The Weightier Matters of the Law

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, “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 their 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 that 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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This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/7934

Tim, The narratives of the lost sheep ,coin, and boy is one story . You would notice that as they are told, the lost item, increases in value . Jesus is concerned about people. People are concerned about things , power , money , and prestige . As He said , I know you have need of these things, but seek ye first the kingdom of God .The Jewish people’s long history of being the holders of sacred truth , actually worked against them , not being mixed with faith. Jesus in Matt 23 , is attempting to show us something new , that the spirituality of a church/people can rise no higher than that of it’s pastor / leader. Additionally , while these earthly leaders focus on sin and transgressions , Jesus concentrated on iniquity. This is deep rooted ,hidden sin . The kind that atonement is made for.It is not until our leaders see themselves as God sees them , will they see others as Jesus sees them . So the woe, is a warning to all of us , that while we see man as trees, Jesus sees us as we are and what we could become , in Him.

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H. M. S. Richards used to tell this story. Early in his ministry he was the main speaker at a mid west camp meeting… Following one sermon he was approached by a farmer who said–“Pastor, I have not sinned in over ten years.” Richards replied–“You must be very proud!” The farmer replied, --“Yes indeed, Yes indeed!” Now the GC claim is 144,000 thousand just like him. I claim to be the adopted son of One who never sinned in 33 years.

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I view Matt 23 as a description of false prophets and teachers that lead many astray, that Jesus warns of in Matt 24. I believe this chapter contains a composite collection of all the sayings of Jesus on religious practices of church leaders and their governance.

The thrust of Chapter 23 shows how over the years religious faith is likely to become oppressive, ceremonial and focused on titles, tithe income and positions of honor. The result is while they conduct worship–they gain in wealth and status. Religious honor and education is used as a means to control the faithful. They hold some Biblical truths as justification for their existence. They claim the favor of God as they consolidate power, prestige and wealth into their own hands.

The power structures built on the name of religion can easily become the bases for the call “Babylon has fallen.” Unless, we are very careful about titles and positions: “And don’t let anyone call you ‘Teacher,’ for you have only one teacher, the Messiah. The greatest among you must be a servant. But those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” Matt 23

I wonder if large organized religions do this?

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I understand Tim’s take on this issue. I tackled the same subject once by using Luke 15 though because to me it has a balanced approach. Consider the context in verses 1-3. In the end, Jesus Christ responded to the complaint of the Scribes and Pharisees by telling His audience the parables of the lost coin, the lost sheep and the lost (prodigal) son. That sermon came out not merely as a condemnation of the pharisaic mentality but as an altar call for everyone to come to the feet of Jesus the Christ and Savior of all!