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Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. You blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and the plate, that the outside also may be clean.” (Matt. 23:25–26, ESV)

The religious leaders of Jesus’ day were perfectly satisfied with proper appearances – regardless of inner reality. By the time of Jesus’ incarnation there was a very strong oral tradition of how to apply God’s Law into the minutiae of everyday Jewish life.

There was God’s perfect Law, of course; however, that was not enough, or so thought the Pharisees. Starting in the post-exilic period and growing through the 400 or so years prior to Jesus’ birth was the development of ideas on how to interpret God’s Law and apply its commands down to the finest details of everyday experience.

The oral traditions became the cushion surrounding the Law. If a person overlooked one of the traditions that was an infraction … but at least the actual Law hadn’t been transgressed. Over time, these oral traditions took on greater importance until, in effect, if you broke them; then it was essentially as taboo as breaking the actual Mosaic Law.

There were oral traditions that regulated how one must properly wash their hands, regulated how long a Sabbath Day’s journey was, and many, many more fine points of extra-biblical instruction imposed upon the masses.  Whose job was it to make sure Jewish society followed these oral traditions?  It was the self-imposed responsibility of the Pharisees – and their highly respected scholars, the scribes.

The Pharisees, as a whole, were respected members of Jewish society. They were many times the business owners and influencers of the day. Certainly the majority of Jewish society viewed the Pharisees with great respect and treated the scribes with tremendous honor. After all, they were the experts in the Law and how to apply it to real life.

The only big fly in the ointment for the scribes and Pharisees was a Jewish Rabbi named Jesus.  While Jesus could be heard softly speaking words of forgiveness and grace to repentant harlots and tax collectors, He reserved His greatest and harshest chastisements for the scribes and Pharisees.

These are the guys who loved to publically display their religious zeal and service – their ceremonial cleanness; yet, it was they whom Jesus denounced as zealous for the wrong things, their service unacceptable and their ceremony offensive.  Jesus says to them in the passage above that their cup is really nice and clean on the outside, that is, “You look good and clean to all who see you.”  But Jesus says to them that they are really corrupt on the inside.

I am quick to toss my head in disdain at these guys as I read through Matthew’s gospel.  After all, I feel as if they are pretty spiritually ridiculous … That is, until I go back and evaluate myself along the same lines of Jesus’ rebuke.  Jesus condemns them for being filled with “greed and self-indulgence.”  In verse 23 of the same chapter, Jesus tells these same leaders that they should pay special attention to “the weightier matters of the law.”  He defines those weightier matters as follows: “justice and mercy and faithfulness.”

Earlier in Matt. 9:13, Jesus tells these same religious leaders that they should “Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’”

What does this all mean to me personally?  How am I to apply these texts to my own life?  Way too often I see in me the same value system of the scribes and Pharisees.  I see that I highly prize looking spiritually fit on the outside, yet, many times in my heart of hearts I have greed and an insatiable desire to gain more of this world’s goods and services (self-indulgence).

I find myself evaluating whether or not an opportunity to serve God will benefit me financially or in the area of personal or family advancement. Is this not the same sin-sickness of the scribes and Pharisees?  How many folks, myself included, have heard about adoption or fostering and have justified inaction based, in reality, on the above two vices at work in their heart?  That certainly used to be my attitude.

I wonder sometimes if I really am interested in seeing justice happen for the powerless. I find myself feeling an emotion of sympathy for the pain of others and equate that with mercy when, in reality, mercy is as mercy DOES.  Yet many times I do nothing and feel justified, after all, I am ceremonially clean (Modern Day Church Version: Attend worship, give of my time and resources, life devoted to vocational ministry, etc.). I wonder if sometimes Jesus sighs and shakes His head at my positive self-evaluations.

And then there is Jesus’ allusion to Hosea 6 as recorded in Matt. 9:13, “Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’”  OUCH!

Conclusion: When our future plans do not include how we may be used maximally for the display of God’s glory in the advancement of His Kingdom and the display of His mercy then perhaps we are modern-day Pharisees.