In the gospels’ presentation, the scribes and Pharisees come across as villainous for two reasons. First, they fail to discern the scale of relative priorities that orders the manifold demands of Torah. Second, they strain after a public pose while neglecting the righteous internal life that organically produces a public reputation.
In the face of these two failures, Jesus is merciless.
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have practiced without neglecting the others. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel!
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and of the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. You blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup, so that the outside also may become clean. (Matthew 23:23–26 NRSV)
Hypocrisy is endlessly subtle and supple. Its capacity for adapting to the self-protective requirements of the moment is almost inexhaustible.
Yet it pivots upon these two sins, making righteousness all the more difficult for those who by ignorance or principle fail to play by ‘pharisaical’ religion’s arbitrary and self-referential rules.
In Jesus’ dialect, those who act this way—no matter how nicely starched their robes—are sons of hell.