"Woe to you, lawyers! For you have taken away the key of knowledge. You did not enter yourselves, and you hindered those who were entering."
(Luke 11:52)

There is a hierarchy of sin outlined in the Bible. I know, I know—most of us have our own hierarchy of sin, our view of which ones are the worst. Usually they’re the sins of others, not our own sins; typically, they’re the more scandalous and dramatic sins, concerning which we can make a fuss without fear we might ever fall into them (here parade the usual suspects: homosexuality, abortion, and—well, that about does it).

We might be surprised at what Jesus considered the worst sin of all. I’m not thinking here about the sin of blaspheming the Holy Spirit—in which someone condemns as evil or false that which God declares to be good and true, such as the Gospel. When the Holy Spirit is bearing witness one way, and someone rejects His witness, this is tantamount to calling Him a liar, and that is an unforgivable blasphemy, as long as it remains a person’s position. This sin is sui generis; my focus is elsewhere.

Preachers today may be a little queasy talking about sin. It sounds so negative. Besides, our secular generation long ago gave up believing in any such thing. If we want to reach them, we’ll have to stop talking about things they simply dismiss outright and find other ways of wooing them with the Word. That, at least, seems to be current homiletical wisdom and practice.

We don’t talk about sin for two reasons. First, we know the topic is offensive. People don’t like to be told they’re sinners. People don’t like to be told they’re exceeding the speed limit, either, or that their house is on fire. But, you know, sometimes people just need to hear things that aren’t necessarily pleasant or welcome. The second reason we don’t hear much about sin today is because, after all, we’re all sinners and most of us, at least, seem to know it. Besides, God loves us anyway, so why dwell on the negative stuff when there’s so much more of a positive and friendly manner that we could expound?

But Jesus, God love Him, talked about sin. All the time. And not in couched words. Especially with those who thought themselves to be about as holy and righteous as good as you could get, but who were actually living the lie of mere self-interest, Jesus was brutal about sin—their sin. And in an explosive response to one of them we discover what Jesus seems to have regarded as the worst sin of all.

What's Wrong with Wanting to be Liked?

I’m always amused by the way this encounter with the lawyer begins. The lawyers were scribes, members of the Pharisees who maintained a kind of separate guild. They were like researchers and fact-checkers with the Pharisees. By Jesus’ day, their job had degenerated to being mere “yes-men” to the religious leaders. The Pharisees would say, “This is what the Law of God requires.” And it was the duty of the lawyers to back them up. (Think of the scene in Amadeus when the emperor says of one of Mozart’s pieces, “It has too many notes.” Then he turns to Salieri, and says, “I believe I have this correct, do I not, Court Composer?” Well, of course, boss!)

So the lawyers were very closely identified with the Pharisees and even enjoyed some of the public perks—the nodding heads as they passed by, deference in the synagogues, respectful greetings, and even, no doubt, the skimmed proceeds from temple offerings and monetary exchanges. They liked being Pharisees, who liked being liked—at least, deferred to. And what’s wrong with that? Shouldn’t we want to be liked by everyone? Shouldn’t we try to make sure our bosses like what we’re doing to support their program, especially since our livelihood depends on pleasing them?

So when Jesus rakes the Pharisees over the coals with, “Woe to you Pharisees! For you love the best seat in the synagogues and greetings the marketplaces. Woe to you! For you are unmarked graves, and people walk over them without knowing it,” this gets the lawyer’s attention, and he pipes up: “Teacher, in saying these things you insult us also” (I’ve always wondered, what was it? “love the greetings” or “walk over them”, that got his attention?). This self-serving, arrogant sycophant just couldn’t leave well enough alone.

Jesus tears into him without hesitating, and here is where we begin to see the worst sin in the Bible. So consumed with self, pride of place, and public visibility were these lawyers, so determined to be deferred to, if not liked, that they could not even see they were sinking in the deepest water of all.

The Threefold Sin of the Lawyers

The sin of the lawyers has three parts. First, they buried the prophets. They weren’t actually guilty of murdering the prophets of old, as their forebears had been. But Jesus insisted they had done as much (Luke 11:47-51). Of course, these lawyers didn’t kill the prophets, but they neglected them and paid no attention to their teaching. The lawyers’ job was to interpret the law according to the most reliable traditions, and these are to be found in the books of the Old Testament that follow the Law of God.

The Law comprises the first five books of the Bible, the Torah. This contains the story of Israel’s origins, God’s covenant, His deliverance of Israel from Egypt, and (above all) the giving of the Law of God to His people. Everything in the Old Testament that follows the Torah is referred to as “the Prophets.”

The lawyers were supposed to be students of all the Old Testament, and to expound the Law especially in the light of everything taught throughout the rest of the Scriptures. You can hear the Apostle Paul carefully setting himself apart from the practice of the lawyers of his day when he said to the elders at Ephesus, “I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27). This the lawyers of Jesus’ day decidedly did not do.

This introduces the second part of their sin. They substituted tradition for Scripture. The lawyers went from the Law of Moses to the traditions accumulated over many years—and now preferred by the Pharisees—and simply validated whatever their bosses and colleagues decided needed to be the case. In the process, they introduced into Jewish civil code hundreds of protocols and practices that have nothing to do with anything other than being a way for the religious leaders to keep the people under their thumbs. Jesus said to the lawyer, “For you load people with burdens hard to bear.” If they weren’t going to teach the Law according to the interpretation of the Prophets, they would have to put something in its place. The traditions of men worked fine—at least, to keep them and their Pharisee pals in a place of preeminence in Jewish society.

In doing these two things—neglecting the Word of God and substituting the teachings of men—the lawyers did the very opposite of what their class had come into being to d they robbed people of the key of knowledge.

Just what was that “key of knowledge”?

The Key of Knowledge

The lawyer must have wrinkled his brow, looked at his colleagues, and begun rifling through his concordance. “Key of knowledge?” What’s He talking about, “key of knowledge”?

When the lawyers stopped teaching the Prophets—the histories from Samuel to Chronicles, the wisdom and poetic literature, and the works of the various writing prophets—they not only ignored the clearest teaching concerning the importance and right use of the Law, they also missed the development of Old Testament teaching about the Messiah.

And when they put the teaching of rabbis and schools of thought in place of the Prophets, they made sure to bury the increasingly clear revelation concerning the Coming One under piles and piles of man-made regulations, vainly designed to acquire righteousness. Jesus Christ is the Key to Knowledge; indeed, He is Truth itself (John 14:6). And when the lawyers took away the Prophets and substituted the teachings of men, they deprived the people of the opportunity of seeing the cumulative testimony of Jesus in the pages of the Old Testament.

It’s no wonder that, though Jesus over and over pointed to the Prophets to validate His claims and calling, the people just didn’t get it. Their teachers had denied them the teaching of the Old Testament and robbed them of the Key to Knowledge, so that they were unable to put together the Old Testament pieces that finally became a whole puzzle in Jesus Christ.

And this is the great sin of the lawyers: they kept people from seeing Jesus. They kept people from the Truth by weighing them down with lies. By withholding the Prophets and substituting the teachings of men in their place, the very men entrusted with the teaching of the whole counsel of God had taken the Key of Knowledge and thrown it into the depths of the sea. This is the greatest sin of all, the sin that tries to substitute the righteousness of men for the righteousness of God in Jesus Christ, that teaches popular opinion, good ideas, half-truths, and outright lies as though they were the Word of God, and, as a result, keeps people from seeing the Truth that is in Jesus Christ.

What’s saddest about this comic situation is that these lawyers are still among us today—preachers who ignore the Law, who only preach from the New Testament, who prefer movie reviews and anecdotal homilies to the sound exposition of the whole counsel of God in the Old and New Testaments. And we do this to ourselves as well, when we fail to make reading and study in the whole Bible part of our regimen of spiritual disciplines.

Jesus Christ is the Key to Knowledge—not just Biblical knowledge, but all knowledge. In our day, that Key has been relegated to a drawer in the church, where it is used to open a few doors and windows to allow a little light of spiritual refreshment into our knowledge-starved souls. We will never be able to engage all thought, every area of knowledge and study, and every lofty opinion set up against the knowledge of God, until we first begin to know the Key of Knowledge Himself as He is revealed cover to cover, page after page, in all the books of the Old and New Testaments.

Is the sin of the lawyer keeping you from the Key of Knowledge?

For Reflection

What is your approach to reading and studying the Bible? Does it include the whole Bible? Does your church lead you to reflect consistently on all the counsel of God in Scripture?

T. M. Moore is dean of the BreakPoint Centurions Program and principal of The Fellowship of Ailbe, a spiritual fellowship in the Celtic Christian tradition. He is the author or editor of 20 books, and has contributed chapters to four others. His essays, reviews, articles, papers, and poetry have appeared in dozens of national and international journals, and on a wide range of websites. His most recent books are Culture Matters (Brazos) and The Hidden Life, a handbook of poems, songs, and spiritual exercises (Waxed Tablet). Sign up at his website to receive his daily email devotional Crosfigell, reflections on Scripture and the Celtic Christian tradition. T. M. and his wife and editor, Susie, make their home in Hamilton, Va.