Flipping through my Bible this afternoon (actually, using an online Bible search tool, but somehow that just doesn’t sound the same), I came across this passage, which I’m sure I’ve read a thousand times before:
Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former.
— Matthew 23:23 (TNIV)
Some translations have it as the “weightier matters of the law.”
In the Hebrew scriptures, there were 613 commands… a lot to keep track of, if you were Jewish. Rabbis spent countless hours debating which laws were more important than others—which laws were “greater” and which were “lesser.” Which were “heavier” and which were “lighter.” After all, a comprehensive list, sorted by order of importance, might come in handy, should you find yourself in a situation where obeying one law requires you to break another.
What should you do, for example (assuming that you’re an observant Jew living in ancient Israel) if someone’s donkey collapses under a heavy load… on a Sabbath? On the one hand, you would be obeying Exodus 23:5 (not to mention Leviticus 19:18) if you lent a hand. On the other hand, by doing so you would violate Exodus 20:8-11. Dilemma.
How do you decide which law to keep and which to violate? Do you go by whichever passage is longer? Whichever has more verses? (Probably not the best method of deciding if you’re an ancient Jew, since your scroll wouldn’t have had verse numbers…)
Do you choose not to help, because the command about not working on the Sabbath was obviously more important, since it made it into the Ten Commandments, while the precise words “love your neighbor” did not?
You could ask some trusted rabbis, but you might not get the same answer twice. The good news is, pretty much everybody agreed that “love the Lord your God” was the greatest command. The bad news is, that’s where the agreement ended.
Some rabbis thought that “you shall have no other gods” was the next greatest command. Others said is was “keep the Sabbath.” Still others nominated “love your neighbor” for the distinction of “number two command in the Bible.”
Jesus weighs into the debate in Matthew 22:37-39, siding squarely with the “love your neighbor” camp—with a twist, of course. He says that the second greatest command in all of scripture is like the first. In other words, you cannot truly love God unless you love your neighbor. All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commands, Jesus taught.
Well, that’s nothing new. In fact, I think I’ve blogged about it before. Possibly more than once. (Can you say “one trick pony”?) But slightly less well known is Jesus’ rant in the very next chapter. Jesus works himself into a frenzy, directed at the religious establishment. Seven times he pronounces a “woe” upon them—which the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary says is a word “used to express grief, regret, or distress.” Um, that’s putting it mildly, especially when you read the content of Jesus’ seven woes. Not very nice stuff.
But it’s woe #4 that caught my attention today. The Pharisees and teachers of the law measured out even their tiniest spices to make sure they gave the required ten percent—not an ounce less (and presumably, knowing their hearts, not an ounce more). The problem is, at this point they wiped their hands in satisfaction, thinking they’d done their bit to stay in God’s good books.
Jesus accuses them of getting their priorities out of whack—obsessing with the most obscure minutiae of the law while completely forgetting about the “weightier matters.” And what does Jesus say these weightier matters are?
In other words, making sure the poor are taken care of matters more than making sure your prayer shawl is on straight. Or, perhaps, making sure we sing the “right” kind of songs (whatever your preference) in church.
In other words, freely extending God’s mercy to everyone we meet (which, according to Scripture, is a nonnegotiable if we hope to enjoy some of that same mercy for ourselves) is more important than making a list of who has and hasn’t got their theology straight and discriminating accordingly.
In other words, spending a lifetime caring for the poor and extending God’s mercy is more important than spending a lifetime playing religious games.
All of scripture matters to God—and the Pharisees were not wrong to make sure their tithes were in order, according to Jesus. But what they were doing was a lot like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.
Some scholars think that Jesus was expounding on Micah 6:8 in this particular rant (leave it to Jesus to always be interacting with the scriptures, even when he’s ripping into someone):
He has shown all you people what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.
That’s it. And when it comes right down to it, Micah 6:8 and Matthew 23:23 are just different ways of saying this:
Love your neighbor.
End of story.