The Light and the Darkness
After teaching about the sign of Jonah and how the Queen of the South and the people of Nineveh had ears to hear the word of God, Jesus continued His teaching on the incorrect traditions of men that were the result of the Jews’ inability to hear the word.
He starts His commentary with a transitional passage about light and darkness—that is, the light of the word and its contrast, the darkness of men’s traditions. Luke 11:33 says,
33 No one, after lighting a lamp, puts it away in a cellar, nor under a peck-measure, but on the lampstand, in order that those who enter may see the light.
Luke already gave us Jesus’ words regarding blasphemy, which means, “slander that is designed to hinder the light, which hurts other people by keeping them in darkness.” Now Jesus speaks more specifically of that light which is in those who are blessed with the ability to hear the word. Psalm 119:105 says,
105 Thy word is a lamp to my feet, and a light to my path.
The light that is in the blessed ones ought not to be hidden. The purpose of the light is to give light to others who come into the presence of the blessed ones. Yet we see that those who remain in darkness attempt to blaspheme by putting that light into a cellar (prison) or “under a peck-measure” (basket). Such men hope that in slandering the light-giver, their light will not be seen by others. Luke 11:34 continues,
34 The lamp of your body is your eye; when your eye is clear, your whole body also is full of light; but when it is bad [poneros, “oppressed, diseased, blind”], your body also is full of darkness.
Here Jesus switches from hearing to seeing, as is appropriate when speaking of light. It is the eye that sees. The eye of the blessed has the ability to see the light of the word—that is, to understand the revelation of God—filling the whole body with light. Then the eye projects beams of light out into the darkness for others to see. But if the eye does not work properly, the whole body is full of darkness and cannot project the light of the word to others.
Darkness in the Traditions of Men
Luke 11:35 continues,
35 Then watch out that the light in you may not be darkness.
Many who walk in darkness are unaware of their darkness. In Luke’s context, Jesus was telling his audience that some of the traditions of men—which they believed to be the light of the word—in reality were only darkness. There is no greater darkness than when men think it is light.
This is the harm that comes from the traditions of men. When men teach the word apart from divine revelation, audiences receive darkness but are told that it is light. Soon they begin to define light in terms of their darkness. When this is ingrained into the entire religious culture, as it was in Jesus’ day, there were few who were blessed with the light and many who carried baskets to hide the light in others.
Luke 11:36 says,
36 If therefore your whole body is full of light, with no dark part in it, it shall be wholly illuminated, as when the lamp illumines you with its rays.
The goal is to walk by revelation and to be led by the Spirit in all things. While Jesus speaks of this in all-or-nothing terms, our experience shows that this is a process that requires time to achieve the full goal. The goal is Sonship, which is like the time from conception to birth. Our Passover experience (faith) is where Christ is begotten in us. Our Pentecost experience (hearing and obedience) is how the Christ in us grows and matures. Our Tabernacles experience (transfiguration) is the birth and full manifestation of Christ into the world for all to see.
The Tradition of Washing Hands
Luke then gives an example to show the contrast between the word and the traditions of men. Luke 11:37, 38 says,
37 Now when He had spoken, a Pharisee asked Him to have lunch with him; and He went in and reclined at the table. 38 And when the Pharisee saw it, he was surprised that He had not first ceremonially washed [baptizo] before the meal.
There was no biblical law instructing anyone to cleanse their hands before eating. Though we today often wash our hands before eating, it is for an entirely different purpose. We think in terms of physical cleanliness, but in biblical times they poured water over their hands for a spiritual cleansing.
It was thus said that they baptized their hands before eating. The tradition was largely based on the fact that Elijah had poured water over the hands of Elisha (2 Kings 3:11). The Greek term was a reference to the “various washings” in the law which are mentioned in Heb. 9:10,
10 since they relate only to food and drink and various washings [literally, baptisms], regulations for the body imposed until a time of reformation.
In the tabernacle, the laver was the place where the priests washed their hands and feet and also washed the sacrifices. These “washings” are called baptisms in the Greek language of the New Testament. As we see with Elijah and Elisha, such baptism was administered by pouring water over the person’s hands, for if the person had put unclean hands into a bowl of water, the water would have been rendered unclean and unfit for cleansing his hands.
For this reason, too, no priest put his hands into the laver to wash them. Instead, he turned on the faucet at the base of the laver so that he could wash his hands in running water—that is, “living” water, as the Hebrew word chay means.
But in the story in Luke, the Pharisee was surprised that Jesus did not baptize His hands before lunch, as tradition dictated.
The Argument Builds to a Climax
In Luke 11:39-41 Jesus responds,
39 But the Lord said to him, “Now you Pharisees clean the outside of the cup and of the platter; but inside of you, you are full of robbery and wickedness. 40 You foolish ones, did not He who made the outside make the inside also? 41 But give that which is within as charity, and then all things are clean for you.”
We can only imagine how this conversation evolved. First Jesus omitted the ceremonial baptism that was expected of a law-abiding rabbi. Then the Pharisee raised his objection. It is not likely that Jesus came back at him immediately with the above response, telling him that he was “full of robbery and wickedness.” Luke skips to the end and gives us the conclusion of the conversation. In fact, it is likely that Jesus spoke these words afterward. Meanwhile, it is probable that the Pharisee had issued Jesus an ultimatum: “Either wash your hands, or get out of my house! I refuse to eat with anyone who refuses to cleanse himself before eating!”
From Jesus’ response, recorded by Luke, it appears that their lunch date did not end well. But Jesus then found it necessary to teach the lessons to be learned from that experience. The Jewish religion in general was more concerned about outward appearances of righteousness than of heart issues that really mattered.
In recording this dispute, Luke was anticipating the principles of the New Covenant, whose foundation was centered on heart changes, whereas the Old Covenant focused upon their behavior. Under the Old Covenant, where the people vowed to be obedient (Exodus 19:8), the law was the standard of righteousness that the people were required to obey. Under the New Covenant, however, where God vowed to change our hearts, the law is the standard of righteousness that God has established in changing our hearts to conform to His image.
The Lesson of the Canaanite Woman
When we compare Luke’s account to Matthew’s, we see different details given by each gospel writer. Matthew speaks of the sign of Jonah, the men of Nineveh, and the Queen of the South. But then Matthew goes in a different direction toward the end of chapter 12, and in chapter 13 he records the Kingdom parables, which only those with ears to hear were able to understand. Not until chapter 15 do we see Matthew and Luke converge once again in the topic of the traditions of men.
And so, in studying Luke 11:37-41, it would be helpful also to study Matt. 15:1-29. Here Matthew gives more of Jesus’ teaching on the harmful effects of the traditions of men. This is followed by the account of a field trip, where Jesus took His disciples to the district of Tyre and Sidon.
There they met a Canaanite woman, who inadvertently taught the disciples a lesson from the word of God and at the same time exposed their deeply-rooted traditions of men. The Canaanite woman asked Jesus for help, saying, “my daughter is cruelly demon-possessed” (Matt. 15:22). Jesus then set a trap for His disciples by pretending to agree with the commonly-held Jewish view. He said in Matt. 15:24, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” This was the standard Jewish interpretation of Ezekiel 34:11 in that day, where being “chosen” meant that the blessings of God were exclusive of all others.
In other words, “Why should I help you? You are just a Canaanite. My blessings are limited to the house of Israel.” It is not hard to picture the disciples nodding in agreement. The woman again pleaded, “Lord, help me!” (Matt. 15:25). But Jesus answered, “It is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.”
This was the common Jewish rationale, as if to say that God’s blessings were so scarce that they had to be rationed out to Jews only. Others were considered unworthy of receiving God’s blessings. In a famine, why would a family feed the dogs when the children might starve as a result? Further, the Jews thought of Canaanites (and all other non-Jews) as dogs.
At this point the Canaanite woman should have given up. But instead she persisted, saying, “Yes, Lord; but even the dogs feed on the crumbs which fall from their masters’ table” (Matt. 15:27). This seems to be an example of persistent prayer, but the context shows it as an example of faith.
It is not hard to picture the astonishment on the faces of Jesus’ disciples. Not only was this a despised Canaanite, but she was a Canaanite woman. Jewish men did not even speak to their wives in public in those days, much less a Canaanite woman! Yet her faith proved that she was one of the blessed ones who had ears to hear the word and to see the light coming from Jesus.
The unspoken lesson—and the reason for this field trip—was to show the disciples the contrast between the Pharisee and the Canaanite woman. The blind and deaf Pharisee maintained his traditions of men, but the Canaanite woman was blessed with ears to hear, resulting in genuine faith. The blind Pharisee remained in darkness, while the Canaanite woman saw a great light.
We read Jesus’ response in Matt. 15:28,
28 Then Jesus answered and said to her, “O woman, your faith is great; be it done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed at once.
This was Jesus’ way of exposing a powerful idol in the hearts of the disciples. It showed how the traditions of men had found deep roots in their hearts. But that tradition in particular needed to be uprooted in order to prepare them for the work that lay ahead after the day of Pentecost. How could the disciples be a blessing to all families of the earth if they believed that those blessings were to be hoarded by the few “chosen” ones? This heart idol would have been a great hindrance to their calling as sons of Abraham.
The next verse says that Jesus and His disciples departed from there and returned to the Sea of Galilee. In other words, the only reason Jesus took His disciples on a long journey to the region of Tyre and Sidon was to minister to this Canaanite woman and her daughter and to uproot the traditions of men from the hearts of His disciples.
This detail in Matthew’s account sheds more light on the distinction between the word of God and the traditions of men. Although Luke does not see fit to relate this particular story, it is clear that he understood the darkness that came from those who were afflicted by the traditions of men.