Then one of the scholars of the law said to him in reply, “Teacher, by saying this you are insulting us too.”46 And he said, “Woe also to you scholars of the law! You impose on people burdens hard to carry, but you yourselves do not lift one finger to touch them.47 Woe to you! You build the memorials of the prophets whom your ancestors killed.48 Consequently, you bear witness and give consent to the deeds of your ancestors, for they killed them and you do the building.49 Therefore, the wisdom of God said, ‘I will send to them prophets and apostles; some of them they will kill and persecute’50 in order that this generation might be charged with the blood of all the prophets shed since the foundation of the world,51 from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah who died between the altar and the temple building. Yes, I tell you, this generation will be charged with their blood!
The “scholars of the law” are not legal experts, they are experts in Scripture, member of a learned profession – and as such should have known better. Jesus levies two charges against them. Leon Morris nicely describes this first charge:
The first count is that they asked others to do difficult things and did not help them. The burdens hard to bear were the scribal interpretations of the Law and the traditions of the elders. These were taken with the utmost seriousness. The Mishnah lays it down that it is more important to observe the scribal interpretations than the Law itself (Sanhedrin 11:3). The reasoning is that if it was a serious matter to offend against the Law which was sometimes hard to understand, it was a much more serious matter to offend against the interpretation which, the scribes thought, made everything clear. The lawyers ought to have expounded God’s Law in such a way that it helped and inspired people. Instead they made it a wearisome burden. The lawyers’ failure to touch the burdens with one of your fingers may mean that they did not lift a finger to help other people, or that their interpretations enabled them to escape themselves. They did not need even to use one finger. Perhaps we can see something of the situation by considering an example. On the sabbath, they taught, a man may not carry a burden ‘in his right hand or in his left hand, in his bosom or on his shoulder’. But he may carry it ‘on the back of his hand, or with his foot or with his mouth or with his elbow, or in his ear or in his hair or in his wallet (carried) mouth downwards, or between his wallet and his shirt, or in the hem of his shirt, or in his shoe or in his sandal’ (Shabbath 10:3). Multiply this by all the regulations of the Law and ordinary people have a burden beyond bearing even to know what they might do and might not do. But there is also a multitude of loopholes for a lawyer who knew the traditions which enabled him to do pretty well what he wished. (Leon Morris, Luke: An Introduction and Commentary. Vol. 3 of Tyndale New Testament Commentaries; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1988; 223-224)
The second charge is that their suborning the Scriptures to the Mishnah and other legal interpretations, and as a result they were corrupting the understanding and role of the Prophets. The scholars thought that they were honoring these heroes of the faith by building splendid tombs for them. It is always easier to honor dead saints than living ones. Jesus charges that were just the undertakers for those who killed the prophets and, in that way, give unconscious assent to the murders.
52 Woe to you, scholars of the law! You have taken away the key of knowledge. You yourselves did not enter and you stopped those trying to enter.”
The final “woe” reveals a paradox. The scholars professed to expound the meaning of the Law and thus to be the teachers of the people, but in fact they have taken away the key of knowledge, i.e. the key that unlocks the meaning of Scripture and brings people to the knowledge of God. Their methods were such that people could not get at the essential meaning of God’s word. Instead of opening up the treasures of knowledge, the lawyers closed them fast. They turned the Bible into a book of obscurities, a bundle of riddles which only the experts could understand. And the experts were so pleased and preoccupied with the mysteries they had manufactured that they missed the wonderful thing that God was saying. They neither entered themselves nor allowed others to enter. There were ordinary people on their way to the knowledge of God until these teachers turned them away.
53 When he left, the scribes and Pharisees began to act with hostility toward him and to interrogate him about many things,54 for they were plotting to catch him at something he might say.
Luke marks a basic change in their tactics vis-à-vis Jesus; in the past they had engaged in reactive opposition (though cf. 6:11), but from now on their relations with Jesus will be characterized more by their proactive attempts to cast him in a negative light and to snare him (e.g., 14:1; 15:2).