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Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cummin, and have neglected the weightier provisions of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness; but these are the things you should have done without neglecting the others.Matthew 23:23
One thing I appreciate about the Church of Christ is that they are very serious in following “every jot and tittle” of the New Testament. Personally, I believe they do this to a fault and have transformed the purpose of the New Covenant writings; however, they are sincere and love God, so I don’t fault them for that on the surface. The problem is when congregations of the Churches of Christ, and groups with similar mindsets and philosophies, hyper focus on the “pattern” of the New Testament while sacrificing the “spirit” of the text. They zoom in on technicalities so much that they can miss the weightier matters of the Law, so to speak.
In the passage above, Jesus condemns the Pharisees for tithing the spices in their house to the point of neglecting the more important aspects of the Law which revolve around the type of person the Law can produce. The command to tithe in the Old Testament served three purposes: (1) to supply the Levite’s with provisions since they had no inheritance of their own, (2) to furnish the materials necessary for the feast days, and (3) to support the orphan, widow, and foreigner (Deuteronomy 14:22-29).
The Levite, because he has no portion or inheritance among you, and the alien, the orphan and the widow who are in your town, shall come and eat and be satisfied, in order that the LORD your God may bless you in all the work of your hand which you do.Deuteronomy 14:29
Though the Pharisees tithed, Jesus charged them with “devouring widow’s houses” (Mark 12:40). It is hard to say how they did this, but it is most likely related to their turning the temple into a marketplace (Matthew 22:12-17). Regardless, they still missed the point of the Law while technically following it. When we turn discipleship into a checklist, we miss the point of the whole thing. Following God isn’t to lift ourselves up through self-righteousness but to surrender ourselves to God’s will so He can bless everyone around us through us.
In today’s article, we will explore the themes of justice, mercy, and faithfulness as they appear in the Hebrew scriptures with light commentary from the New Covenant scriptures when necessary. Paying attention to these weightier matters of the Law is what James called “pure religion” in James 1:27.To end this introduction, notice the following quote from Micah, which seems to be Jesus’ source for these “weightier matters.”
He has told you, O man, what is good; And what does the LORD require of you But to do justice, to love kindness, And to walk humbly with your God?Micah 6:8
The word translated “justice” is from the Greek word κρίσις (krisis) which means “the legal process of judgement, a board of judges, or administration of what is right and fair.” [All definitions come from the following source: “Arndt, William et al. A Greek-English lexicon of the New Testament and other early Christian literature 2000 : Print.”] In this same resource, typically abbreviated BDAG, Matthew 23:23 is one of the key passages used as an example of krisis translated as “justice.”
Below are some examples of the use of kirsis in the Greek version of the Hebrew Scriptures called the Septuagint (LXX). As you read, compare God’s expectations of Israel to the world today. In what ways might our churches, communities, and nations said that we follow God but have, like those in Matthew 23, neglected the “weightier matters of the Law.” Some politicians would like to display the Ten Commandments in the courthouses, but would they also be willing to display these texts?
He executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and shows His love for the alien by giving him food and clothing. So show your love for the alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.Deuteronomy 10:18–19
You shall not pervert the justice due an alien or an orphan, nor take a widow’s garment in pledge. But you shall remember that you were a slave in Egypt, and that the LORD your God redeemed you from there; therefore I am commanding you to do this thing. When you reap your harvest in your field and have forgotten a sheaf in the field, you shall not go back to get it; it shall be for the alien, for the orphan, and for the widow, in order that the LORD your God may bless you in all the work of your hands. When you beat your olive tree, you shall not go over the boughs again; it shall be for the alien, for the orphan, and for the widow. When you gather the grapes of your vineyard, you shall not go over it again; it shall be for the alien, for the orphan, and for the widow. You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt; therefore I am commanding you to do this thing.Deuteronomy 24:17–22
‘Cursed be whoever may bend the justice of a sojourner and an orphan and a widow.’ And all the people shall say, ‘May it be.’Deuteronomy 27:19
I know that the LORD will maintain the cause of the afflicted And justice for the poor.Psalm 140:12
We could collect more passages by searching the Hebrew word that is the source of the Greek translations, but the above sample seems adequate.
“Mercy” is a translation of ἔλεος (eleos) which means “kindness or concern expressed for someone in need” (BDAG). Some examples of its usage in the LXX are below.
Pardon, I pray, the iniquity of this people according to the greatness of Your lovingkindness, just as You also have forgiven this people, from Egypt even until now.Numbers 14:19
Return, O LORD, rescue my soul; Save me because of Your lovingkindness.Psalm 6:4
But I have trusted in Your lovingkindness; My heart shall rejoice in Your salvation.Psalm 13:5
“But go and learn what this means: ‘I DESIRE COMPASSION, AND NOT SACRIFICE,’ for I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”Matthew 9:13
The people of God are to emulate Him in showing mercy to those who are in need as God poured out His lovingkindness upon them. If we neglect mercy, no amount of sacrifice, right worship, or correct theology means anything.
The last word is πίστις (pistis) which means “that which evokes trust and faith” (BDAG).
For the word of the LORD is upright, And all His work is done in faithfulness. He loves righteousness and justice; The earth is full of the lovingkindness of the LORD.Psalm 33:4–5
The hearts of the righteous meditate on faithfulness, but the mouth of the ungodly responds with evil things. The ways of the righteous are acceptable before the Lord, and by them even enemies become friends.Proverbs 15:28 (Lexham English Septuagint)
Roam to and fro through the streets of Jerusalem, And look now and take note. And seek in her open squares, If you can find a man, If there is one who does justice, who seeks truth, Then I will pardon her.Jeremiah 5:1
In the book of Proverbs, quoted above, faithfulness often as to do with being trustworthy in business. Some would use false weights in order to cheat customers. The Pharisees and scribes had done the same thing in requiring much of the people but doing little themselves.
They tie up heavy burdens and lay them on men’s shoulders, but they themselves are unwilling to move them with so much as a finger.Matthew 23:4
Though they were careful in so many things that religious people would call good, they missed the point of the Law, which was to enable them to be blessings to those around them, especially those who are without. They were working with unbalanced scales to amplify their own righteousness. This led them to be not trustworthy and ill-equipped to minister to those who needed it the most.
Without Neglecting the Others
Finally, I offer a word of caution. While there is no such thing as true religion without justice, mercy, and faithfulness, Jesus says that the Pharisees must not neglect the other parts of the Law. All the feast days, Sabbaths, and other ordinances were still important because they empowered the people to properly live lives of justice, mercy, and faithfulness. Take fasting as an example. Isaiah teaches that God gave fasting as a way for those who had to identify with those who didn’t. Consider this lengthy, but powerful, quotation.
Behold, you fast for contention and strife and to strike with a wicked fist. You do not fast like you do today to make your voice heard on high. Is it a fast like this which I choose, a day for a man to humble himself? Is it for bowing one’s head like a reed And for spreading out sackcloth and ashes as a bed? Will you call this a fast, even an acceptable day to the LORD? Is this not the fast which I choose, To loosen the bonds of wickedness, To undo the bands of the yoke, And to let the oppressed go free And break every yoke? “Is it not to divide your bread with the hungry And bring the homeless poor into the house; When you see the naked, to cover him; And not to hide yourself from your own flesh? Then your light will break out like the dawn, And your recovery will speedily spring forth; And your righteousness will go before you; The glory of the LORD will be your rear guard. Then you will call, and the LORD will answer; You will cry, and He will say, ‘Here I am.’ If you remove the yoke from your midst, The pointing of the finger and speaking wickedness, And if you give yourself to the hungry And satisfy the desire of the afflicted, Then your light will rise in darkness And your gloom will become like midday. And the LORD will continually guide you, And satisfy your desire in scorched places, And give strength to your bones; And you will be like a watered garden, And like a spring of water whose waters do not fail.Isaiah 58:4–11
One reason cited to explain Judah’s captivity in Babylon was their failure to keep the land Sabbaths (2 Chronicles 36:21). This was more than just breaking God’s Law. The land Sabbath was a time when the entire nation would totally depend upon God for the harvest. It was a time where God would allow them to reap where they did not sow and pick where they did not plant. It was a time for everyone, including the rich, poor, native, or foreigner, to share equally in the earth’s produce. Can you see why breaking it was such a big deal? The commands were more than just legal obligations; they were ways through which Israel could bless the world.
Have we forsaken the weightier matters of the Law in pursuit of self righteousness? Are we concerned more with meticulously sticking to some alleged “pattern” than we are serving the hungry down the road from our unnecessarily large buildings that we drive to in our nice cars while wearing one of many expensive outfits? That’s not true religion.
It’s time for a reformation, not of theology or doctrine, but of justice, mercy, and faithfulness.