What are the “weightier matters of the law”? (Matthew 23:23)

What comes to mind when you hear the phrase “weightier matters of the law”? It sounds like they would be the parts of the Bible that are hard for a modern world to accept. Evangelical Christians in our time tend to litmus-test their faith according to their loyalty to what they see as the “weightier” parts of the Bible that clash with modern sensibilities, whether it’s young Earth creationism, the eternal conscious torment of hell, a complementarian account of gender, or opposition to homosexuality, to name the top four. But what does Jesus say are the “weightier matters of the law” in Matthew 23:23?

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have practiced without neglecting the others. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel!”

Justice, mercy, and faith? Why should those be “weighty”? Of course we’re supposed to live with justice, mercy, and faith, but the Bible doesn’t tell me with exact crystal clarity how I’m supposed to live with justice, mercy, and faith. So I’m better off just obeying the rules that are explicitly stated and assuming that whatever isn’t explicitly stated is not an expectation that God has for my life. And whatever results from that must be justice, mercy, and faith, right? Come to think of it, Jesus, where does it say to tithe your mint, dill, and cummin? That’s not in my Bible, not even in Leviticus.

When Jesus talks about tithing your mint, dill, and cummin, he’s not being literal because Jesus is not beholden to the people centuries latter who would try to diagram and systematize His words into a new casuistic legalism (actually they do that with Paul’s words not His; but anyway). Jesus often says things figuratively and hyperbolically to make a point, like when he tells us to rip our eyeballs out rather than look at women with lust. If you’re a guy reading this and you’re not a cyclops or a “no-clops,” then you don’t read the Bible literally, at least when Jesus is talking.

The point Jesus is making with the mint, dill, and cummin has to do with the wrong and right way to make use of God’s teaching in scripture. The goal is to live with justice, mercy, and faith. These are abstract qualities that God wants us to embody concretely. All of His teaching has the goal of making us just, merciful, and faithful. But it’s not through a literal mapping of every life circumstance onto specific Bible verses.

If we understand the Bible to be an owner’s manual with answers and rules for every life circumstance, then we are swallowing a camel, just like the 1st-century Pharisees who never tired of creating more and more rules as they studied Torah. The problem is that if you define yourself primarily as a rule-follower, you get so tightly wound and devoid of any compassion for other people that you can’t strain out anything bigger than a gnat when you drop your drawers to make your contribution to the pile of justice, mercy, and faith of your community. Jesus didn’t have any qualms about using a very nasty image that would scandalize all of His most conspicuously zealous church ladies today with their camel-sized rule-books and gnat-sized hearts.

I don’t think we can avoid the problem of becoming the bitter Pharisees Jesus came to Earth to stop us from being (even if our works-righteousness includes declaring the inefficacy of works-righteousness as one of its requirements) unless we recognize that the Bible is primarily poetry to be lived rather than rules to be followed. That sounds like a statement that undermines its authority, but it’s not. It’s because of our modern disdain for poetry in an age of science that we end up repeating the error of the Pharisees.

The difference between poetry and rules is that rules are an authority that I can control. The reason that organizations make clear policies is so that the people in charge can shrug their shoulders and say, “I didn’t make that decision; it’s just the policy.” When we make rules, the rules themselves become the authority which is transferable to whoever holds the rule-book. My youngest son is the strictest enforcer of our family’s rule that you can’t stick your hands out of the car window. Even though I made the rule, I have to submit it; it was a compromise of my sovereignty as a father.

In contrast, the exasperating thing about poetry (for some people) is that nobody except the poet can say exactly what the poem means with absolute authority. This doesn’t mean that the poem has no meaning, but it does mean that our grasp of the meaning is always tenuous. While the rule-writer cedes his/her authority to the rule itself, the poet retains his/her author-ity over the poem.

While you can learn a set of rules very well without any relationship to whoever wrote the rules, the only way to learn what a poem means is to get to know the poet. So here’s an honest question: do you believe that Jesus is a historical figure who can only be known through the words we have received about Him in a book or a living God who is speaking to us today? If you try to wriggle out of answering this by saying that Jesus wouldn’t say anything today that he hasn’t already said in His book, then what you’re saying is He’s not allowed to, because then you would lose control of His rules.

When I was in college, I always preferred the multiple choice tests of my engineering classes to the final papers of my English classes, because I could guarantee myself an A if I swallowed a camel in preparing for the multiple choice test. But for final papers, what mattered was not my ability to spit out facts (gnats) but whether or not I had assimilated the knowledge poetically enough into my mind that I could explain it elegantly in my own words. I couldn’t just be “correct.” One of my English professors said she would only give an A to a paper that taught her something completely new. Needless to say, I was flabbergasted by that standard.

Unfortunately for those of us who like to be in control of whether or not we get an A, Jesus is saying that the entrance exam for heaven is an essay question, not a multiple choice test. If we have not gained an ounce of mercy, justice, or faith from our encounter with the poetry of God because we were focused our entire lives on being rule-followers and rule-enforcers, then we will strain out an F. Jesus is not as interested in knowing whether we agreed with and argued vehemently enough in defense of every word in the Book that we made into a God, but whether we used the testimony we were given about who He is and what He has done for us in order to learn His way of justice, mercy, and faith.

The ubiquitous sin of modern evangelicalism is to substitute ideology for discipleship, to say that I am holy because I hold these opinions (regardless of how I actually treat other people, because hey, we’re all sinners). This is understandable enough in the virtual information age where increasingly we are becoming disembodied position papers instead of incarnate people who interact with each other in the flesh. But if we care about the “weightier matters of the law” Jesus describes, which are paradoxically the most ethereal and difficult to pin down concretely, then we will focus our energy not on the camel-swallowing of “Biblical” Gnosticism, but on the embodiment of God’s poetry in which our meditation on the words we read intermingles with our living experience of the Holy Spirit among the community of God’s people.

Let me put this less esoterically. We should read the Bible trying to understand how to live according to justice, mercy, and faith. Each passage in the Bible speaks to our lives insofar as it leads us into greater justice, mercy, and faith. If we cannot connect a Biblical teaching to justice, mercy, or faith, then we have not yet understood it enough to apply it to ourselves (or hold it over the heads of other people). Respecting this reality is what it means to live its poetry rather than just follow its rules.

14 thoughts on “What are the “weightier matters of the law”? (Matthew 23:23)

  1. Thanks for the insights. They give me something to think about and to argue with, both of which I appreciate. I did want to mention something that I consider a mistaken notion. You write that if you’re a male and not a cyclops (or noclops!) then you aren’t reading the passage where Jesus says pluck out your eye…in a literal way. I disagree. I think if you DO pluck out your eye you are NOT reading it literally. To read a text literally means to read it according to the author’s intentions (as close as they can be found). It seems that Jesus was using a common teaching tool of the time to express an idea in an “over-the-top” manner. To read that text literally is to read it in a figurative way.

    Also, we don’t really know what Jesus would say on any topic other than what he has said in Scripture. We might suppose that he would say this or that based on what he said, but “your” saying, “Jesus would say this…” isn’t that authoritative to me. Now if I say that, it’s a different story!

    Your brother,

    Michael Burkley

    • I’m not sure I agree with your definition of literal, but I agree that that’s the way we’re supposed to read it, point being that Jesus may have also been over the top in the sheep and goats passage and the rich man and Lazarus story so we shouldn’t do Greek word studies on whether he’s giving us the doctrine of eternal conscious torment in those stories because he might not be giving us words to take at face value anyway.

  2. Oh, the highs and the lows of your essays!
    Thank you for reminding me of Matthew 23:23! It’s beautiful.
    Thank you for the post.

    You’re a good writer. “…increasingly we are becoming disembodied position papers instead of incarnate people who interact with each other…”.
    And your sentiments honest and good.
    “All of His teaching has the goal of making us just, merciful, and faithful.” Yes!

    But I must remind you that ‘justice’ is every bit a big can of worms as “Earth creationism, the eternal conscious torment of hell, a complementarian account of gender, or opposition to homosexuality…”.
    That’s because we faltering children, consciously or not, often twist the meanings of justice, mercy and faith to serve our own interpretations and ends. Sometimes clumsily but often so, so elegantly and subtly.

    As far as lows go, I think your elaboration of Jesus’ words re: the gnat was really not necessary, and a way to add a naughty bit of shocking urban cutting edginess. You have to ask yourself – would C.S. Lewis or even Thomas Merton needed that device?
    And how did this sneak in? “…scandalize all of His most conspicuously zealous church ladies today with their camel-sized rule-books and gnat-sized hearts.” What about the equally clueless church ‘gentlemen’ who are anxious to get home from church so they won’t miss the game, or who self-righteously condemn the less fortunate as soon as they step out the church door?

    Noclops. That’s me. But this helps. It speaks to attachment, and the transitory nature of the world, in a rather Buddhist sense, as well as Christian.
    ““When you see a beautiful girl or woman or a handsome youth, immediately lift your thoughts to the supreme, most holy Beauty, the Author of every earthly and heavenly beauty, that is, to God; glorify Him for having created such beauty out of mere earth; marvel at the beauty of God’s image in man, which shines forth even in our perverted state; imagine what our image will be when we shall shine forth in the kingdom of our Father, if we become worthy of it; picture to yourself what must be the beauty of God’s saints, of the holy angels, of the Mother of God Herself, adorned with the Divine glory; imagine the unspeakable goodness of God’s countenance, which we shall behold, Carnal desire is sweet, but it is sinful, corruptive, and repugnant to God. Do not attach yourself with your heart to any girlish or female beauty, but to the Lord God alone, Who has created every beauty for His own sake, and say: ‘It is good for me to hold me fast by God,’ [Psalm 1xxiii.28.] to God alone, and not to fleeting carnal beauty.”
    -St. John of Kronstadt

    • That’s a great quote from St. John. Jesus was being naughty though to talk about defecation and it’s worth noticing that he wasn’t a prude.

  3. When we approach scripture like a grocery list, checking one passage off our list so we can quickly get to the next passage, are we really giving ourselves time to find meaning or truth?

    If we are so focused on only looking for a quick-to-grasp literal meaning, are we really giving ourselves time to abide in God’s Word? Are we really pausing to open our hearts so that the Holy Spirit can speak to us the truth that we need to hear from a passage?

    If I’m only seeking a literal meaning to scripture, am I leaving any space for the Holy Spirit to sit within my heart and share a cup of coffee, a bagel, and God’s Love with me?

    But looking the Holy Spirit in the eye from across the coffee table means that the Holy Spirit can look me in the eye, too. That’s when things start to get personal, when we start to get vulnerable, and when we become uncomfortable. And anyway, who has the time to abide?

      • I admit it. I am guilty, too. It is so easy to get in hurry.

        In so many stories in scripture, there are pauses that last years or even decades. I don’t yet know how to slow down to a tempo that slow.

        Our instant “now” is a poor substitute for God’s eternal “now.”

  4. The thought of “living its poetry” makes me want to read the bible more. Sometimes I get enough of religion that I don’t feel like I want to. Maybe it’s because I was seeing it too much as words that must be accepted as literal truths. I thought I wasn’t, but I think that is part of what has turned me off to reading the bible for a while now. I was trying to learn to read it in greek and making some progress before. I can be so extreme sometimes.

    • People who want to control others try to pin God’s words down so that they only have one meaning. Those whose earnest desire is to be inspired “breathed-into” by the “God-breathed” words understand that it is a dynamic process by which the same words can say different things to you given different life circumstances.

  5. Morgan, thank you for the reminder that “the Bible is primarily poetry to be lived rather than rules to be followed.” Such a powerful statement.

    You also state that “nobody except the poet can say exactly what the poem means with absolute authority.”

    My take on poetry is that it is more of a partnership between the author and the reader/hearer than that. A poem will strike a different emotional chord from one person to the next. There is a sense in which poetry or scripture meets me where I am as it touches my heart. I don’t have to journey all the way to the Author to find the meaning.

    The way that a poem or a scripture passage moves me can be different than the way it moves you. And the way the same poem or scripture passage speaks to me today can be different than the way it speaks to me tomorrow.

    That is part of the beauty and power of both poetry and scripture. Neither poetry nor scripture is lifeless or set in stone; rather, both poetry and scripture are very much alive.

    The tendrils of this living Word wrap around both the author and those who read or hear the Word. All three, the Author, the Word, and the hearer become partners in revealing the meaning and truth that is there, the truth that is needed at that time.

    • “My take on poetry is that it is more of a partnership between the author and the reader/hearer than that.” Very true. But what we always try to do is say I’m the only one who knows how to read it right which is about usurping the author’s authority as our own.

      • Morgan, you are right that we too often usurp authority. We seem to be experts at that. True partnership can only really occur when we start listening. To truly partner with someone requires vulnerability, which we don’t do well.

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