There is an interesting thread that runs through the Bible that shows that there are some things that are more important, or fundamental than others in life. This is even true, according to Scripture, when it comes to what God expects from man – His commandments.
Consider the following passages:
“And now, Israel, what does the LORD your God require of you, but to fear [revere, NET] the LORD your God, to walk in all His ways and to love Him, to serve the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and to keep the commandments of the LORD and His statutes which I command you today for your good?” (Deuteronomy 10:12-13)
“He has shown you, O man, what is good; And what does the LORD require of you But to do justly, To love mercy, And to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8)
“Teacher, which is the great commandment in the law?”said to him, “ ‘You shall love the LORD YOUR GOD WITH ALL YOUR HEART, WITH ALL YOUR SOUL, AND WITH ALL YOUR MIND.’ This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like it: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.” (Matthew 22:36-40)
In the everyday walk of the Christian life, it is sometimes easy to forget about the most fundamental and important aspects of God’s law. A good “case study” of this occurs in Matthew 23. In this chapter, Jesus is warning His disciples against the hypocrisy of a religious group called the Pharisees. He also issues a blistering rebuke of these same Pharisees.
The Pharisees were a sect of the Jews who greatly reverenced God’s Word. They were very pious people and went to great lengths to make sure that they kept even the minutest detail of the law and even created hundreds of their own laws, designed to protect from even coming close to breaking one of God’s laws.
In this, there is much to be commended about the Pharisees (see Matthew 5:19-20), but according to Jesus, also much to be rebuked. They suffered from pride, hypocrisy and arrogance. They had also forgotten the main points of the law, at least in practice. They “lost the forest for the trees.” They majored in minors and minored in majors. Therefore Jesus said to them:
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you pay tithe of mint and anise and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. These you ought to have done, without leaving the others undone. Blind guides, who strain out a gnat and swallow a camel!” (Matthew 23:23-24)
Basically, they had taken a legitimate command of God under the Law of Moses (tithing) to a fervent extent by carefully weighing and tithing the smallest and invaluable household garden herbs while neglecting the “weightier” (“more important” NIV11) matters of the law. Justice and mercy here both have to do with caring for the needy and oppressed, something they not only neglected, but actually exacerbated (Matthew 23:4). I think the New Living Translation accurately captures the gist of what Jesus is saying:
“What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! For you are careful to tithe even the tiniest income from your herb gardens, but you ignore the more important aspects of the law—justice, mercy, and faith. You should tithe, yes, but do not neglect the more important things.” (Matthew 23:23)
Jesus does not say that they were wrong in tithing the small herbs, but was rebuking them for being so focused on the relatively small matter at the expense of the main thing. They had a proportion problem. He is saying they are as ridiculous as someone going to extreme lengths to prevent drinking a tiny gnat while gulping down an entire camel. This is a picture of a group of people who had lost all sense of proportion.
Before we jump the gun in condemning the Pharisees, we need to take a look in the mirror. The Pharisees loved the Law of God and reverenced it far greater than most Western Christians – how many of us have memorized whole books of the Bible? Yet, they still fell into this trap. The same danger exists for us today. Consider William Barclay’s comments on how the Pharisee proportion problem may manifest itself today:
“There are many who wear the right clothes to church, carefully hand in an offering to the church, adopt the right attitude at prayer, are never absent from the celebration of the sacrament, [but] who are not doing an honest day’s work and are irritable and bad-tempered and [stingy] with their money. There are people who are full of good works and who serve on all kinds of committees, and whose children are lonely for them at night. There is nothing easier than to observe all the outward actions of religion and yet be completely irreligious.”
With the New Year also brings an opportunity for revaluation of priorities. This year, may we heed the words of Jesus, living out the whole law of Christ while keeping it well within the context of the “weightier” matters of the Law.
Torrey Clark is the host of the weekly Christian worldview talk show, Culture Shock (www.thelightnetwork.tv/shows). He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.