Luke 11:37-54 records a lunch at a Pharisee’s house that was anything but a cordial event. Even before the meal began, Jesus severely criticized his host and a number of guests. But perhaps He was talking about us.
At first glance, it seems that a simple, innocent matter precipitated the confrontation. The host was surprised (shocked?) that Jesus, and perhaps his twelve, sat right down at the table while the others were going through a traditional hand-washing ceremony1 concocted by the religious elite to demonstrate their devotion to God.
These kinds of rituals, like ceremoniously washing plates, cups and hands, were habits of their religion and characteristic of their lives. Meticulous attention to such rituals went so far that a Pharisee would only eat out at another Pharisee’s house because that was the only way he could be assured that every ingredient of a meal, no matter how small, even the spices, had been accurately tithed2
Yet Jesus told them their behavior only exposed their greed, not their devotion!
We humans seem to be irresistibly impressed with physical ritual that proves our devotion. It permeates every area of life but perhaps none so persistently and intensely as in religion. It’s been there since the beginning of recorded history. We see ritual in Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, animism and Christianity. People leave gifts before their statues, light candles, attend shrines, participate in carefully arranged ceremonies and even subject themselves to painful physical feats, all in the hope that these acts prove their devotion and improve their lives and eternal destiny. It is not less so among Christians. I can still remember the impressive display of cassocks and elaborate ceremony surrounding the last election of a Catholic Pope. Churches of all flavors have at times bitterly divided over things like the placement of the pulpit, formality of services and other outward traditions.
Jesus told the host and his friends at this luncheon that regardless of their loyalty to them, their rituals were deceptive. Those who kept them reminded him of unmarked graves that people might walk over without realizing how close they were to the rotten decay of death!
The story should make us stop an think about ourselves. Perhaps in our own eyes our religious rituals aren’t so awful, in fact some might not think their religious habits should be called rituals at all, but God might see in what we do the stench of death instead of true devotion. So what does God want us to do?
Did God fill your cup for you?
Jesus focused his lesson around a drinking cup. The ritualistic religious leaders thought that only eating out of cups that had been ceremoniously cleaned would show their devotion and gain them favor with God. Jesus talked about what was in the cup as a metaphor for two things, what was in their hearts and the material things God had given them.
Often when I go to the kitchen to pick out my favorite cup and prepare my favorite drink, I do it so I can sit and enjoy the taste of my drink. I’m focused on what benefit I will get out of the cup’s contents. When my wife goes into the kitchen however, she’s more often focused on what she can serve to others. She’s regularly preparing a meal or some treat for someone besides herself. She loves to use the dishes and the cups to serve other people something they need and will enjoy.
At this luncheon, Jesus told these leaders that their ceremonies, their displays of office, were for themselves. They were ways of convincing themselves that they were devoted to God and of gaining attention from others who were duped into being impressed by the dress and the ceremony.
But He also told them that what demonstrates that a person knows and represents His Father is when they give the poor and needy what God put in their cup.
But give what is in your cups and plates to the poor, and everything will be ritually clean for you. (Lk 11:41. GNT)
The New Testament writer James put it even more clearly:
What God the Father considers to be pure and genuine religion is this: to take care of orphans and widows in their suffering and to keep oneself from being corrupted by the world. (James 1:27 GNT)
I’ve noticed that many of us tend to try to compromise. We want our ceremony, our rituals, our favorite music, even our Bible studies, whatever makes us feel we are seriously worshiping God, and we give a little to the poor too.
Now I have some tough questions to ask.
Is it enough for us to give to our churches or other organizations so they can dole the money out to the poor and needy and let us stay uninvolved? Our society tries to keep the sick, the dying, the homeless in institutions or hidden under bridges away from public view. People cry that they are the government’s responsibility. Is it “pure” and “undefiled” religion to just send a check to our favorite Christian charity? Is it OK to do this and then go to “Church” (as our ritual that shows our devotion)?
Here’s another question. Is it OK to take advantage of people in business and give a little to the church? Are these things consistent with these words of Jesus?
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. (Lk 11:42. NASB95)
I know that each of us has to answer these questions for ourselves. I am certainly not the one you have to answer to. But I am certain that when ceremony and ritual become more important than caring for the needy, the lost, the prisoners, then we have become like the unmarked graves Jesus spoke of, full of death and decay rather than love of God and others.
Who are the poor and needy in your family, in your community, in your church that God would have you reach out to with even just some small thing that brings refreshment to a difficult life?
“And whoever in the name of a disciple gives to one of these little ones even a cup of cold water to drink, truly I say to you, he shall not lose his reward.” (Mt 10:42. NASB95)