The Weightier Matters of the Law
We noted yesterday that the Lord “took the Pharisees to school” in academic one-upmanship; that is, if the scribes and Pharisees thought that debating fine points of the law really mattered, then the original lawgiver would be happy to accommodate them. But showing up the Pharisees in theological debate really wasn’t Jesus’ purpose. His purpose was to show them, well, themselves; specifically, their hypocrisy in their intense concern for appearance over substance and the resulting neglect of the “weightier matters of the law.” In response, Jesus issues several “woes” upon them.
Building on their love of outward show which we read about yesterday (long robes, best seats in the synagogues), Jesus continues his list of grievances that highlight this concern of theirs for appearances. First, you “shut the kingdom of God in people’s faces.” No doubt, this shocked them: “How do we do that?” By weighing people down with trivial extra-biblical laws that make religion a burden. You even travel the world over to make one convert, only to make him like yourselves and in your own image rather than God’s. Second, you mistake appearance for substance in oaths, mixing the sacred with the profane. The temple sanctifies the gold, the altar the gift, and God heaven, not the other way around! Third, you tithe on everything you own (that’s a good thing), but forget to “tithe” on justice, mercy, and compassion. Fourth, your concern for appearances is fittingly illustrated in your washing the outside of the cup and not the inside, such that you, yourselves, are like tombs which on the outside are beautifully decorated but which no one would ever dare to look within. And then to top it all off, you decorate the tombs of the prophets your fathers murdered, thereby testifying that you are their sons!
We might be tempted to say, “Gee Jesus. Being a little rough on the boys, aren’t you?” Not at all. If this diatribe shows us anything, it shows us God’s concern for substance over appearance, and how confusing the two leads to hypocrisy and ultimately lawlessness. Indeed, it’s Jesus’ indictment that the scribes and Pharisees were “full of hypocrisy and lawlessness” that probably offended them the most. “Lawlessness? You gotta be kidding! We, Pharisees are the quintessential keepers of the law.” No, you’re not. Indeed, Jesus would have us understand that when we “strain out gnats” (major on appearances), we “swallow camels” (minor on substance) and wind up breaking the very laws we strive to meticulously maintain – by neglecting justice. And the judgment for doing so is severe (23:37-39).