Don’t Neglect the Weightier Things
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, 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.” Matthew 23: 23
The Pharisees were a religious group that was dedicated to strictly following the Jewish laws. The scribes were Pharisees who were considered to be experts in the law. During the ministry of Jesus, the scribes and Pharisees represented the worst of the religious people who had digressed into error and hypocrisy. These also, along with the Sanhedrin (or supreme council and tribunal of the Jews), were responsible for the death of Jesus. They are examples for us today of people who may desire to be close to God and even to be His representative, but have in reality become His enemy.
The lesson for us today is to learn from the errors of the scribes and Pharisees, recognizing that we have the same tendencies as they did, and we can be just as blind to our own faults as they were. We should guard against subtle temptations of drifting down the same pathways that led them to their final states of error and hypocrisy.
One error that Jesus rebuked the scribes and Pharisees for (as quoted above) is their neglect of what Jesus called the “weightier matters of the Law”. He spelled out these weightier matters as justice, mercy and faith. In order to make sure that we don’t also neglect these, we must understand what they are and how they need to be attended to. Let’s briefly take a closer look at each of these. I would suggest that you take more time on your own to seek God and study the Scriptures to learn even more about these and how they apply to your life and relationship with God.
Some Bible versions use the word “judgment” or “righteousness” rather than “justice” in this verse. The original Greek word used is “krisis” and it is defined in Strong’s concordance as “decision (subjectively or objectively, for or against); by extension, a tribunal; by implication, justice (especially divine law): – accusation, condemnation, damnation, judgment.” The definition of the English word “justice” is “the quality of being just; righteousness, equitableness, or moral rightness.”
The indication from these definitions is that it is important for us to correctly determine what is fair, just, good, and right in our lives and circumstances and then to adhere to these judgments by aligning our own actions either to enforce or to support the enforcement of these just decisions. In order for us to correctly make these determinations of justice, we need to have an understanding of God’s values and principles as revealed in His Scriptures. Additionally, our conscience needs to be healthy and sensitive, in tune with the Holy Spirit, and we need to be true to our conscience.
What is the practical lesson in this for us? We need to recognize that it is very important to God that we are just and fair in all of our dealings. For example, how we discipline our children or those whom we have authority over, or how we do business, i.e. the wages we give our employees or the prices we charge for our services or goods, or how we treat others in our situations at work or school or even at play. We must be fair and equitable in all of these affairs and in whatever other situations we find ourselves in.
Some decisions are hard and therefore we need to look to the Holy Spirit for guidance, prayerfully taking time to inquire of God before hastily deciding on something especially when it impacts people’s lives. In general, we need to be aware of the importance of justice in all our activities. This awareness should help us to find the guidance we need to get to the proper actions or decisions.
Also, we should support those who are making a stand for what is right and just, or those who are administering righteous justice in the face of ridicule or resistance. It seems especially true today when God’s values are being rejected by our society. Our society has been turning good into evil and evil into good. We need to contribute to stopping the injustices associated with these changes.
“Woe to those who call evil good, and good evil; Who put darkness for light, and light for darkness; Who put bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter!” Isaiah 5: 20
I am confident that most Christians understand the definition of the word mercy, but it may not be clear that showing mercy towards others is a weightier matter of the law and that it is important to God. Being merciful as noted in this verse implies that we are not just merciful to those close to us, our family and friends, but that we are merciful to all those who are afflicted, and even to our enemies.
To best illustrate the importance of mercy and its practical application, below is an exchange between Jesus and a scribe as recorded in the Gospel of Luke:
“And behold, a certain lawyer (scribe) stood up to test Him, saying, ‘Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?’ He said to him, ‘What is written in the law? What is your reading of it?’ So he answered and said, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.’ And He said, ‘You have answered rightly; do this and you will live.’ But he, wanting to justify himself, said to Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbor?’ Then Jesus answered and said: ‘A certain man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell among thieves, who stripped him of his clothing, wounded him, and departed, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a certain priest came down the road, and when he saw him, passed by on the other side. Likewise, a Levite, when he arrived at the place, came and looked and passed by on the other side. But a certain Samaritan, as he journeyed, came where he was and when he saw him, he had compassion. So he went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine; and he set him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. On the next day, when he departed, he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said to him, “take care of him; and whatever more you spend, when I come again, I will repay you.” So which of these three do you think was neighbor to him who fell among the thieves?’ And he said, ‘He who showed mercy on him.’ Then Jesus said to him, ‘Go and do likewise.’” Luke10: 25-37
It should also be noted that at the time there was a longstanding hatred between the Jews and the Samaritans due to religious differences, so the Samaritan who helped the injured Jew was able to look beyond his prejudices and be merciful.
We need to keep our hearts tender towards those in need and those who are afflicted and allow the Holy Spirit to work through us to assist and relieve those whom we encounter, no matter who they are or what bias we may have towards them.
The Greek word used here for faith is “pistis” meaning persuasion from a root word “peitho” that means to persuade, and refers to our moral conviction. Abstractly, it implies the constancy in such profession or conviction. In other words it means that we have been persuaded of some truth and that we are living our lives in alignment with this truth.
The scribes and Pharisees did have a belief in God and they had dedicated their lives to strictly following the Jewish laws. What was their problem then with regards to their faith?
The Bible clearly teaches that our faith must produce works or it is dead faith:
“What does it profit, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can faith save him? If a brother or sister is naked and destitute of daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Depart in peace, be warmed and filled,’ but you do not give them the things which are needed for the body, what does it profit? Thus also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead. But some will say, ‘You have faith, and I have works. Show me your faith without your works, and I will show you my faith by my works.’ You believe that there is one God. You do well. Even the demons believe – and tremble. But do you want to know, O foolish man, that faith without works is dead? Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered Isaac his son on the altar? Do you see that faith was working together with his works, and by works faith was made perfect? And the Scripture was fulfilled which says, ‘Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness.’ And he was called the friend of God. You see then that a man is justified by works, and not by faith only.” James 2: 14-24
The good works that we produce in our lives are an indication that our faith is genuine and “alive” rather than dead. We need to make sure that we are producing these good works, and if not, look to the Lord for help to deepen or strengthen our faith.
The Scriptures also make it clear that our faith should be focused on the spiritual, unseen, truths and not on the physical, visible, things of this world. Our faith should be combined with the future hope that we have of a spiritual reality in heaven in the kingdom of God. If we set our affections and focus on the spiritual hope that we have in Christ, and ignore (or die to) the hopes that are offered by this world, our faith will be deepened and we will produce the needed good works. We will also become spiritually minded rather than carnally or fleshly minded, and this will foster in us a spiritual growth that will transform us into spiritual beings having the mind of Christ and the nature of God.
“For we through the Spirit eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness by faith.” Galatians 5: 5
“I say then: Walk in the Spirit, and you shall not fulfill the lust of the flesh. For the flesh lusts against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; and these are contrary to one another, so that you do not do the things that you wish.” Galatians 5: 16-17
In contrast the scribes and Pharisee were focused on this world and the praises of men. It was obvious that the spiritual truths that they knew were not a reality to them; they didn’t really believe that they had eternal life in heaven after a temporary life on earth, nor did they really believe that God was going to judge them according to what they had done and according to His standards of mercy and justice.
The Bible says that the Jews of that time “had a zeal for God, but it was not enlightened” meaning that they did not understand the way of faith; they were focused on adhering to a list of rules and rituals, rather than having a deep belief that resulted in an internal change producing good works.
“What shall we say then? That the Gentiles (non-Jews) who did not pursue righteousness have attained it, that is, righteousness through faith; but that Israel who pursued the righteousness which is based on law did not succeed in fulfilling that law. Why? Because they did not pursue it through faith, but as if it were based on works.” Romans 9: 30-32″
“I bear them witness that they have a zeal for God, but it is not enlightened. For, being ignorant of the righteousness that comes from God, and seeking to establish their own, they did not submit to God’s righteousness. For Christ is the end of the law, that every on who has faith may be justified.” Romans 10: 2-4
Let’s not fall into the same error as the scribes and Pharisees. Let’s keep our focus and attention set on our hope in heaven and on spiritual things, not on this world. Let’s let our minds be renewed and transformed into the mind of Christ. Let’s stand up for justice and be just in our dealings and decisions. And let’s walk in love, being merciful to others, even to strangers or our enemies. Lord please help us to do so!