Woe to you Pharisees! You love the best seats in the synagogues and elaborate greetings in the marketplaces! Woe to you! You are like unmarked graves, and people walk over them without realizing it! - Luke 11:43-44 (NET)
Though one of the “experts in religious law” (11:45a) spoke up to let Jesus know that He was being remarkably offensive with His words, Jesus continued on in a way that let these men know, in no uncertain terms, that He found their kingdom-and-light-withholding ways offensive. He goes on to say, “Woe to you experts in religious law as well! You load people down with burdens difficult to bear, yet you yourselves refuse to touch the burdens with even one of your fingers! Woe to you! You build the tombs of the prophets whom your ancestors killed. So you testify that you approve of the deeds of your ancestors, because they killed the prophets and you build their tombs!” (11:46-48)
As we read these words, let us not fall back into the long-placed trap of imagining that Jesus is railing against their “works-based” religion, whereas He was attempting to bring forth a faith based upon a recognition of grace. This is not, nor was it ever the issue at hand. By mentioning the prophets, Jesus calls their attention to the underlying message of the prophets, primarily directed at the leaders of the people, which called attention to the failure to properly bear the covenant with which they had been charged, usually by entering into idolatry, and thereby failing to serve as a light to the nations that would draw people to the recognition and worship of Israel’s God---the Creator God. An inescapable and prominent component of this charge was the neglect of orphans and widows, and it would not be a stretch to say that the elevation of idols went hand in hand with such neglect, as one almost necessarily included the other. Now that idolatry in the traditional sense had been effectively put away and was no longer a problem, intensification of the demands of the law so as to bring about the establishment of the kingdom of heaven was a new form of idolatry that served to create more and more barriers to a widespread awareness of God, leading to the same type of neglect.
The issue was not one of works of the law versus grace and faith, but rather, exclusivism and isolation in an attempt to keep God’s covenantal promises for themselves versus truly functioning as lights for the world and extenders of the Abrahamic covenant. Truly, if one is so caught up in and astonished by a lack of ceremonial hand-washing and conformity to certain irrelevant sectarian prescriptions, how concerned is one going to be share the grand blessings of the Abrahamic covenant with a Gentile “sinner”? It is with such thoughts reverberating in our minds that we now go on to hear Jesus saying, “For this reason also the wisdom of God said, ‘I will send them prophets and apostles, some of whom they will kill and persecute,’ so that this generation may be held accountable for the blood of all the prophets that has been shed since the beginning of the world, from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah, who was killed between the altar and the sanctuary. Yes, I tell you, it will be charged against this generation” (11:49-51).
This is not to be taken lightly. Without delving into the “wisdom” traditions of Israel, not only do we see this as a stinging rebuke, but we must imagine the shock that would be felt as Jesus uttered these words. Whereas they believed that they were doing what was necessary to cause their God to embody the messiah and resoundingly act within history to defeat their enemies, rescue them from foreign subjugation, and install blessed Israel as the exalted nation of the world, Jesus informs them of His opinion that their isolating and excluding actions are productive of a mindset (revolution and rebellion?) that is going to bring yet another reckoning of judgment upon the nation.
He concludes by saying “Woe to you experts in religious law! You have taken away the key to knowledge! You did not go in yourselves, and you hindered those who were going in” (11:52). Talk of “going in” would have to be related to the coming kingdom of heaven that was going to be manifest on earth through their God acting through messiah. So with all of this, Jesus has effectively challenged the basis of their power structure amongst the people, which was the idea that they held the keys for the manifestation of the kingdom of heaven. If the masses were to continue listening to Jesus, and if they were to take up His way of neighborly and selfless acts done to and for all without limitation as the means of representing, ushering in, and making manifest the kingdom of God, then it would seem to be impossible to foster any type of movement to drive out the Romans so as to reclaim the covenantal land and enjoy the related promises. So we do not wonder at the fact that “When He went out from there, the experts in the law and the Pharisees began to oppose Him bitterly, and to ask Him hostile questions about many things, plotting against Him, to catch Him in something He might say” (11:53-54). Their desire to discredit Jesus would have been palpable and understandable.