“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. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.” (verses 23-24)
Jesus pronounces “woe” on the religious leaders of his day, indeed seven times over in this one chapter. Without holding back, he starkly confronts them with their hypocrisy and faithlessness. It’s not clear if they were actually present to hear these words firsthand (Matthew simply mentions “the crowds and the disciples” as he sets the scene), but the indictment would be a slap in the face whenever they received it.
These verses (23-24) are the fourth in the series and therefore right at the centre, in many ways acting as an anchor for the whole, as Jesus puts his finger on one of the essential causes of their distorted religiosity. What is it? Here it is: these leaders are giving their main attention to the wrong things. They are focusing on minors rather than majors.
Jesus speaks specifically about the discipline of tithing, but it seems clear this is merely an example of a larger issue. Tithing is good. Indeed, it was commanded in God’s Law. But the rabbis spent their time debating the extent of the commandment. The Old Testament specified grain and wine and oil, but the scrupulous Pharisees had extended it further into minutiae, insisting on the tithing of garden herbs.
While not discouraging such devotion, Jesus says it has completely distracted them from focusing on what is much weightier and more important. While priding themselves on their detailed devotion, they let themselves off the hook regarding the issues of justice, mercy and faithfulness, issues which are essential to the character of God himself.
How could they get so focused on garden herbs that they became blind to the glory of God’s own character and being? How could they spend so much energy portioning out mint and dill and cumin while neglecting to embrace the Lord’s own attributes for themselves?
The irony comes home more strongly yet as we put Jesus’ words side by side with the words of the prophet Micah. Upping the ante from the minutiae of garden herbs to the extravagance of seemingly endless burnt offerings, Micah says this:
“Will the Lord be pleased with thousand of rams, with ten thousand rivers of olive oil? … He has shown you, O mortal, 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.”
And what about us today? Do we, also, get distracted by the trappings of spirituality – the outward signs of religious devotion – while allowing ourselves to neglect the pursuit of justice for the disenfranchised and racially oppressed? Do we forget to extend mercy to those who have hurt or slighted us, withholding forgiveness? Do we set aside humility and instead pridefully focus on our spiritual devotion, forgetting that we, like those around us, are simply sinners saved by grace? Do we let ourselves off the hook of expending energy to be faithful in relationships (no matter how hard it gets) and faithful to our Lord (even when his commands cost us)?
Jesus pronounced “woe” on these religious leaders. It’s a cautionary tale. Don’t miss what’s most weighty. Embrace justice, mercy and faithfulness.
Lord Jesus, speak into my own life with your clarifying truth. Let me see where I have dropped the ball on justice, mercy and faithfulness. Strengthen me by your Spirit to embrace more fully your own character and goodness. To your glory.
Reflect: In what circumstance or relationship do you need to embrace justice, mercy or faithfulness more fully? Talk with the Lord. Take steps to follow.