Jesus Dines with the Pharisee

The Text

  1. As he spake, a certain Pharisee besought him to dine with him: and he went in, and sat down to meat.
  2. And when the Pharisee saw it, he marveled that he had not first washed before dinner.
  3. And the Lord said unto him, Now do ye Pharisees make clean the outside of the cup and the platter; but your inward part is full of ravening and wickedness.
  4. Ye fools, did not he that made that which is without make that which is within also?
  5. But rather give alms of such things as ye have; and behold, all things are clean unto you.
  6. But woe unto you, Pharisees! For ye tithe mint and rue and all manner of herbs, and pass over judgment and the love of God: these ought ye to have done, and not to leave the other undone.

Luke 11:37–42, King James Version


“But woe unto you, Pharisees! For ye tithe mint and rue and all manner of herbs.”

The History

The most successful military commander of the ancient world was Alexander the Great (Alexander III of Macedonia). After unifying the Greek city-states under Macedonian control, he took his armies forth and conquered a vast region stretching from Greece in the north, Egypt in the west, and Persia and the Punjab in the east. However, when he died in 323 b.c.e., he left no recognized heir, and the empire he had forged began to disintegrate. In 312 b.c.e. Seleucus, one of Alexander's generals, established control over the eastern reaches of Alexander's holdings from Babylon, the center of power, to the Mediterranean coast. This was the foundation of the Seleucid Empire, which brought Hellenistic influences to Persians, Medes, Jews, and Indians alike.

But the empire proved to be too large, and the people resisted Hellenization; it was not long before the outer reaches began to break away. By the time of King Antiochus IV Epiphanes, who reigned from 175 to 163 b.c.e., aggressive efforts to de-Judaize the Jewish populace of the empire led to a breaking point. In about 167 b.c.e. Mattathias (of the tribe of Levi) and his sons Judah “Maccabee” (the Hammer), Eleazar, Yohanan, Yonaton, and Shimon led a successful uprising against the Seleucid overlords in Judea. Though fighting would continue for twenty-five years, in about 164 b.c.e. the Maccabees (for so they became known) were able to retake Jerusalem; they cleansed the Temple of foreign influences (including the sacrificing of pigs) and reestablished Jewish worship there. In 139 b.c.e. Shimon (the only surviving son) became both High Priest and Leader, establishing the Hasmonean line of succession in Judea. The memory of the purification of the Temple gave rise to the Jewish festival of Hanukkah (Chanukah).

At the end of the conflict with the Seleucids, the Jews had become divided into three different parties. The first were the Essenes, a group of ascetical mystics who lived in isolation in the desert. The second were the Sadducees, the priests and Jewish aristocracy; though they were religiously conservative, following a strict and inflexible interpretation of the written Torah, they were socially liberal, having embraced Hellenistic cultural practices. The Temple was the center of worship for the Sadducees; indeed, it was the only place where true worship could occur. The third group were the Pharisees, who believed in both a written and an oral Torah, both of which Jews were bound to follow and both of which the rabbis were empowered to interpret. In general, the Pharisees highly valued education but were opposed to Hellenism and to the Hasmonean usurpation of the Priesthood. These party divisions persisted even after Rome conquered Judea, though Roman conquest led to the rise of the Zealots and Sicarii, revolutionaries whose sole goal was the overthrow of Roman imperialism.

From the beginnings of the Hasmonean Empire until the Roman destruction of the Second Temple in 70 c.e., the Pharisees and the Sadducees bitterly opposed each other. The conflicts were manifold: the Sadducees promoted the interests of the wealthy and tended to favor hierarchy, while the Pharisees showed concern for the common people and tended to favor more participatory religious practices; the Sadducees followed Greek social customs, while the Pharisees attempted to preserve Jewish traditions; the Sadducees put the Temple first and tended to restrict religion to the Temple grounds, while the Pharisees put the word of God before everything and tended to sanctify the everyday world; and the Sadducees adhered to the letter of the Law, while the Pharisees believed that the Law was a living, changing force. The Pharisees also believed in the importance of ritual washing before all meals and in the resurrection of the dead at the end of time.

The New Testament scriptures present a very critical picture of the Pharisees and Sadducees. The new Jewish sect known as “Christians” emphasized God's love and forgiveness for all people, including society's outcasts. The Sadducees were presented as people of privilege who hoarded everything, including God's grace, for their own select group; and the Pharisees were presented as being obsessed with purification rites, to the exclusion of anyone who did not correctly perform their rituals. On the other hand, some scholars have posited that Jesus was himself a Pharisee, and that his efforts to include all persons in God's beloved community echoed the Pharisees' emphasis of participatory religion. Indeed, many of the teachings of Jesus as related in the gospels are consistent with the philosophies of the Pharisees of his day, including one of the most well known, whose name was Paul.

Biblical Passage Notes

Throughout the New Testament gospel writings, Jesus is often in a war of words and deeds with the Pharisees, a group of religious Jews that had their own interpretation of how to live a life that was true to the practice of Judaism, to which they were utterly devoted. They embraced a lifestyle that placed great emphasis on, among other things, Sabbath observances and food tithes (a tithe is a tenth of what one earns). To some, and most certainly to the gospel writers, they were hardnosed and stubborn legalists; to many of their fellow Jews, they were men greatly to be admired, as they were learned in Jewish law and often hailed from some of the finest families in Jerusalem that were politically connected to both the most revered of religious authorities and, often, to Rome itself.

In this passage, Jesus has been invited to dine with one of the Pharisees, an amazing offer considering that the Pharisees rarely, if ever, would have thought to dine with someone outside their own circle. To have received such an esteemed invitation, either Jesus was a Pharisee himself (a view held by many scholars today), or he impressed them so by his knowledge of the scriptures and his interpretation of the Law that curiosity allowed internal rules to be set aside for at least one meal.

Jesus had barely entered the house when he is admonished for not having washed his hands, for it was a common practice of observant Jews to purify their hands prior to eating. The thought process was that impure hands made food impure; eating impure food made the body impure; eating a meal (a sacred act before God) with an impure body was an insult to God.

Undoubtedly, those who first heard this story would have responded with an “Oh, no!” thanking God, no doubt, that such a guest had not been invited to their home! Why? Because the interaction between Jesus and the Pharisee presented an uncomfortable conundrum. True, Jesus did not wash; but the lack of hospitality on the part of his host, who had apparently not offered a towel or water, was an incredible social faux pas. And in a further breach of manners, the host had the bad sense to insult his guest by pointing out the error; even worse, he made the observation after Jesus had already reclined to dine.

Jesus' previous experience with the Pharisees and their rituals fueled his anger at the host; having been dealt with impolitely, Jesus takes off the kid gloves and charges into the fight, calling the Pharisee and all his brothers in the faith (in essence) miserable hypocrites. Then Jesus goes on to tell them the how and the why. First, he imputes, they are more concerned with the outward appearances of inanimate objects than they are with the inner feelings of the people around them. Second, they fail to see that God made all things, and it is wrong, therefore, to give a greater importance to one thing over another, as all things are of God. And finally, Jesus criticizes the Pharisees for putting aside a portion of what they have earned as a sacrifice in honor of God, yet all the while being judgmental of others in a way that dishonors God. It is a strong condemnation, and it could not have made for a very pleasant meal!

It appears that the host was either even more intrigued by the dressing down or totally embarrassed; in either case, Jesus apparently stays for the meal, to which other Pharisees and scribes have also been invited. From this moment, perhaps between bites (?), Jesus denounces the practices of the religious elite, to the point that when he finally leaves, they press him more, hoping that he will say something by which they can charge him with speaking blasphemously.

Despite the rancor, this is not his last invitation to sit down with the Pharisees. In chapter 14 (v. 1ff.), Jesus accepts the invitation to sup with the Chief Pharisee; and as others begin once again to criticize Jesus' actions during the meal, the author of Luke finally lays down what was understood to be the rules of a good host (v. 12ff.); he tells them the parable of the Great Banquet, a metaphor for his understanding of how life would be if we all comprehended the love of God.


Onion Board (Pletzels)

Pickled Herring

Tuna Baked in Pistachios and Dill

Minted Veal with Yellow Summer Squash

Cucumbers and Onions with Rue and Mustard Dressing

Jerusalem Cheese and Honey Pie

Fruit Platter of Fresh Grapes, Dried Dates, and Figs

Nicodemus' Anise Cookies Red Wine


It is apparent that Jesus did a lot of his teaching at mealtime, particularly if it were one of the main meals of the day. Just what was a meal with the Pharisees like? What did they dine on?

The Pharisees bought food only from those who tithed; they also tithed the food they bought. The Lucan biblical text reports that the Pharisees were tithers of mint (in Greek, heduosmon), rue (in Greek, peganon), and all types of garden herbs (in Greek, lachanon), so these must have been in their kitchens and storerooms, and used often in their cooking. The parallel text in the Gospel of Matthew substitutes anise (in Greek, anethon) in place of rue, and other translations of the same text claim that dill was tithed, which in effect was the more likely scenario. In this instance we can get just a glimpse of how greatly translations of the Bible vary!

According to the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), people in 1st-century Palestine ate a fairly straightforward diet of cereals, gruel, olives, dates, and figs. In addition, lots of wine was consumed.1

Verse 37 states that “he sat down to meat,” a strange phrase in Greek (ana-pipto), used only here and nowhere else in the Bible. To sit down to meat apparently means to fall back or down, but has nothing to do with meat as such. The phrase implies that he reclined to eat his meal, which was the cultural norm for men at meals in that era.

If not meat, then what? Probably fish, as they were near the sea, and it would not be difficult to see how Jesus might have come to know some of the Pharisees through the business dealings of his disciples, many of whom were fishermen.

It is likely that this meal was not the principal meal of the day, but one of the earlier meals. We infer this because of the guests that were present: being the Sabbath, certainly the lawyers and other religious leaders would have been at their own homes if it were the time of day for the main meal (“dinner”) of a holy day.

In that one of the favorite foods of Palestinian Jews of Jesus' day was “young meat,” the menu for the Pharisee's meal would likely have included goat, lamb, or veal.2 (Neither beef nor fowl were cooked very often.) And certainly there was bread, and lots of it. Due to the belief that it was the staff of life, no religious man would dare to have entertained guests without it.

Marian Maeve O'Brien, in The Bible Cookbook, claims “that actual meals served in biblical times have been preserved for us,” 3 and she goes so far as to present an outline of the typical midday meal for a middle-class family in Jerusalem in the 1st century. It includes, among other things, locusts, onions, and grapes.4 She does not cite her source, but it would not be unreasonable to assume that at least part of the menu has historical merit. Another food author, Kitty Morse, in A Biblical Feast: Foods from the Holy Land,5 writes that she believes a 1st-century supper usually started with something pickled in brine or vinegar, which would have stimulated the appetite. This was followed by a stew or some pottage that been thickened by grain and enhanced with lots of garden vegetables and herbs.6 To this menu, other scholars would add a milk dish into which people dipped their bread, and honey, eggs, cheeses, cucumbers, lentils, beans, and peas.7

Perhaps we'll never be sure just what was served at the meal Jesus shared with the Pharisee. But we can be certain of one thing: it was prepared with care, according to cleanliness rituals as understood by the Pharisees. So, it was probably a well-presented meal with frugal portions, yet not overly stingy so as to not appear inhospitable.


1. See the article at
2. See the commentary at
3. Marian Maeve O'Brien, The Bible Cookbook (St. Louis: Bethany Press, 1958), 25.
4. Marian Maeve O'Brien, The Bible Cookbook (St. Louis: Bethany Press, 1958),25.
5. Kitty Morse, A Biblical Feast: Foods from the Holy Land (Berkeley, Calif.: Ten Speed Press, 1998), 8.
6. Kitty Morse, A Biblical Feast: Foods from the Holy Land (Berkeley, Calif.: Ten Speed Press, 1998), 8.
7. Cf.