They stood tall. They stood righteous and devout. To the common people around them, their holiness seemed out of reach. They were part of the privileged few, the honored who were to represent the people to their God.
Then came One like no other, who claimed to be the Son of the God they served each day. The God they honored by being...honorable. But this Son of God did not praise their holiness as they expected.
"'You brood of vipers!'" He exclaimed. "'How can you speak good, when you are evil?'" (Matthew 12:34). "'Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people's bones and all uncleanness'" (Matthew 23:27). These men had been acclaimed as the spiritual leaders of their people - and that is what they were supposed to be. How could they be full of rotting bones? How could they be evil vipers? Where did they go wrong?
We don't have to wonder! In Matthew 23, Jesus gives clues as to what the Pharisees did wrong (and didn't do right). Multiple times, He labels them "hypocrites," and at one point He explains, "'For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness'" (Matthew 23:23). Tithing is not bad. Neglecting justice, mercy, and faithfulness, however, is - especially for the spiritual leaders of God's people.
"And he said to them, 'Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written, “This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men." You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men.' And he said to them, 'You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to establish your tradition'" (Mark 7:6-9).
Did you catch it? Did you notice? What was the accusation God made through Isaiah? Their "'heart is far from me.'" According to Scripture, it was even acknowledged that the Pharisees honored God with what they said ('"honors me with their lips'") and worshipped God, even if it was in vain. What was missing in these Pharisees' way of life?
Even though the Pharisees were tithing the littlest of spices, even though they were careful to do nothing resembling work on the Sabbath, even though they literally followed figurative commands in the ancient laws, it would never be enough. And today, even if we tithe faithfully, attend church every Sunday, and regularly memorize Scripture, it can never be enough. If our heart is not in it, all is lost.
Later, a man who declared himself "blameless" when it came to matters of the Jewish law (Philippians 3:6) would write: "If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing" (1 Corinthians 13:1-3).
So that's it. Even if we have the highest spiritual gifts, prophetic powers, incredible faith, and a martyr's mindset - even then, we are nothing without love. Where are our hearts? Even as we go about our "duty," our "obligations," our "service" - where are our hearts? Where is yours?