by Chris Ritter

After filling my garage with cardboard during the year of COVID-19, I had lately been doing pretty well staying away from the Amazon App on my phone. But I could not resist a deal I ran across on a carpet cleaner: On sale, free Prime delivery, and an account credit burning a hole in my pocket. It had to happen. After all, there was a stain in my study that I could not wait to tackle. It was mysteriously formed when the room was a bedroom for one of my kids. It went unnoticed because it was under a table. Now that the room was my study, it was no longer hidden and I walked past it every day.

The new machine arrived on time and the assembly instructions were not too tough. It has a clean water tank, a detergent tank, and a dirty water tank. I breezed through the instructions and was eager to get right to work. It came to life with a nice, healthy hum. But I noticed what while the clean water tank level was going down there was no dirty water being picked up. The carpet was getting wet, but it was not getting clean.

When all else fails, what does a man do? If the situation is truly desperate, he read the instructions. Toward the back of the manual there was a section called “Troubleshooting Guide.” This is a list of frequent problems encountered by people trying unsuccessfully to operate the machine. I found the one that said, “Dirty water failing to suction: Waste water tank not filling.” It asked, “Are you sure you securely fastened the waste water reservoir to the unit?” I was sure I had. But I checked anyway. This time, the clicked in better than before. Soon I was cleaning carpets like a champ.

Troubleshooting starts, of course, with trouble. You can have trouble with your car, your computer, or even your marriage. But have you ever thought about troubleshooting your faith? When you read the Gospel of Luke, it is clear that Jesus was convinced there is such a thing as bad religion. Today we are in Luke 11 where Jesus pronounces a series of woes upon some of the most upright and religiously observant people of his day.

So this message today is for us religious folks, people of faith.

There seem to be a lot of television shows about cake. My wife and daughter like one called “Nailed It!” Professional bakers show amateurs an elaborate confection and challenge them to duplicate it. The results are… interesting. For us, Jesus is the picture on the outside of the box. When our version of faith becomes a comedic failure, it is time to troubleshoot… not pretend that everything is fine. Let’s look at Luke 11.

37 When Jesus had finished speaking, a Pharisee invited him to eat with him; so he went in and reclined at the table. 38 But the Pharisee was surprised when he noticed that Jesus did not first wash before the meal.

39 Then the Lord said to him, “Now then, you Pharisees clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside you are full of greed and wickedness. 40 You foolish people! Did not the one who made the outside make the inside also? 41 But now as for what is inside you—be generous to the poor, and everything will be clean for you.

42 “Woe to you Pharisees, because you give God a tenth of your mint, rue and all other kinds of garden herbs, but you neglect justice and the love of God. You should have practiced the latter without leaving the former undone.

43 “Woe to you Pharisees, because you love the most important seats in the synagogues and respectful greetings in the marketplaces.

44 “Woe to you, because you are like unmarked graves, which people walk over without knowing it.”

45 One of the experts in the law answered him, “Teacher, when you say these things, you insult us also.”

46 Jesus replied, “And you experts in the law, woe to you, because you load people down with burdens they can hardly carry, and you yourselves will not lift one finger to help them.

47 “Woe to you, because you build tombs for the prophets, and it was your ancestors who killed them. 48 So you testify that you approve of what your ancestors did; they killed the prophets, and you build their tombs. 49 Because of this, God in his wisdom said, ‘I will send them prophets and apostles, some of whom they will kill and others they will persecute.’ 50 Therefore this generation will be held responsible for the blood of all the prophets that has been shed since the beginning of the world, 51 from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah, who was killed between the altar and the sanctuary. Yes, I tell you, this generation will be held responsible for it all.

52 “Woe to you experts in the law, because you have taken away the key to knowledge. You yourselves have not entered, and you have hindered those who were entering.”53 When Jesus went outside, the Pharisees and the teachers of the law began to oppose him fiercely and to besiege him with questions, 54 waiting to catch him in something he might say.

Luke 11:37-54

We are in the last leg our journey through the Gospel of Luke. Jesus is headed to Jerusalem and his conflict with the religious establishment is growing hotter and hotter. Our passage today opens with Jesus dining at the home of a Pharisee. So many interesting encounters happen in Luke during table fellowship. Jesus attends a banquet hosted by a tax collector, Levi. At another dinner party, a sinful woman comes and anoints Jesus’ feet with her tears. Jesus calls Zacchaeus down from the tree and goes to his house. And, of course, the last thing Jesus will do before going to the Garden of Gethsemane would be gathering around the table with his disciples.

Jesus’ host was surprised that Jesus did not follow the Pharisees’ religious cleansing ritual before mealtime. Kids, this is not an excuse to avoid washing before dinner. We are not told that Jesus’ hands were dirty. This was a specific religious practice by the Pharisees to wash away the spiritual pollution of the world. They would dip their hands in a basin and let the water run off their fingertips in just a certain way. It was an outward sign of piety that was one of a million little signals they built into their lives to show they were different.

Woes Upon the Religious

Jesus will use their complaint against him as an opportunity to draw contrast between the outward symbols of faith and the real thing… the failed it, and the nailed it. He will pronounce six “woes” in this short passage… three on the Pharisees and three on the teachers of the Law. The “woe” was a familiar declaration of God’s judgement upon the ungodly. The Pharisees pronounced woes all the time, I am sure, against tax collectors, Samaritans, the other undesireables. Jesus turns the woes on the religious elites and each provides an opportunity for us to trouble-shoot our own faith. Jesus told his host that they do a fine job of cleaning the outside of the cup, but they leave the inside full of filth. In the case of the Pharisees, they loved money and were filled with greed. Their external rituals hid hearts far from God.

You can have all the externals of religion mastered but still be far from God. The heart of the matter is the matter of the heart. Salvation is having the love of God shed abroad in your heart by the Holy Spirit. Ritual can be life-giving. Holy habits are good things. But they are no replacement for a transformed heart. Tt was the cry of David, “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.” A contrite and soft heart means more to God than a thousand sacrifices. The Pharisees exhibited a cold heart toward the poor and those who were suffering. Real and undefiled religion, James says, is to care for the widow and the orphan.

The first woe Jesus pronounces upon the Pharisee had to do with their tithing… giving ten percent to God. Tithing, of course, is a good thing commanded by God. They were so exacting in this practice that they even tithed every tenth leaf from their herb gardens. They missed, however, the weightier matters of love and justice. In another place, Jesus accuses them of straining out gnats and swallowing camels. (Matt. 23:34). No matter how religious you might appear to be, if you are not a loving and just person you are not on the right track. Keep the main thing the main thing.

A friend named Mike was the lay leader of a local church. As part of his duties, he prayed over the offering when it was brought forward by the ushers. Mike has recently sold a house in town and bought acreage where his daughter could have room to pursue her passion of raising and riding horses. His previous house sold to aa bi-racial couple in the almost completely white town. As the ushers brought the offering plates up to Mike, one of them whispered in his ears: “It would be a shame if something happened to you horses.” This obvious threat during worship almost sent Mike’s faith spiraling downward. It was only after talking with prayerful Christian friends that he was able to find strength to combat the evil that had reared its head in the sanctuary that day.

The High Seat in the Synagogue

Jesus pronounced woe on the Pharisees for loving their high seats of honor in the synagogue and respectful greetings by others in the marketplaces. If we are not careful, we will use faith as an arena to promote our own ambitions. Church is a place to connect with God and encourage other. But you can also connect to be noticed, run for office, or promote your business. We all liked to be noticed, respected and honored. When it comes to faith, we need to live for the applause of heaven, not people. Jesus reminded them to live for an audience of One.

The third woe was pronounced by Jesus because the Pharisees were like unmarked graves that people walk on without noticing. In this culture, touching a grave or dead body would make you ceremonially unclean. An unmarked grave was a problem because people could be defiled without even knowing it. The Pharisees were contagious in their focus on the externals. We reproduce what we are. Legalists beget legalists. Hedonists beget hedonists. Jesus elsewhere accuses Pharisees of making converts only to make them twice as much children of hell as they were. If you want our church to be the real thing… be the real thing. Forgive. Love. Serve. Live an example worth following. Missionary Albert Scheitzer said, “Example is not the main thing in life — it is the only thing.”

Woe to me, too?

The teachers of the law became uncomfortable with Jesus’ words to the Pharisees. If he wasn’t careful, people might get the impression that he was talking about them, too. “Teacher, when you say these things you insult us, too.” Jesus apologized and clarified that was certainly not his intention. No… Jesus removed any lingering doubt they the experts in the law were under the same condemnation as the Pharisees.

Jesus said, “Woe to you experts in the law. For you lay heavy burdens on others they can barely manage and refuse to lift a finger to help them.” The religion of Jesus’ day was a system of oneupmanship on following basic commandments with rigor. There was a competition to see who could be more strict and exacting in their application of the law. Caught in this race for perfection were the common people trying to understand the right way to live. The teachers created layers of laws and interpretations that made it difficult for anyone to observe. Jesus was challenging them to help others walk faithfully in grace.

It must have been such a breath of fresh air when Jesus proclaimed in Matthew 11: “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” There is ultimately only two religions: A religion of human accomplishment and a religion of divine accomplishment. Christianity is a faith based on grace won by the self-giving of Jesus. It is not about what we must do, but about what Christ has done.

Tombs

Jesus condemned the teachers of the law for honoring the prophets of old while rejecting the prophetic word of reform and transformation. They built elaborate tombs for the reformers while maintaining an establishment that refused reform. These are the people that rejected John the Baptist. These are the people that likely resisted Jesus’ followers when he sent them out. And Jesus he is predicting his own death, in a way. His own ministry will be rejected by the powerful. We all want to build our little empires and protect them from threats. But we build walls against the renewing work the Holy Spirit wants to do.

What I have noticed about churches is that we a dogmatic about our traditions and willing to sell out our larger Tradition. In a lot of Methodist churches, someone could preach heresy and no one would bat an eyelash. If you suggest the organ console be moved to the other side of the chancel, you are in for a battle. We major in minors. Our Tradition calls us constantly to reform, to let go of lesser things. We need to welcome voices that call us back to our true selves.

Jesus said that the Teachers of the Law had taken away the key of knowledge. There is a door of faith. They refuse to go in themselves (that would be bad enough), but they also block the way for others. The door-keepers have become a roadblock.

When I was a senior in high school, I began taking the 4 am shift on the family dairy farm. My job was to walk into the field, wake up our 35 cows, and bring them into the barn for their morning milking. The cows were generally cooperative. They got breakfast out of the deal. Our four-station milking parlor was built for smaller Guernsey cattle who were later replaced by larger Holsteins. Some of the cows were so big the door would not close behind them. The largest cow, with an ear tag of #97, did a little hokey pokey dance every morning. She wanted to eat the feed, but didn’t want to come in and be milked. She would block the way of the other cows. She was neither in nor out. Just so, the teachers of the law had made themselves obstacles to the faith of others.

There is a phrase sometimes attributed to Thomas Paine, “Lead, follow, or get out of the way.”

George Patton had his own version of the this: “We herd sheep, we drive cattle, we lead people. Lead me, follow me, or get out of my way.” May our faith point away from ourselves and point people clearly toward the Kingdom of God.. toward Jesus.

Jesus’ woes call us to search our hearts. “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.”