The Heart of a Pharisee: Focusing on the Superficial

“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean. Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean. In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness.” Matthew 23: 25-28

Towards the end of the book of Matthew, Jesus confronts the Pharisees, or religious leaders of His day. From the very beginning of the book, the Pharisees have been frustrated, offended, and threatened by Jesus’s teaching and way of life. From eating with sinners to healing on the Sabbath, Jesus’s behavior flabbergasted the leaders, and they hated him for it, looking for ways to convict Him and condemn Him to death (which they would eventually do).

And right before His crucifixion, in the last documented interaction Jesus has with these leaders, He speaks clearly and directly about what about their ministry He finds so wrong.

Throughout Matthew 23, Jesus pronounces seven “woes” or rebukes. A woe is a declaration of sorrow and distress, a strong rebuke, which highlights God’s righteous judgment and shows His heart. In this passage, Jesus tells the Pharisees how angry He is at the way they have taken their religion and used it to hurt others.

As Jesus pointed addresses the Pharisees, He speaks directly to their hearts in a way I’m sure they were not happy to hear. While the idea of cleaning a cup and dish or decorating a whitewashed tomb sound like silly analogies to us, the Pharisees were incredibly ritualistic about ceremonial cleaning. They would meticulously clean their serving ware and whitewash tombs before Passover per their rituals, but Jesus highlights the fact that while they seem so obsessed with cleaning things outwardly, inside, they are filled with greed, self-indulgence, hypocrisy, and wickedness (not the list of adjectives I’d like Jesus to use to describe me!).

1 Samuel 16:7 reminds us that “Man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.” So many times we can get caught up in how we look, what car we drive, what phone we have, or how many followers we have on our various social media accounts. But no outward symbol of beauty, goodness, or righteousness can ever cover the true state of our heart from God. It might seem like an easier option to just throw yourself into trying harder or looking better, but we cannot outrun or out-work our sin.

But isn’t that a beautiful gift? God doesn’t say Just try to make it look like you have it together or Clean yourself up and THEN I will love you. No, He says Come to me in your brokenness and sinfulness, and I will help you. I see how you are trying to make yourself look righteous at the expense of your sick and tired heart. I love you enough not to leave you here.

When we realize we’ve been focusing on the superficial instead of addressing the true state of our heart, the way to change is to do what Jesus says: “Clean the inside of the cup first, and then the outside will be clean. Here God’s words from Ezekiel 36:25-27 as a promise to you today:

“I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws.”

How good and kind is our God to help us turn from our own self-sufficiency and learn to walk with Him.

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