No one wants to be known as a hypocrite. You know, those people, the ones who pretend to be something that they're not. Generally, the main targets for this charge are authority figures who hide behind the facade of morality, justice, and goodness, while inwardly (and eventually outwardly) they embrace the things they rail against. You might envision caricatures of politicians, lawyers, or preachers- people who use lots of words, but do not consistently practice what they preach. The words prove to be hollow, because there is no substance behind them.
Jesus knew people like this in his day, and had no problem pointing them out. The Pharisees were teachers of the law who had never really understood the purpose of what they preached. God's main concern in giving His words to a people was not to create social structures and hierarchies. It wasn't a list of rules so that the good could clearly be separated from the bad. The Law and all it entailed was given so that people could come to have knowledge of, and communion with, God- to know how sinful people could enjoy His presence while living in community with other sinful people. Jesus consistently teaches that the essence of law-keeping was first, loving God, and then loving others. What was obvious to him was that the Pharisees, who knew the teachings, weren't loving either God or people. So, he declares them hypocrites. We know, from how the events turn out, that they took that really well.
I also know, though, that Jesus' words weren't just intended for them. They were recorded and preserved, long after the Pharisees were gone, for me...
“The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses' seat, so do and observe whatever they tell you, but not the works they do. For they preach, but do not practice...They do all their deeds to be seen by others. (Matthew 23:2-3,5 ESV)
Jesus wants the people to pay attention and do what the Pharisees said, because they gave out the words of God, but instructs them to then pay no mind to the actions that followed. These men were skilled at interpreting and explaining, but not at applying and living. What they taught had become a means of power and pride, not of love and humility. These men were conscious of all they did, not because they had been changed from the inside, but because they were aware of the eyes that were on them from the outside. After all, they had to keep up appearances.
I wish it wasn't true, but I know I've got some hypocrite in me. I want to do my best to keep my inconsistencies hidden. I desire to have it all together. I'd like to think I apply everything I teach- that I show consistent gospel application to my wife and children; that everything I preach on Sundays is already a regular pattern in my life, and my words are the overflow of all I've experienced with God. I wish I could tell you that no trace of Pharisee was in me- that greed and pride have been completely destroyed- but if I said that I would be pretending. inconsistent, and hiding behind a facade.
Maybe the most un-hypocritical thing I can say is that I am a sinner, a work in progress, a soul who is in need of a physician. I desperately need a Savior and his name is Jesus. It seems this is what the Pharisees needed to believe and affirm, but so staunchly opposed admitting. I'm thankful for the love of Christ. He knows my failures better than I do, and he gave his life for me anyway.
So, instead of seeing this passage as condemnation, I see it as grace from God- a light to open my eyes; an opportunity to repent of my ways; a beckoning to come to Jesus and have his righteousness. Without his, mine would never exceed the Pharisees. The Gospel exposes me for who I am, but won't leave me where I am. It changes me from the inside out, helping me to see all the inconsistencies in my belief and practice. I'm glad I've been exposed by Jesus and His Word. If I wasn't, I would always be a hypocrite.