“Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For ye tithe mint and anise and cummin, and have left undone the weightier matters of the law, justice, and mercy, and faith: but these ye ought to have done, and not to have left the other undone” (Matthew 23:23).
Human beings have a tendency to maintain a narrow focus on various matters in life. It is easy for people to allow a select few criteria be their guide in the world: they decide to see everything through a certain set of lenses.
The Pharisees and scribes were not much different. The New Testament reveals that they were quite focused on preserving the Law of Moses and the traditions developed around that Law down to the last detail. Their hyper-vigilance about the Law led them to overemphasize the more “minor” actions while neglecting the more “significant” ones. By focusing on the “minor” actions and accomplishing them perfectly, they felt a sense of pride and accomplishment that led to a false sense of security and satisfaction, as if being vigilant in doing nothing on the Sabbath, washing of hands, and tithing down to the level of spices would be sufficient to obtain God’s commendation!
Jesus condemns this myopia. Even if they are more quantifiable and “objective,” performing these minor acts of obedience are not sufficient to obtain God’s commendation. Believers must not neglect the “weightier” matters of the law: justice, mercy, and faith.
The scribes and Pharisees were certainly guilty of that. The Pharisees especially considered themselves morally superior to their fellow men, as the Pharisee’s prayer in Luke 18:11-12 and the attitudes of the Pharisees in John 9 make evident. They deemed themselves “righteous” and everyone else to be “sinners,” despite the fact that they had sinned also and were certainly not maintaining God’s sense of faith, justice, or mercy. Their condemnation was just.
Nevertheless, this passage also exposes a major fault line within the thought of many religious people. Many take the idea of the “weightier matters of the law” and run with it, coming to the conclusion that since we are under “grace,” we need to get the “big things” right, and can allow the “little things” to slide. Others protest the very idea of “weightier matters,” stressing the need to do all things as God has charged us.
The truth, as usual, is somewhere more in the middle. Jesus tells us that there are some matters that are “weightier” than others. This means that some attitudes/actions have more significance than others. In the examples given, this is rather evident: justice, faith, and mercy are of greater significance than tithing spices. “Tithing spices” is of benefit to God and His Temple, while accomplishing justice, mercy, and faith is of benefit to God, His Temple, and all men. Furthermore, faith, justice, and mercy deal with every aspect of a person: his mind, his attitude, and his actions. One cannot easily have faith or show justice and mercy while internally despising God or his fellow man. While tithing should flow from a heart full of faith, one could tithe without the proper attitudes.
Therefore, there are some matters of greater significance than others. But that does not mean that we can just let matters of less significance slide and be pleasing to God. Notice that Jesus does not condemn the scribes or Pharisees for tithing the spices– in fact, He says that they should have done so! The problem was not that the scribes and Pharisees were tithing spices– the problem was that they were tithing spices while neglecting faith, justice, and mercy. It would be a gross perversion of this text to insinuate that if they had engaged in the “weightier matters” of the Law but had not tithed the spices that Jesus would have justified them. There is no basis for such a claim!
This should not be an “either/or” proposition, but a “both/and” one. The scribes and Pharisees should have accomplished both the “weightier matters of the law” and the tithing of spices. If we are serving God as we ought to serve Him, the latter flows from the former: because we are dedicated to love, humility, faith, and service, the “weightier matters” of the new covenant (cf. Romans 1:16-17, Romans 6:16-21, Romans 13:8-11, Ephesians 2:1-10, Philippians 2:1-11, Hebrews 11:1, 6, 1 Peter 1:22, 1 Peter 5:6-7), we will make sure to accomplish God’s will both in simple, quantifiable, and objective matters along with more substantive and difficult matters. We will assemble to encourage one another (1 Corinthians 14:23, Hebrews 10:25), give as we have prospered, both to the church and to those in need (1 Corinthians 16:1-3, 2 Corinthians 8:1-9:15, Galatians 2:10, 6:10), and other such things, while also loving our neighbor as ourselves and seeking his welfare (Romans 13:8-10, Philippians 2:1-4), and offering ourselves to God’s purposes as living and holy sacrifices (Romans 12:1), and the like.
Jesus’ message to the scribes and Pharisees represents a necessary warning against spiritual myopia, focusing on accomplishing certain elements of God’s purpose to the neglect of others. We cannot be justified in taking care of matters of detail and less significance while neglecting the weightier matters of God’s purposes; likewise, we cannot be justified in thinking that if we accomplish the weightier matters of God’s will that we can slide on the matters of less significance. If God has commanded it, there is value in accomplishing it! Let us seek to accomplish the whole will of God, and not neglect any aspect of it!
Ethan R. Longhenry