Beware the Leaven of the Pharisees series #8 The King’s Denunciation – Matthew 23 (part 5)

11 Jan

Obtaining mercy—rejecting mercy
(Matthew 5:7 NASB) “”Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.”

(Matthew 23:23-24 NASB) “”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. {24} “You blind guides, who strain out a gnat and swallow a camel!”

The Pharisees majored on minors. They had rules for every minute area of life, while at the same time they forgot about the important things. This crowd thought nothing of con-demning an innocent man, yet they were afraid to enter Pilate’s judgment hall lest they be defiled: (John 18:28 NASB) “They led Jesus therefore from Caiaphas into the Praeto-rium, and it was early; and they themselves did not enter into the Praetorium in order that they might not be defiled, but might eat the Passover.”

There is no question that the Old Testament Law required tithing (Lev. 27:30; Deut. 14:22ff). Abraham had practiced tithing long before the Law was given (Gen. 14:20), and Jacob followed his grandfather’s example (Gen. 28:20-22). The principles of Christian giving under grace are given in 2 Corinthians 8-9. We are not content simply to give a tithe (10 percent), but we also want to bring offerings to the Lord out of hearts filled with love.

Justice, mercy, and faithfulness are the important qualities God is seeking. Obeying the rules is no substitute. While it is good to pay attention to details, we must never lose our sense of priorities in spiritual matters. Jesus did not condemn the practice of tithing. But He did condemn those who allowed their legalistic scruples to keep them from developing true Christian character.

The first four beatitudes deal entirely with inner principles, principles of the heart and mind. They are concerned with the way we see ourselves before God. The last four are outward manifestations of those attitudes. Those who in poverty of spirit recognize their need of mercy are led to show mercy to others (v. 7). Those who mourn over their sin are led to purity of heart (v. 8). Those who are meek always seek to make peace (v. 9). And those who hunger and thirst for righteousness are never unwilling to pay the price of being persecuted for righteousness’ sake (v. 10).

The concept of mercy is seen throughout Scripture, from the Fall to the consummation of history at the return of Christ. Mercy is a desperately needed gift of God’s providential and redemptive work on behalf of sinners—and the Lord requires His people to follow His example by extending mercy to others.

Jesus cursed the scribes and Pharisees for inverting divine priorities. They magnified the insignificant and minimized the essential.

 Mint and dill and cummin were garden herbs used as kitchen spices, and were not generally considered farm produce, of which the Mosaic law required a tithe be paid to the treasury in Israel (Lev. 27:30). Because it helped support the government, which was a theocracy operated to a great extent by the priesthood, the tithe was a form of taxation. A second tenth was to be paid each year for support of the various worship ceremonies and national festivals (Deut. 12:11, 17). Another tithe was to be paid every three years for a type of welfare, to support the Levites, aliens, orphans, and widows (Deut. 14:28-29), which amounted to an additional 3.3 percent a year. Israelites were therefore required to pay just over 23 percent of their income a year in taxes to fund the theocracy.

The instructions for tithing produce (see also Deut. 14:22) related to marketable farm crops such as grains, olive oil, wine, fruits, and vegetables. But the legalistic scribes and Pharisees extended the provision to include the smallest potted plant grown in a kitchen window. As today herbs then were grown mostly for their leaves and seeds, and when the scribes and Pharisees picked leaves from a mint plant or gathered seeds from the dill and cummin plants, they would carefully count out the leaves and seeds, separating out one for God from each ten counted. They gloried in the self-righteousness of subscribing to such minutiae.

But with all their carefulness in such insignificant and often noncompulsory matters, they neglected the weightier provisions of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. They were obsessed with counting leaves and seeds but indifferent to basic ethics.

Jesus borrowed the word weightier from the rabbinical tradition, which had divided the law into light and heavy categories. In their inverted priorities the scribes and Pharisees had reduced such matters as justice and mercy and faithfulness to the light category and elevated the tithing of garden herbs to the weightier category. In His reference to the truly weightier matters, Jesus paraphrased the words of Micah. Some 700 years earlier that prophet had declared, “[The Lord] 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?” (Mic. 6:8).

The scribes and Pharisees were inequitable, unfair, unjust, unmerciful, brutal, unforgiving, unkind, greedy and abusive of others. They were everything that is contrary to the weightier provisions of the law. Worst of all, they walked by sight rather than faith, trusting in their own works rather than God’s grace.

Jesus did not denounce the tithing of herbs, which would have been perfectly acceptable if done in sincerity and faith. And because tithing was at that time still a valid requirement under the Old Covenant, He certainly did not reprove tithing in general. “These are the things you should have done,” He said, “without neglecting the others.” In light of the fact that such garden plants had not generally been considered covered under the Mosaic laws of tithing until rabbinical times, it seems likely that by these… things Jesus was referring to tithing in general. In other words, while being faithful to tithe according to scriptural instruction, they should not have neglected the Lord’s much weightier demands.

The tithe, however, was strictly a requirement of the Old Covenant. It is mentioned only six times in the New Testament, three times each in the gospels and in the book of Hebrews. In the gospels it is always used, as here, in regard to its abuse by the scribes and Pharisees (see also Luke 11:42; 18:12). In the book of Hebrews the Mosaic tithe is mentioned only in regard to its use in ancient Israel (Heb. 7:8-9; vv. 5-6). At no time in the New Testament is tithing mentioned as binding on the church or even recommended as the standard for Christian giving. This is easy to understand if one recognizes that tithes were a form of taxation to support the national life of Israel (see the author’s 1 Corinthians [Chicago: Moody, 1984], pp. 454-55). The closest New Testament parallel is the requirement to pay taxes indicated in Romans 13:6-7.

Almost without exception, false religions strongly magnify the insignificant and minimize or entirely ignore the truly spiritual. The worldly is idolized; the spiritual is disregarded.

It is also possible for true believers to become caught up in minutiae. Some Bible students, for instance, claim to have ascertained the meaning of virtually every obscure sign and symbol in Scripture yet give scant attention in their lives to the Bible’s clear and unambiguous moral truths.

Jesus graphically illustrated the scribes’ and Pharisees’ inversion of priorities by saying that they would strain out a gnat and swallow a camel. The gnat and the camel represented the smallest and the largest, respectively of the ceremonially unclean animals (see Lev. 11:4, 42). Fastidious Pharisees would drink their wine through clenched teeth in order to filter out any small insects that might have gotten into the wine. In their typical reversal of values, those Jewish religious leaders were more concerned about being contaminated by a tiny gnat than by a huge camel. They were painstaking about formal, ceremonial trivialities but were unconcerned about their hypocrisy dishonesty cruelty greed, self-worship, and a host of other serious sins. They substituted outward acts of religion for the essential virtues of the heart.

False religionists stress the lighter commandments and omit the weightier ones. Christ said two things.

  1. Religionists stress the lighter duties and omit the greater duties. They pick and choose what they want and are willing to do and omit the rest. They stress outward duties such as tithing, observances, rituals, ceremonies, and works; they minimize the change and inward duties of the heart. Christ mentions three duties of the human heart that are omitted.
  2. There is justice: treating our neighbor as we should; doing and saying nothing that would hurt another person; showing honor and respect to all men; never being guilty of injustice.
  3. There is mercy: showing care, concern, kindness, and tenderness to all who are weak, bad, and needy; and not being hard, distant, demanding, or cruel.
  4. There is faith: believing God and trusting Him to fulfill His promises.

Christ said that the weightier matters of the law are these: justice and mercy and faith. But the false religionists minimize and omit these matters. They talk about and stress the lighter or outward matters of religion such as tithing. Outward matters such as observances, rituals, and works just do not carry the weight that inward matters of the heart carry. Why? Because, if the heart is right, then outward behavior will follow. All outward behavior will be changed and not just certain areas that have been picked out to show that a person is religious. Note what Christ says: stress the weightier matters and do not leave the other undone. Do the lighter, yes, but major upon the weightier matters.

  1. Religionists avoid the lesser sins, but commit the greater sins. They strain at a gnat and swallow a camel. This was a humorous proverb in Christ’s day. Wine was carefully strained through a piece of linen cloth to catch gnats and other impurities before drinking. This was to avoid violating the law of purity (Leviticus 11:20-23; Leviticus 17:10-14).

The false religionists strained to keep the lighter matters of religion, but failed to keep the weightier matters. They did not sin by straining to keep the lighter matters; they sinned by omitting the weightier matters.

 Many have a form of religion, but few pay much attention to the weightier matters of godliness. How many attend church regularly, give of their money, pray, and take part in church affairs; but they…

  • do not give an honest day’s work to an employer (justice)?
  • do not humble themselves, showing mercy toward the weak and less disciplined?
  • do not sacrifice, showing mercy toward the needy and less fortunate?
  • do not act responsibly and lovingly toward others, even toward their own family (justice and mercy)?

Think about it. How easy it is to keep up an outward appearance of religion, but how difficult it is to be godly within. Yet inward godliness is what Christ demands. We are to treat all people with pure justice and mercy and to believe God in all things.

One of the great failures of false religionists is this: they emphasize and stress the wrong matters. They stress the lighter matters and omit the weightier matters. What they stress is important and should be done, but they are not the major matters.

The false religionist fails at both points of sin. He sins both by omission and commission. He omits the weightier duties, and he commits the greater sins.

Christ called false religionists “blind guides.” Note three things.

1)   Some are blind to what Christ was saying. They do not know they are stressing the lighter matters. The lighter matters are all they have ever known and been taught. Therefore, they are steeped in the lighter matters, knowing very little about the weightier matters of religion.

2)   Some do know they are stressing the lighter matters; and they deliberately continue in their error, refusing to change lest they face ridicule, loss of position, security, and all they count dear in this world.

3)   Religionists are guides, teaching the lighter matters of religion and omitting the weightier matters.


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Posted by on January 11, 2021 in Pharisees


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