The Weightier Matters of the Law

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Published:
March 28, 2017

If Jesus had a roast, it would be Matthew 23.

It is sometimes called “The Seven Woes” because when Jesus roasts you, it clearly has to come in historically relevant numbers. Reading the chapter is like watching everyone get burned by Eminem in the end of 8 Mile.

So who’s He Roasting?

Jesus has some more than caustic words for the religious leaders of the day, identified in the chapter as the scribes and Pharisees. These were the people most involved with religious ceremonies, and they knew the minutiae of Moses’ law. They knew when to stand and sit in synagogue, they knew the prayers like the back of their hand, and they could quote any portion of the holy books from memory.

What’s He Roasting Them About?

The story of Jesus is, in short, the story of salvation. Man falls from grace (thanks, Adam and Eve), and God has to fix it. He sends his son as a sacrifice for humanity.

To me, this might signal something important about Jesus’ sermon choices. He wouldn’t waste time talking about stuff that doesn’t matter, right? So what does Jesus care about?

“But all their works they do to be seen by men. They make their phylacteries broad and enlarge the borders of their garments.” (Verse 5)

Jesus notes that the works of the pious are often done for the adoration of others, not out of a spirit of true service, and that it shows. Remember, this is a guy who repeatedly healed people (cough, for free, cough) and told them to keep quiet about it (a little unfair, to be honest, because if I was blind and got new eyes, EVERYONE WOULD KNOW ABOUT IT. Dogs in neighboring towns would know about it.) What else does Jesus say?

“They love the best places at feasts, the best seats in the synagogues…” (Verse 6)

We haven’t even gotten to the woes yet, but this calls to mind Jesus’s musings on the hierarchy of power that will be transformed in heaven, where those clamoring to be first will be last and those believing themselves undeserving will be given the best seat at the table. (Matthew 20:16)

For context, just a chapter before, he told a story about a guy throwing a wedding, and none of his rich, stuck-up friends would come, so instead he got a bunch of homeless people together and had a BLAST. (Matthew 22)

Remember, Jesus has only got 33 years with us, and what is he choosing to talk about? The abdication of power, the sharing of wealth, the defense of the defenseless, piety for its own sake and not in trade for adoration . . . what’s next? (Not clamoring to hang out with billionaires, probably.)

“But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you shut up the kingdom of heaven against men; for you neither go in yourselves, nor do you allow those who are entering to go in. Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you devour widows’ houses, and for a pretense make long prayers. Therefore you will receive greater condemnation.” (Verses 13-14)

So Jesus is saying that one of the biggest stumbling blocks to the kingdom of heaven is sometimes those with the most knowledge about the kingdom of heaven, but with no interest in serving others.

Not only this, but Jesus is saying that:

            Because of their position,
            because of what they represent,
            because they are the bearers of a religious identity . . .

. . . that if they fail morally to serve the people they’re charged to serve, they receive greater condemnation than people who fail to follow them. 

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs which indeed appear beautiful outwardly, but inside are full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness. Even so you also outwardly appear righteous to men, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.” (Verses 27-28)

If you “clean your room” by shoving everything into your closet, it’s still not clean. Just like a tomb isn’t “clean” just because you wash the outside of it. Jesus is arguing that hypocrisy, contradiction, and an insistence that others follow a law that you don’t is wrong and much more important than shining tombstones.

“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…” (Verse 23)

This is the bottom line. Jesus’ overarching message to the religious people of his day was this: “You have no idea what is actually important and what is not.”

These are the same people who harassed him when he healed people on the Sabbath even though no work is allowed on the holy day or when his disciples failed to do ritual cleansing before eating  or when he let a prostitute run off with NO STINKIN’ PUNISHMENT, HOW DARE HE.

The phrase “the weightier matters of the law” implies that Jesus believes there are weightier matters of the law, as in, “things that are more important than other things.”

One can only wonder how thousands of desperate families fleeing civil war (incalculable risk to others) would fare against such excuses as “national security” (almost infinitesimal risk to ourselves) on Jesus’ scales. Which might qualify as a “weightier matter” to someone who began life as a refugee? (Matthew 2)

What Does This Teach Us?

We could probably guess from the fact that his name is Jesus Christ, and there’s a whole religion about him . . .that anybody who doesn’t act like what he’s describing isn’t really a Christian, right?

If his own words are any indication, he would have some pretty withering condemnation for the kind of people he was addressing in Matthew 23.

And if Jesus only had 33 years with us here and we know what he chose to say, we could probably infer that he only spoke about the most earth-shatteringly important stuff to him. And he did. It was serving others.

I think he was an alright guy, but I’m not sure he would think that about us.

 

Timothy Hucks is a blogger/author who graduated from Andrews University in 2014 with a Bachelor's of Art in English Literature. This story first appeared on the author’s blog, Now That We’re Here, and is reprinted here with permission.

Image Credit: Bernd Schwabe in Hannover – Wikimedia Commons

 

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