This chapter is an extended denunciation of the religious leaders and practices of the 1st century. The Pharisees, according to this passage, were experts at practicing the externals of religion. Jesus accuses them of missing the point. In modern times if they were Christians they would be wearing large crosses and carrying big leather bibles (5). They would covet public recognition of their good religious character and would deeply enjoy being honored at events and gatherings (6). However, behind closed doors was another matter. They did not learn humility or servanthood. Their religious practices ended up making many people worse off than when they started (here I imagine the moral failure of some modern Christian leaders and the devastating impact this had on the members of their communities). They would be specialists in what people were allowed to do or not allowed to do. They might keep their business closed on Sundays for religious purposes but under pay their employees. The bottom line, for Jesus, was that though they may have looked great on the outside there had been no internal transformation: and that IS the point.
Christ followers are changed from the inside out. When we focus on legal matters and keeping the law we try to change from the outside in. In the long run this will never work. It is the change of heart that leads to the changed life. We also know that when the heart is changed it will lead to changed focus, changed attitude and changed practices. I begin to participate in the things that will continue the process of transforming my heart and life. But it works from the inside out -- hence Jesus speaking of dirty cups and white washed tombs (25/27). He summarizes "So you also on the outside look righteous to others, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness (28)." This chapter is a reminder of what we have been reading in Matthew from the beginning. The Kingdom of the Heavens is among us. Living into the new reality changes who we are and, therefore, profoundly changes what we do.