A sermon by Dr Donald T. Williams - donaldtwilliams.com

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Presented at Trinity Fellowship on 04/30/1995

Luke 11:37-54

Curses of Consequence Luke 11:37 Now when he had spoken, a Pharisee asked him to have lunch with him. And he went in and reclined at the table. 38 And 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 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 front 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." 45 And one of the lawyers said to him in reply, "Teacher, when you say this, you insult us too." 46 But he said, "Woe to you lawyers as well! For you weigh men down with burdens hard to bear while you yourselves will not even touch the burdens with one of your fingers. 47 Woe to you! For you build the tombs of the prophets, and it was your fathers who killed them. Consequently, you are witnesses and approve the deeds of your fathers, because it was they who killed them and you build their tombs. 49 For this reason also the wisdom of God said, 'I will send to them prophets and apostles, and some of them they will kill, and some they will persecute, 50 in order that the blood of all the prophets shed since the foundation of the world may be charged against this generation, 51 from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah, who perished between the altar and the house of God; yes, I tell you, it will be charged against this generation.' 52 Woe to you lawyers! For you have taken away the key of knowledge; you did not enter in yourselves, and those who were entering in you hindered." 53 And when he left there, the scribes and the Pharisees began to be very hostile and to question him closely on many subjects, 54 plotting against him to catch him in something he might say. INTRODUCTION

Ever since the Feeding of the Five Thousand, a very definite pattern in the way the Lord related to the Jewish establishment has been building to a head. Ever since his rejection of Messiahship as popularly understood, ever since his forthright declaration that his way would be the way of the Cross, his encounters have become increasingly confrontational--especially his encounters with the Scribes and the Pharisees. This one elicits a series of "Woes unto you!" because it involves a confrontation with three religious attitudes which are under the curse of God because they are the enemies of true religion: Formalism, Legalism, and Clericalism.


Formalism is the idea that conformity to outward forms--ceremonies, rituals, practices, creeds--is either central to genuine piety or sufficient for acceptance with God. It is not that any of these things are bad in themselves; in fact they are all positive goods, some of which at least are essential to Christian faith. If you think we are against ceremonies, rituals, practices, or creeds, you have badly missed the point. The First-Century church was a liturgical church, and affirming that certain propositions about Jesus--summarized by the Creeds--are simply and literally true is essential to Christian identity. But necessary or essential, and sufficient, are two very different things. And even if they were not, a mere outward conformity that does not flow from inward reality in the heart is only a caricature of faith anyway. Formalism is a mentality that is focused on, and satisfied with, that outward conformity. And it is deadly to real and vibrant Christian faith.

Jesus' example of formalism here is the Pharisees' ceremonial ablutions (vs. 38-44). Few Jews were as zealous about them as the Pharisees, but most Jews would have gone along with them, especially as a guest in a Pharisee's house. Jesus seems to have provoked this exchange deliberately by omitting his. Why? Because he had just been with the crowd, the am ha 'eretz. In the Pharisaic mind, that was what made him unclean. No "righteous" Jew would eat with people like that. This emphasis was in fact the distinguishing mark of Pharisaic religion; that's why it was an important issue for Jesus' host. I strongly suspect that Jesus objected to the attitude of self righteousness and contempt for the common people implied in the washings he was expected to observe, and pointedly omitted them for that reason.

When his host calls him on it, Jesus responds with a two-fold analysis of formalism that exposes its weaknesses as an approach to faith. The first part is the Parable of the Cup. The Pharisees are so careful to wash the outside of the cup or the platter, but leave the inside full of corruption. This parable always evokes a very vivid memory of my childhood for me. One of my most hated chores was washing dishes. Well: do any of y'all remember those old Boy Scout cooking kits? They had a frying pan and a plate that folded together around a pot and a cup on the inside. Well, I had been on a Scout campout with one of those. I made bacon and scrambled eggs in the frying pan the last morning, along with oatmeal in the pot--burning some of both--and then, always being willing to put off washing the dishes, I just folded the whole mess up together on the inside, wiped off the outside, and took it home. I am ashamed to report that I would have made a good Pharisee, for I proceeded to stick this outwardly shining set of cookware in my closet without a further thought--until, about two weeks later, my Mom noticed a rather strange odor exuding from that closet. I am sure that several life forms unknown to biological science must have evolved in there in the interim. I got to see to their extinction under the watchful maternal eye, the folded maternal arms, and the tapping maternal foot. I would have been better off to have cleaned out the inside of the vessel in the first place!

Well, you are all enjoying a good laugh at my youthful folly, and rightly so. But is it not sobering to think that not only ancient Pharisees but many modern Christians take exactly the same approach to living the Christian life? Hey, it looks clean! All the t's are crossed and all the i's are dotted! What could possibly be the problem? After all, is this not the definition of true religion, to have a public image unspotted from the world? Ahem. Jesus wants us to understand that correct outward forms can easily be a mask for inward corruption. In the case of the Pharisees, it was a combination of self righteousness and a lack of compassion and charity for the masses. What might it be in ours?

The second part of Jesus' analysis involves his jibes about the prophets' tombs. Your fathers killed the prophets, and you build their tombs. In modern terms, we might say, "Your father pulled the trigger, and you dug the grave and shoved the body in." There is both hypocrisy and self deception here. The irony is that while outwardly the scribes are expressing their devotion to the prophets and their teaching, they were in fact not only rejecting their message, but were about to follow in their fathers' footsteps by killing the greatest Prophet of all! Outward forms can cloak a commitment to something entirely different from--even opposite to--what the forms were originally designed to express.

What does all this mean for us today? We must make no mistake. Going through the motions does not save, even if they are correct motions. Now, of course, American Evangelicals and Fundamentalists don't have any problems with this, do we? That only happens in liberal churches, right? Hmmm. Have you ever known people who judge the spirituality of a church by whether it has an altar call at the end of every service? I am not against altar calls. They have their proper use and place. But to make them a formality is not only to subject our worship to reductionism--if everything is evangelism, what happens to worship, edification, discipleship? You know what happens to them in many of our churches: they disappear. It not only reduces everything to evangelism, it even hinders the very process of evangelism itself! Listen to me: The corruption of the altar call by formalism is one of the greatest hindrances to effective evangelism in the American Bible Belt. How many times have I heard someone say, "Of course I'm saved; I went forward when I was ten." Some of us have done the same thing with baptism. "Of course I'm saved; I was baptized when I was eleven." Does this person understand the Gospel? Does he have any real living faith in Christ as his savior or commitment to him as his Lord? No. But he is saved! Yes, and a cup that has been washed only on the outside is ready to be used to serve your guests. Formalism is the idea that conformity to outward forms--ceremonies, rituals, practices, creeds--is either central to genuine piety or sufficient for acceptance with God. It is a mentality that is focused on, and satisfied with, that outward conformity. And it is deadly to real and vibrant Christian faith.


Legalism is a word that has been abused almost to the point of becoming useless. To most people, a legalist is anyone who is committed to a lifestyle that is more strict than one's own. Needless to say, that is not what the Lord is talking about here. Used accurately, legalism is the mentality that depends on keeping the Law as the path to salvation. But it is easy to see why the word picks up the connotation of petty strictness. For if our focus is on keeping the rules, if keeping the rules is the key to spirituality, then the emphasis is naturally going to be on keeping rules, and the stricter the better, the stricter the more spiritual. Just as we must not be thought to be opposed to the right use of ceremony, ritual, practice, or creed when we oppose formalism, so also we are not against obeying God's Law when we oppose legalism. In a way quite parallel to formalism, legalism is a mentality that tends to substitute the outward observance for the inward reality. The focus gets put on keeping the rules rather than on why we should be following them in the first place, which is the only thing that enables us to follow them in the spirit in which they were meant to be followed: love of God and of our neighbor. Without love, law keeping will quickly become ugly even while one's behavior is technically correct.

The Lord's examples of legalism are the tithes (vs. 42) and the burdens (vs. 46) which the Pharisaic mentality imposed on its followers. They took tithing to the point where they would go through their spice rack and carefully measure out a tenth of each jar--while ignoring the weightier matters of the Law, justice and love. The "burdens" refer to the whole system of rules they had generated to "put a hedge around the law" and make sure they never even came close to breaking it. If the Sabbath overtakes you on a journey, can you unload your donkey? You can untie his pack and let it fall to the ground by itself, but not actually lift it off; that would be work! The point is not that we should not tithe, or that we should not make the Sabbath a special day. The point is that once you start thinking of Law keeping as the path of salvation, once that rather than the grace of God becomes your focus, you inevitably get the cart before the horse and end up keeping a version of the Law that becomes a caricature of God's will--all the while that love and justice are being neglected with the very best of intentions.

Do we have a problem with legalism? Yes, we do, whenever we try to bind the conscience beyond what Scripture says. There are Christians who have made drinking alcohol the eighth deadly sin. Am I advocating social drinking? That is not my point. My point is that teetotalism, while it is an honorable practice and may be a wise one in our society, is never commanded by Scripture, and therefore we do not have the right to make it a test of spirituality. Storehouse tithing, attending public theater, playing cards--we are less prone to turn these kinds of things into shibboleths than we were a generation or two ago. But there are still those who do. And to think that the problem of legalism has disappeared merely because some of the traditional outward manifestations of it have disappeared is to fall into the trap of formalism! Maybe our besetting sin is the opposite error, antinomianism. If so, the best way to fall back into legalism again is to become complacent about it. It is deadly to real and vibrant Christian faith. Let us be people who season everything with grace, who see God's unmerited favor manifested in our lives, who say, "There but for the grace of God go I," who do not neglect justice and love. Let us not be negative, even about legalism, but be people who are positively in love with the grace of God! That is our best protection.


Clericalism is not the belief that the Church should have clergy, a regular, called, equipped, set apart, and ordained ministry. Of course it should. Clericalism is the wrong kind of dependence on that clergy and their God-ordained ministry. It is the idea that there are two levels of access to God, and that ministers have a different, higher level than regular lay people. I always have a complex reaction when people ask me to pray for themselves or for a loved one. Of course I am honored by their request and am glad to do it--but often I suspect that they are asking me because they think that as a minister my prayers will "count" more than theirs do. They do not. God is no respecter of persons; he does not play favorites. I and other ministers are gifted and called to be teachers of the Church, examples to God's people, and undershepherds of the flock of Christ, our chief Shepherd. But we equip the saints to do what all God's people should be doing. We are not a special caste essentially different from other believers.

Jesus' examples of this error are the Pharisees' love of the chief seats in the synagogue (vs. 43) and the scribes' withholding of the key of knowledge (vs. 52). They gave the impression that only they could interpret Scripture; it was too high and holy and difficult a book for simple laymen to read for themselves. Well, I hope I never give that impression. I am here to help you learn to read the Bible profitably and interpret and apply it for yourselves, not just to do it for you. The interpretation and application of Scripture should be a joint project of the whole Church, in which we correct each others' errors of fact or emphasis. I am here to help it happen. Though I read Greek and have the gift of teaching and have skills of logic and analysis honed by training and practice, that does not give me the right to pontificate! I have no authority save the authority of the Word. You should be searching the Scriptures yourselves to see if these things be so. My job is to use my training to enable you to do just that.

We look down our noses at those churches which call their ministers "priests" and make them special mediators without which the members cannot approach God. But do we commit the same errors? We all know preachers who are little Protestant Popes, and congregations who are glad to have it so. The last thing we want to do is have to think for ourselves! We turn our media savvy preachers into superstars and hang on their every word. But like formalism and legalism, this mentality is deadly to true spirituality and saps the Church of the strength it needs to witness effectively for Christ. Let us honor and respect our pastors and follow them as they follow Christ and open the Scriptures to us. We do damage to ourselves spiritually when we despise them, but equally when we put them on the wrong kind of pedestal. Let clericalism, like formalism and legalism, never be named among us again!


Formalism; legalism; clericalism. We must beware of these attitudes, these mentalities, these approaches, in ourselves and in our leaders. Why? Because they are deadly; they make us like concealed tombs (vs. 44), full of death even though nobody can see it. It is easy to spot these curses in other Christians or other churches; it is easy for them to lie hidden and unnoticed in our own circles, because their very nature is to make everything look outwardly OK to those whose minds are abused by them. And so we must be vigilant against them, for otherwise they will bring defilement and spiritual sickness and death on us as individuals or as congregations, costing us the blessing of God. Woe to the Pharisees and Scribes in our midst! Woe to their mentality! And woe to us if we are not diligent to avoid these spiritual pitfalls. To do so, let us keep our eyes on Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith. Amen.

Here endeth the lesson. Dr. Donald T. Williams

Updated Oct-17-2005