42 Woe to you Pharisees! You pay tithes of mint and of rue and of every garden herb, but you pay no attention to judgment and to love for God. These you should have done, without overlooking the others.
To our 21st century ear, the expression “woe to you” is often taken as the words proclaiming condemnation and ultimate destiny of perdition. It is easily imagined on the lips of a firebrand evangelical preacher. There are two ways “woe to you” can be understood – both of which contain the warning that sin and rejection of Jesus has eternal consequences. In one way, think of the evangelical preacher calling down eternal damnation in all its fiery spectacle, his thunderous voice harshly crying out, “Woe to you…” Frightening to say the least. In another way, one recognizes that “woe” is a biblical cry of lament, sorrow, and disappointment. Think of the same preacher, voice replete with a plaintiff sorrow, in that he feels he has failed in his mission and the consequences for the listener are horrific. The words are no less harsh in their consequences. This latter sense reflects the prophetic tradition. A woe warns of lament or sorrow about the current condition and attitudes of some people, which left unchanged leads to condemnation. Woe is an expression of regret, not of vindictiveness, with a meaning like ‘Alas.’
Jesus grieves over the Pharisees for their tithing practices. Tithing was commanded in the Law (Lev. 27:30; Deut. 14:22, etc.). It was meant to be a joyful offering of love. The calculation of one tenth of all the stalks of garden herbs made a burdensome mockery of it. This kind of detail was not required by the Law. The Pharisees were going beyond what was required. There was nothing actually wrong in doing this and Jesus does not say that they should not have done it. But when people concentrate on the trivial, they are apt to overlook the important. The condemnation of the Pharisees lay, not in the fact that they tithed herbs, but that in their zeal for trifles they neglected justice and the love of God.
43 Woe to you Pharisees! You love the seat of honor in synagogues and greetings in marketplaces.44 Woe to you! You are like unseen graves over which people unknowingly walk.”
A further result of Pharisaic preoccupation with the outward was the love for being in the public eye – in ever more prominent places: the best seat in the synagogues where one sits up front facing the congregation. A mark that one was clearly a person of distinction. Public salutations were reported to have become ritualized and elaborate ensuring that proper deference would be shown. The linguistic meaning of the word “pharisee” means “set apart, separated” related to Hebrew pārûšh – these expected public greetings were another evidence of being “set apart” from ebb and flow of common life.
Jesus compares the Pharisees to graves which are not seen. Contact with a burial site/grave was considerd to be a defilement which separated people from the everyday activities of religious and secular life. This is complicated by the fact that people were sometimes buried in unmarked graves and people could easily walk over such a grave and unwittingly contract religious defilement. There is irony in the comparison of the religious Pharisees, who thought so well of themselves, to these unsuspected sources of defilement. The implication is that people who walked in the teaching and ways of these Pharisees became morally unclean.