a vision of the Lord and cries out: “Woe is me!” In other words, the woes of God are an invitation: either we accept God’s woe or we reject it. If we accept it, if we agree with God, then God comes with a burning coal and presses it to our lips and declares us clean. If we say that we are unclean, Jesus will take our judgment and make us clean.