Jesus said that the Scribes and Pharisees were always missing the point. Stopping to consider in your heart what was really important is still hard work today. The rabbis had reduced the study of the Covenant Law to a mere matter of knowing the words. Further, they had totally dismissed the business of heart-led contemplation. The result was a petty legalism based on semantic gymnastics. Their Talmud was at that time a body of oral tradition full of smart-alecky excuses for taking moral short cuts. They engaged the words of the Law with their sharpened intellects, but it never touched their hearts.
Thus, Jesus pronounced woe upon them for tithing on the harvest of their window flower boxes, as if it was somehow superior covenant performance to turn over a pinch of dry herbs in the Temple. Yet it seemed they never grasped the admonition in Moses to promoting genuine moral justice, showing compassion, and pursuing a genuine personal commitment to Jehovah. Those things were reduced to lip service because there was no simple legalistic rule that could measure them as mere performance.
Their Talmud had a saying that anyone who smacked a tiny insect on the Sabbath were guilty of breaking the Law, the same as if they slaughtered a camel. They were the kind of people who would demand straining a whole jug of wine when a non-kosher insect appeared to have dropped into it, before it drowns and defiles the whole jug. Yet they were so morally blind they would swallow a camel-sized load of sin. Camels were the largest non-kosher animals in Palestine. What made it more memorable to the peasants listening to this was that the words for “camel” and “gnat” were almost the same in their native Aramaic — gamlâ versus qalmâ. They were so nit-picking about the extrapolated minutiae of kosher, as if they honestly believed it mattered to God, yet never understood His divine moral character.
They had extravagant detailed rules about washing the exterior of dishes on the Sabbath, but nothing about washing the remains of meals from inside. Didn’t this silly backwards attitude risk defilement, particularly on the Sabbath? Just so, their lives were externally neat and clean, but their souls were full of evil. They refused to understand that it was okay to wash dishes on the Sabbath in the normal fashion for the rest of the week. God didn’t have Moses write restrictions just to make life difficult. They were meant to mold a lifestyle more consistent with Creation, which in turn was designed according to His divine moral character.
Particularly around Jerusalem and other large towns on popular routes toward Jerusalem, local governing councils would commission work crews to plaster tombs with whitewashing lime. This prevented travelers on the way to Passover celebrations from touching a tomb and becoming ceremonially unclean. The cleansing ritual took a full week, and might make them miss attending the Day of Atonement in the Temple. It did make them quite beautiful when cast against the darker colors of natural stones in that part of the land. Jesus used that image as a parable for the Scribes and Pharisees: All gussied up on the outside and inwardly corrupt and defiling. The worshipers should be careful to avoid them, same as the tombs.
Speaking of tombs, it was a silly fetish of the Scribes and Pharisees to invest lavish decorations on the graves of the famous. They piously insisted they would not have mistreated those figures the same as their ancestors had done. Yet it was common knowledge that it was the Jewish leadership that had pushed the nation farther and farther from the Covenant. Anyone past their bar-Mitzvah could see that few of the promises of shalom were in evidence in their nation. Their sins hindered the promised blessings.
By confessing to be the children of those ancestors who abused so many prophets, they were admitting that they were even farther from the ancient ways. If the ancestors were foolish, more so the descendants. They were children of serpents — which typically symbolized being children of demons.