Summary: Jesus has some tough things to say the Scribes and Pharisees, but these two groups started out as well meaning, sincere people about their relationship to God. What happened to them can happen to us as well.
Most Christians are sincere and well meaning in their walk with Christ. That goes for average garden variety Christians, so called "lay" people, and professionals - pastors and the like who make their living off of the gospel. What may be surprising is that even well meaning Christians can fall into the same sort of hypocrisy as the Scribes and Pharisees of Jesus’ day.
The Pharisees. They started out a philosophical sect of Judaism around the 3rd century B.C. The name comes from the Hebrew word "to separate." Eventually they became a powerful political party in Israel in Jesus’ time. Josephus, the noted Israeli historian, was a Pharisee. The Pharisees were one of three powerful sects in Jesus’ time. The other two were the Sadducees and the Essenes (who hid the Dead Sea Scrolls)
They came about during a time when the Greeks were trying to make the Jews more like Greeks. The people who later became the Pharisees rebelled against this strongly. Their aim was to preserve national integrity and strict conformity to the Law of Moses.
The Scribes - also called lawyers - copied down the Law and were considered experts in it. They and the Pharisees were the leaders in Israel at the time of Jesus.
One of the biggest problems of the Pharisees may have been that they looked at the Word of God as a possession to wield as a weapon to keep themselves justified and in power, rather than a living document to reveal their inadequacies before God, beg for His mercy, and seek His salvation.
Believe or not, the Pharisees came from the middle class of their society-the businessmen and merchants. The vast majority were actually laymen. To get into a Pharisaical community one had to vow to completely follow the many traditions created by the Pharisees around tithing, ceremonial laws and dietary purity.
Even though a lot of people supported the Pharisees, they were not themselves members of that group.
That oral tradition actually started at the time of the Babylonian captivity. The people felt that they needed to draw a hedge around themselves, to keep from disobeying God again. By the time of Jesus this oral tradition (commentaries on the Law) were revered so highly that they were said to go back all the way to Moses. They were finally all compiled in 200 AD and are called the Mishna.
The Mishna seeks to regulate with great detail every part of a person’s life. It’s the extreme of "legislating morality." It misses the big point - we don’t make ourselves pure from the outside that works itself in, we become pure by getting new life on the inside that then works itself outward.
This background is important for us to understand. The Pharisees did not start out as hypocrites who said one thing and did another. They were honestly trying to serve God and not fall back into sin.
Their mistake was that they tried to create a rule for every possible situation instead of letting their lives be molded by the character of God.
The Scribes also just wanted to preserve God’s Word-a noble goal for sure.
Both of these groups were well meaning-lay leaders and highly educated professional. But something happened. They fell into legalism. And it can happen to us too. Paul later wrote that the purpose of Law was not to make us righteous but to show our need for a savior. (Galatians 3)
Sometimes we start out wanting to serve God with a pure heart. We fail. And in our human mind we think "well, where did I fail? I better work on that area until I don’t fail there any more and then God will be happy with me."
So there are four areas that Jesus combats the Pharisees and the Lawyers - the experts - so called - in the Jewish law:
Exterior righteousness with interior fleshliness (verses 39-41)
The Pharisees were extremely careful to follow all the rituals, which included elaborate ways of cleaning dishes and washing before eating. They thought it showed their devotion to God but it made them dependent on external shows rather than internal realities.
In fact, they were just as wicked and dirty spiritually as anyone else. Jesus calls them "fools" which can mean "mindless, stupid, ignorant, egotistic, or unbelieving."
They were also very stingy when it came to giving, either to God or to the poor. Jesus may be saying to them: "if you had God’s character you would show how clean you are by having a giving heart like He has."
So how do we become like this? It’s actually pretty easy. When the outside trappings of our Christian walk become our Christian walk then we are in danger of becoming a dirty cup.
We don’t do any of the outward things anymore that we did in our BC days (before Christ in our life). We dress well, we smell good, we act all pious and don’t cuss (at least not very much) and we carry around a big Bible and use Christian jargon.