In the ancient world, Pharisees were powerful religious and political leaders. If you were to walk through any ancient city where Jews resided, you would have seen Pharisees, especially in Jerusalem because of the temple. They would have been found conversing with one another on the street corners and at popular social gathering places in every city. They were easily identified by their dress and daily habits. Their white robes, enlarged embroidered border, a pointed turban, and mantle (the outer garment worn as a covering and also used at night as a blanket) clearly distinguished them.
Pharisees were the most affluent, most zealous, and most closely connected religious fraternity on the planet. A Pharisee’s devotion would never have been questioned. If you had followed one, it would have been a rather long, interrupted trip. After a few steps, a Pharisee would stop and recite a portion of his prescribed prayers, take a few more steps and recite the rest. In addition to his prescribed prayers he would stop for benedictions, reciting one when entering a village and another upon exiting. He would do the same when passing through a fortress, upon encountering any danger, meeting anything new, strange, beautiful, or unexpected. The longer he prayed, the better. And the more often he prayed, the more merit he gained. A pious Pharisee considered 100 benedictions a day adequate. Even his posture showed his devotion to God. A Pharisee would draw his feet together and bend low in reverence while praying.
At first the Pharisees were devoted to God and emphasized piety. But over time they developed their own distinct habits and traditions. In their devotion they were very careful to avoid breaking God’s commandments; so careful that they added laws in an attempt to keep them from breaking God’s commandments (think of it like putting a fence around your entire house). They added 248 commandments and 365 prohibitions to ensure they did not come close to breaking the original ten. As time went on these additional commandments and rules were written into their tradition and taught as the best way to honor God. Gradually, there was a shift away from the spirit of God’s law to the letter of the Pharisees’ law resulting in legalism. Godliness was now measured with external compliance to their laws rather than internal heart compliance with God’s laws.
This bugged Jesus. He told them they were so focused on the letter of the law, they missed the point. They measured faith by compliance to their man-made rules and prohibitions while Jesus was concerned about the heart. The Pharisees looked good on the outside, but their hearts were not in the right place.
There are times when my heart is not in the right place either; like judging someone based on their language rather than listening to their story, or wanting to keep three dollars for coffee rather than giving it to the beggar on the street. I think we all are guilty of this. The point is that we need to be concerned about keeping our heart in the right place more than keeping up some religious facade. Don’t be a Pharisee. Don’t focus on what you are doing more than who you are becoming. Experience God in worship, through prayer, silence, reflection, scripture reading and the application of what you learn. Be authentic with others and strong enough to admit you are still a work in progress. This is the type of person that non-Christians need to see and that God desires us to be.