Jesus and the Pharisees in Luke


by Founding Pastor Rick Duncan

As we have been studying the parables of Jesus in the Gospel of Luke this summer, it’s been eye-opening to me in a new and fresh way that these parables were Jesus’ way of confronting the self-assured, self-righteous, holier-than-thou Pharisees. These stories of Jesus in the book of Luke were devastating indictments against the Pharisees while also being gracious invitations for them to repent.

I’ve also been impressed with the notion that these earthly stories with heavenly meanings need to be heard and heeded by those of us in the church today lest we deceive ourselves into thinking that we have salvation when we actually do not. Churches all around the world, but particularly in the West, can be filled with “unintentional Pharisees.”

We cannot rightly understand the parables of Jesus in the book of Luke without understanding the extent of the conflict between Jesus and the Pharisees.

We are introduced to the Pharisees in the book of Luke in 5:18-26. Evidently, they had heard of the ministry of Jesus. So, they came from Galilee, Judea, and Jerusalem to check Him out. When Jesus told the paralyzed man that his sins were forgiven, they began to question Him, “Who is this who speaks blasphemies? Who can forgive sins but God alone?” That’s when Jesus, Who knew what they were thinking, provided a physical healing in order to demonstrate that he had the authority to forgive sins.

This begins a series of confrontations between Jesus and the Pharisees in the book of Luke. Essentially, it’s a “holy war.” “Who is really on the Lord’s side?” Generally speaking, the Pharisees believed they were good and right and believed that Jesus was evil and wrong.

The word “Pharisee” means “separated one.” The Pharisees were committed to the Old Testament Scripture, to the laws of Moses, and to Israel’s unique status as God’s chosen people. They resisted any type of compromise or collusion with the Roman or Greek cultures. They were committed to study, apply, and teach the law of God. Therefore, law keeping, ritual cleanliness, fasting, and prayer were vital to them. They felt that the way to God was through obedience. They considered themselves to be the “good Jews” who were living life the way God wanted them to live it.

The Pharisees saw Jesus as a blaspheming, law-breaking, false prophet who compromised His integrity as a man of God by eating and drinking with the ungodly – tax collectors and sinners. They saw Him as being used by Satan to lead the people of Israel astray. They believed He needed to be stopped because He was a demon-possessed deceiver who disregarded the law and the prophets. Eventually, they decided that He would need to be put to death.

The conflict between Jesus and the Pharisees escalates throughout the book of Luke…

The Pharisees grumbled because the followers of Jesus ate with tax collectors and sinners. (Luke 5:30, 15:2)

They criticized Jesus because His followers did not fast like John’s followers did. (Luke 5:33)

They accused Jesus of doing what is not lawful to do on the sabbath when His disciples picked and ate some grain while going through the grainfields. (Luke 6:2)

They looked for reasons to accuse Jesus, watching to see if He would heal on the sabbath. (Luke 6:7)

They accused Jesus of being a glutton and a drunkard. (Luke 7:34)

They criticized Jesus because He allowed a sinful woman to touch Him, anointing His feet with ointment and her tears. (Luke 7:39)

They questioned Jesus’ authority to forgive sins. (Luke 7:49)

They put Jesus to the test, asking Him what one must do to inherit eternal life. (Luke 10:25)

They were astonished to see that Jesus did not ritually wash His hands before dinner. (Luke 11:38)

They pressed Him hard and sought to provoke Him, lying in wait for Him to catch Him in something He might say that they perceived was wrong. (Luke 11:53–54)

They were indignant because Jesus healed on the Sabbath. (Luke 13:14, 14:1-3)

Because they loved money, they ridiculed Jesus for His teaching that one cannot serve both God and money. (Luke 16:14)

They quizzed Jesus on when the kingdom of God would come. (Luke 17:20)

They questioned the authority of Jesus to teach the people and preach the gospel. (Luke 20:1-2)

After hearing Jesus teach the Parable of the Wicked Tenants (Luke 20:9-18), they sought to lay hands on Him because they knew He had spoken the parable against them. (Luke 20:19)

They sought to develop a plan to put Jesus to death in a way that would not incite a riot with the people with whom Jesus was popular. (Luke 22:2)

No wonder Jesus warned His followers to “beware of the leaven of the Pharisees,” which is hypocrisy. (Luke 12:1) He challenged the Pharisees for their practice of choosing places of honor when invited to a meal. (Luke 14:7-11) Jesus criticized them because they trusted in themselves that they were righteous and treated others with contempt. (Luke 18:9-14) Jesus let the Pharisees know that the stone they were rejecting would become the cornerstone. (Luke 20:9-18) Jesus warned His disciples to beware of the scribes who pursued honor but took advantage of widows and prayed long pretentious prayers. (Luke 20:46-47)

Jesus denounced the Pharisees with strong words: “Now you Pharisees cleanse the outside of the cup and of the dish, but inside you are full of greed and wickedness. You fools! Did not he who made the outside make the inside also? But give as alms those things that are within, and behold, everything is clean for you. But woe to you Pharisees! For you tithe mint and rue and every herb, and neglect justice and the love of God. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others. Woe to you Pharisees! For you love the best seat in the synagogues and greetings in the marketplaces. Woe to you! For you are like unmarked graves, and people walk over them without knowing it.” One of the lawyers answered him, “Teacher, in saying these things you insult us also.” And He said, “Woe to you lawyers also! For you load people with burdens hard to bear, and you yourselves do not touch the burdens with one of your fingers. Woe to you! For you build the tombs of the prophets whom your fathers killed. So you are witnesses and you consent to the deeds of your fathers, for they killed them, and you build their tombs. Therefore also the Wisdom of God said, ‘I will send them prophets and apostles, some of whom they will kill and persecute,’ so that the blood of all the prophets, shed from the foundation of the world, may be charged against this generation, from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah, who perished between the altar and the sanctuary. Yes, I tell you, it will be required of this generation. Woe to you lawyers! For you have taken away the key of knowledge. You did not enter yourselves, and you hindered those who were entering” (Luke 11:39-52).

Now, what does all of this have to do with those of us in churches in the Western world today?

Jesus tells many of His parables to challenge the religious establishment and to call them to repentance.

If He were here today, the type of people that he would be telling these stories to would be people like us. We consider ourselves not to be worldly. We are the “separated ones.” Like the Pharisees, we are committed to the Scriptures and to our unique status as God’s chosen people. We resist any type of compromise or collusion with an ungodly culture. We are committed to study, apply, and teach the law of God. Therefore, law keeping, purity, fasting, and prayer are vital practices for us. We say that we believe that we are saved by grace through faith in Christ, but we can easily fall into the trap of believing that we are right with God because of our superior obedience. We can consider ourselves to be the “good people of God” who are living life the way God wants us to live it.

These parables in the book of Luke need to be heard and heeded by the church of Jesus Christ in the Western world today. May the seed from the word of God through the parables of Jesus fall into good soil so that it may grow and yield fruit a hundredfold. “He who has ears to hear, let him hear” (Luke 8:8b).