Scripture: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others. You blind guides, straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel!” Matthew 23:23-24 ESV
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Observation: Recapping Friday’s Daily Focus, Jesus addresses the scribes and Pharisees as blind guides who parse the meaning and application of words as they apply to levitical law (just as he warned his disciples earlier in his ministry, see 15:14). In particular, Jesus cites an innovation of the law regarding the swearing of oaths, for the religious leaders amended the law with an escape clause. If one swore by the altar, it means nothing, but if by the gift on the altar, it counts. So Jesus forthrightly corrects their selfishly-motivated interpretation of the law: the altar makes the gift sacred, and the same applies to the temple, for the Lord dwells in his temple. And if any would dare to swear by heaven, remember who sits on his throne in heaven: the King of the universe.
Today’s reading continues with the fourth woe. Returning to the same aggressive lead remark observed in all but the third woe, he addresses the scribes and Pharisees as hypocrites. What’s the reason this time? They meticulously tithe the minutiae of the law while neglecting the more critical elements, particularly justice, mercy, and faithfulness. Not letting up, again, Jesus calls them blind guides and tells them to observe all aspects of the law and not devote inordinate time attending to its less critical elements. He places an exclamation mark on his point by employing the metaphor of two unclean animals representing the minuscule and the immense of God’s creation.
Takeaway: The Mosaic law called Israel to give ten percent of the first fruits of the harvest (along with the firstborn from animal husbandry) to the Lord through a sacred priestly ceremony (see Leviticus 27:30-33, Numbers 18:21, and Deuteronomy 12:15-19). Thus, Jesus’ emphasis is not on “instead” but “also.” The scribes and Pharisees must not become distracted by those elements of the law that, while important, should never displace the more urgent matters of the commandments regarding rightful relationships with the Father, Son, and “neighbors.” Instead, they should prioritize time to fulfill those elements of the law concerning love and faithfulness toward their Creator and the fully-orbed care for one another, thereby ensuring godly justice, mercy, and faithfulness—just as Jesus did and taught to his disciples.
Our takeaway? Pretty much the same. But we have the decided advantage of Christ and the Holy Spirit, who are with and in us. While both intercede for us, the Holy Spirit speaks to our hearts and minds when we lean out of balance (directly or through others), and he uprights us to refocus on the big picture of Christ and his kingdom. And as we shift our focus, we gain perspective, find relief from the tyranny of the minutiae, and revitalize with renewed love and energy to press into the massive and glorious work the Father and Son have prepared for us (see Ephesians 2:10).
Prayer: Father God, we thank you for your Son, who focused on the critical elements of your law to fulfill them in his life, death, and resurrection. We confess, however, that we are prone to investing inordinate time in those things that interest us but miss the big picture. So would you please help us cooperate with your Holy Spirit and refocus when we lean out of balance so that we might realign with the good works of justice, mercy, and faithfulness that bless you and others for your glory? Amen.
Rev. Gordon Green, M.Div., M.A. Counseling