“You impose burdens hard to carry, but don’t lift a finger to help” (Luke 11:46).
Jesus’ indictments against the Pharisees were specific and revealing of their hypocrisy. They obsessed over small, man-made rules but neglected the central commandment of love. They tithed on their windowbox spice and herb gardens but overlooked justice. They were eager for honors and the best places at banquets but were like corpses under anonymous graves that people walked on.
The teachers of the law, perhaps members of the Sanhedrin, the supreme court of the Temple establishment, felt the sting of Jesus’ verbal assaults. He did not spare them but called out the corruption of judges who pile burdens on people’s shoulders but do nothing to alleviate their suffering.
Hypocrisy is one of the hardest faults to correct, because hypocrites do not recognize their hypocrisy. Pride becomes self-satisfaction and leads to defensiveness and the need to attack critics. It is near impossible to reach someone who is convinced they are always right, never wrong. Only an intervention or shock can penetrate the hypocrite’s walled fortress. Each of Jesus’ indictments scores a direct hit, and his enemies need to do more than defeat him; they need to destroy him.
The good news in this difficult reading is that Jesus was trying to break down these fortresses because they were actually prisons where the Pharisees and teachers had isolated themselves and cut themselves off from the sources of life. Jesus was also putting ordinary people first, advocating for them against the legalism and narrowness of mind and heart that was keeping them from finding God. He was trying to liberate both them and their oppressors.
The Word of God must convict us before it can comfort us, confront us before it can replace a stony heart with a heart of flesh. Paul described the Word as a two-edged sword that cuts down between the marrow and the bone and reveals the secrets of the heart. If we want to be healed, the surgeon’s knife may be necessary to remove what is blocking our lifeline to God and to the community.