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Ryan Joy


March 10, 2024

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“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” (Matt. 23:23).

Who Were the Pharisees?

After several confrontations with the religious leaders in his final days, Jesus levels his famous “Woes” against the scribes and Pharisees. Some Christians seem to love weaponizing the Pharisees and naming people “pharisaical.” But before we aim Jesus’ condemnation of this sect against others, let’s start by hearing Jesus and examining ourselves in the light of his words. Is MY heart right with God? Watch for the traps the Pharisees fell into. Pharisaical teaching didn’t oppose justice and mercy. Still, they failed to bring them the same level of attention and care they brought to other rules. Today, many might call Pharisees “conservatives.” They held to many truths Jesus taught, and there were sincere Pharisees like Gamaliel (Acts 5), Nicodemus (John 3:1), Saul of Tarsus (Phil. 3:5-6), and probably Joseph of Arimathea. Their sect seemed to point to Scripture, telling everyone, “Take this seriously!” Unfortunately, many liked the message and the superiority it gave them while failing to let God’s Word rule the whole of their lives.

Put First Things First

We need to prioritize what God prioritizes in our teaching and our lives. Aligning yourself to God’s will means putting God’s first things first. Justice, mercy, and faithfulness are all dimensions of the love Jesus marked as the center of God’s law in the previous chapter (Matt. 22:37-40).

Justice seeks God’s good way to bring well-being and equality to all (Isa. 1:16-17). Mercy cares for others with empathy and compassion (Luke 10:25-37). And faithfulness mixes trust in God with trustworthiness and loyalty to our Lord (Heb. 10:23).

When we major in minors and miss the essence of right living, we might get some rules right, but we fail to reflect God’s character.

Through the centuries, Israel’s prophets hammered the truth that worship rituals only have meaning when the heart and life align with God (Hos. 6:6; Isa. 1:13-20). The Lord’s words particularly resonate with Micah’s famous declaration, “He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Mic. 6:8). When we major in minors and miss the essence of right living, we might get some rules right, yet we fail to reflect God’s character.

To illustrate, Jesus charges them with overlooking the largest unclean animal in the land (a camel) while worrying they might accidentally swallow the tiniest — a gnat (Matt. 23:24; cf. Lev. 11). Two rhyming Aramaic words — qalma for gnat and gamla for camel — would have only added to the wit of this striking image.

Their problem wasn’t that they were doing too many of God’s commandments but that they were doing too little.

Yet Jesus doesn’t give an EITHER/OR, pitting faithful hearts against strict adherence to God’s commandments. They “ought to have done” the tithing of mint “without neglecting the others” (Matt. 23:23). He doesn’t approach obedience with more leniency. But he directs us to wholehearted obedience that pursues God and his will into the depths, challenging us to continually bring inexhaustible principles like mercy into new corners of ourselves. Purity begins in the heart, but that doesn’t mean we ONLY focus on our hearts, either. Instead, we want to love God with “heart” AND “mind” AND our physical “strength” (Matt. 22:37). Keep the greatest commandments and the rest will follow, since “the whole law depends” on them (Matt. 22:40).

Jesus tells disciples that “whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5:19-20). We must go beyond the Pharisees’ meticulous observance by internalizing God’s call to the lifelong pursuit of love and faithfulness. There are no unimportant words from God! Their problem wasn’t that they were doing too many of God’s commandments but that they were doing too little. If we’re wholeheartedly committed to pleasing God, we’ll seek to do all of God’s will. And though we often fail, his grace inspires us in that worthy pursuit.

Clean the Inside

The Lord’s prime concern with the Pharisees was hypocrisy. They play-acted at righteousness with artificial goodness while inwardly serving themselves (Matt. 23:25). Ever try to clean a spot on a window that won’t come off and realize the dirty part is on the inside? It’s not that our outward actions don’t matter. But our ongoing work is to “clean the inside of the cup” so “that the outside may also be clean” (Matt. 23:26).

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