Commentary on Luke 11:42-46
Jesus today continues to attack the attitudes of Pharisees. These remarks are not to be thought of as applying to all Pharisees, many of whom were good people. Paul himself was once a Pharisee as was Nicodemus, who came to Jesus by night, and Gamaliel, who, in the Acts (5:34ff), urged caution in persecuting the disciples of Jesus. Jesus is to be seen rather attacking a certain mentality which can all too easily be among us Christians and, if we are honest, sometimes in ourselves.
Here Jesus attacks them for their scrupulous observance of even the tiniest of regulations, not because that is wrong but because they by-pass the love of God which is what really matters. He attacks them for their status-seeking. They expect people to look up to them and give them special honours because of their supposed higher level of religious observance. They expect to be given front seats in the synagogue and for people to greet them obsequiously in the streets.
Usually graves were whitewashed so that people would not walk over them by mistake. The Pharisees are like unmarked graves which people unwittingly come in contact with and thus become tainted with ritual uncleanness. In other words, people coming in contact with them are not aware that under the veneer of piety inside they are really containers of rottenness and corruption. (Elsewhere, Jesus describes them as whitewashed graves where the outer cleanliness conceals inner corruption.)
In the past (and perhaps in some places it is still the case), the clergy have often expected similar honours to be paid to them. Very often, people willingly did so because they genuinely respected their bishop or their priest. But there were cases where the honours were not deserved but were demanded and expected. But, as used to be said, the habit does not make the monk nor the Roman collar the priest nor the mitre the bishop.
At this point, one of the scribes or experts in the law objected because in speaking like that about the Pharisees, Jesus was attacking them too. (Some of the scribes were also Pharisees.) But they are equally deserving of criticism. Because by their narrow-minded and nit-picking interpretations of the law they make it difficult for ordinary people to keep the law, while they themselves do nothing to help. Moreover, they add rules and regulations to the Mosaic Law, do nothing to help people keep them and find ways for themselves to get around them.
The Church itself over the centuries has not been above criticism in this area either. And perhaps it is still true today. Bishops and priests have often laid heavy burdens on the faithful and not given much help in carrying them. Sometimes church leaders have been more anxious to preserve traditional practices than lead people to a deeper love of Christ and each other.
But the clergy have no monopoly on this. Parents too can be guilty when they follow double standards, making one rule for themselves and another for their children. Similarly teachers with students or employers with employees… “Do as I say; don’t do as I do”, as teacher Miss Jean Brodie tells her students in Muriel Sparks’ novel.
Pharisaism is alive and well in our society but the first person I need to check is me.