In actual fact, there was a real problem with the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees. The heart of the matter was that their righteousness was defective in that it was external only. They appeared to obey the law to those who observed them, but broke God's law inwardly, where it couldn't be seen by others.
Notice Jesus' scathing denunciation of their hypocrisy in making a show of religion: "Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you cleanse the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of extortion and self-indulgence .. . For you .. . indeed appear beautiful outwardly, but inside are full of dead men's bones and all uncleanness . .. You also outwardly appear righteous to men, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness" (Matthew 23:25-28).
These self-appointed religious teachers emphasized minor aspects of the law while neglecting more important issues. "Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. These you ought to have done, without leaving the others undone" (verse 23). Jesus was concerned that every part of the righteous requirement be obeyed, and angry that they were blind to the "weightier" parts—the major spiritual aspects—of the law.
While they were fastidious with their ceremonial traditions, at the same time they took liberties to disobey God's direct commands. In some situations they actually elevated their traditions above the clear commands of God (Matthew 15:1-9).
Behind their actions was the base motive of self-exaltation and self-interest. They went public with what should have been their more private devotions toward God—prayer, fasting and giving of alms— all so they could be seen and thought of by others as righteous (Matthew 6:1-6; 23:5-7).
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