Weightier Matters – May 3rd, 2020
May 3, 2020
When you read the Bible, sometimes words just “jump off the page” at you. That’s one of the ways I believe the Holy Spirit “speaks” to us. We read, and words just kind of “stand out” in our minds. That’s why I’ve always said, it’s a good thing to say a little prayer whenever you pick up the Bible. Pray and ask for the Spirit to guide you. If not, not only might you miss some great stuff, but there’s also a downside. As my old youth pastor once said, without the Spirit to guide us, the Bible can be made to say anything or to justify anything. As I understand it, the Bible was one of the main “justifications” for slavery in this country! So, always pray for the Spirit to guide you as you read!
So, as I said, these words, these two words, jumped off the page at me. “Weightier Matters.” That’s an expression that implies “deeper,” or “more important” matters. It implies things that are “heavy,” as Marty McFly said to Doc Brown in “Back to the Future.” We’re talking “weighty,” as opposed to “minor” or “insignificant” matters. Or we might even use the word “petty.”
Jesus uses those two words in this passage for today. He was speaking in the Temple, as he did each day during Holy Week. And we’ve been taking a longer look at Holy Week this year, during this time of quarantine and on-line worship.
So, Jesus is speaking in the Temple, and he comes to this point where he starts speaking to the Pharisees about the Pharisees! And these words are not very nice! This is what we might call Matthew’s “Woe to the Pharisees” chapter. And it’s the entire chapter! And it’s hard to know where to start our reading, and where to stop! Because it’s all “bad stuff” – and it’s about them! And it’s not very “uplifting!” When you have time – and we all have extra time these days – read the whole chapter. Try to take in the whole scope of what Jesus was saying.
It goes without saying that this did not “ingratiate” him with the religious leadership. As I said before, they weren’t sure what to make of this Jesus. They weren’t sure what to make of the mob scene of Palm Sunday, of him “cleansing of the Temple,” or healing the sick, or teaching daily in the Temple. And now this!
As I said, this goes on and on, throughout this whole chapter. And whether this was a collection of “woes to the Pharisees,” as some scholars have suggested, or whether it was one long discourse, either way, it had to have been shocking to the people watching! You know how it is today when somebody speaks ill of a political figure we like! You know how angry that makes people! Well, think about it! These religious leaders were the main authority figures, the main influences in the lives of these people. The people knew them all of their lives. They revered them and they looked up to them. And here, Jesus is saying some pretty harsh things about them!
Remember also, that they were priests. And a “priest” is an “intermediary” – a “go-between.” A priest is one who speaks to God on behalf of the people. And that was very important for those people. It was important that they have someone to speak to God for them. We, in the protestant church, are not used to that word. We use the word “minister” or “pastor.” We emphasize the “priesthood of all believers.” We ministers are not “go-betweens” for you and God. We believe everyone has a direct access to God. But for these people, these were their priests – their intermediaries – with God. So, for Jesus to level these criticisms against them, was even more shocking!
Now, I chose to read the part I read this morning because it contains this great metaphor which I love so much. Jesus says to the Pharisees, “You are blind guides, straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel.” I love that image! It refers to them straining a bug out of their drink or their soup, but then swallowing a whole camel! In saying it that way, Jesus is using what we call “hyperbole.” Maybe you remember that word from your High School English class. Hyperbole is “exaggeration to make a point.”
Jesus liked to use hyperbole. Remember in “The Sermon on the Mount,” how he warned people against “seeking to take the speck out of your brother’s eye, when you have a whole log in your own eye!” Do you remember that? That’s “hyperbole” – exaggeration for effect. And Jesus was good at it!
In this case, he was talking about how “picky” the Pharisees were. And they were picky! We know that. At this point, he had just given an example of it. He was talking about all the little “rules” they had about “swearing oaths.” We don’t have those kinds of rules, but they did. They said you could swear by this, but not that. And it seemed tedious! And there are other examples. Maybe you remember how the Pharisees criticized Jesus’ disciples because they picked a few heads of grain in the field where they were walking. The Pharisees said they were “harvesting” the grain, and therefore “working” on the Sabbath, and that meant they were breaking the Sabbath Law! We read stories like that and we think, “Oh Please! You’ve got to be kidding!”
These guys do seem very picky – very petty. But Jesus tells them that they had an even bigger problem than focusing on the “minutia” of the Law the way they did. The bigger problem was that they had neglected the “Weightier matters of the Law.” And that’s where these words jumped off the page at me. “You have neglected the weightier matters of the Law.”
Think of that for a moment! And think about what it meant for Jesus to “correct” these guys on “the Law!” That may have been the most audacious thing he did. Because remember, these guys were the Law. They were the keepers of the Law. They prided themselves on the Law – Pride in the fullest sense of the word! And the Law was everything to the people of Israel.
So here, Jesus told these Pharisees that they were missing the point. Maybe you remember him saying to them before that they were “keeping the letter of the Law but forsaking the spirit of the Law.” Now he’s saying they were straining the gnat, they were concentrating on the minutia of the Law, but they were missing the bigger problem. And that was that they were neglecting the “weightier matters” of the Law. And again, in all this, the tension, the animosity between them and Jesus, grew worse each day of Holy Week!
So, what were these “weightier matters of the Law?” Jesus tells them. The “weightier matters” are justice and mercy and faith. Think about those things. Justice and mercy and faith were things that were always more important to Jesus. The Pharisees often tried to “test” him with the minutia of the Law, but he always took things back to these “weightier matters.” He always took things back to the matters of the heart. In this case, it was justice and mercy and faith.
The Pharisees had neglected those things. And that was one of the things Jesus called them on. And it gets worse. He goes on to say to them, “You are like those who cleanse the outside of the cup and the plate, but inside you are full of extortion and rapacity.” I’m not sure what rapacity” means, but it doesn’t sound good, does it? The Thesaurus on my computer says that it means the same as “greed” and “selfishness.”
Listen to the next one! “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within you are full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness. So, you also outwardly appear righteous to men, but within you are full of hypocrisy and iniquity.” Yikes! Jesus “pulls no punches” here!
Now, why talk about all this? For one thing, it is, as I said before, part of the picture of Holy Week. It’s part of the “ramping up” of the conflict Jesus had with the religious leadership. It’s a “compounding” of the things that led directly to the dark events at the end of Holy Week. Let’s stay focused on that! And this is part of that picture. But is it not also a lesson to us?
Over the years, these Pharisees have become sort of a yard stick, by which people have measured things like self-righteousness, petty-ness, self-importance – any number of human flaws. Sometimes we even hear people describe someone else as being “Pharisaic” in their outlook. But I think we need be careful that we don’t use these guys as an exaggeration of human flaws, in an attempt to “excuse” our own. You know what I mean by that. Sometimes we’re tempted to “downplay” some flaw in ourselves by thinking, “Well, I’m not as bad as so and so.” I think we need to be careful about going down that road. If anything, we need to look at these guys, and hear what Jesus said about them, and consider what we need to change in us. We need to make this a positive thing in our lives!
I think one way of doing that, in this case, is to recognize when we too might be thinking too much about the minutia of our faith, and concentrate instead on “weightier matters.” How do we do that? Well, one good way is to look to Jesus as our example. I once heard it said that, in Jesus, we can see the mind of God. And I think that’s true. In Jesus, we can see the mind of God. And I think Jesus shows us that God does care about those important things – those weightier matters. I think God is more interested in justice and mercy and faith, than he is the details of belief and doctrine.
And I know that’s not easy to hear. Because a lot of times we do get concerned about whether or not we are “believing the right things.” And there’s nothing wrong with that. Don’t get me wrong here! But, as author John Eldredge once said, “Too often people substitute ‘knowing the right things’ for actually ‘knowing God!’” Let me say that again. “Too often people substitute ‘knowing the right things’ for actually ‘knowing God!’” Above all, I think God wants to know us, and he wants us to know him. I believe he wants to share this life with us, and he wants the very best for us. And it’s too easy to forget that!
I believe that’s where all this is going. That’s where Holy Week would lead us. It would lead to our redemption. It would lead to a new relationship with God – a new way of knowing God. And I hope we will see that that’s what God has wanted for us all along!
So, as I said before, as we go through this time of quarantine, maybe it can be a time when we think about what’s most important to us. Maybe it can be a time to ask, “What are the ‘weightier matters’ in our lives?” And as we think about that, and as we move ever closer to the culmination of this Holy Week, may we think about the things I believe God thinks about, that Jesus said are the “weightier matters.” May we think about justice and mercy and faith.
Eternal God, we thank you for the great example you have given us in Christ Jesus. We thank you for his love, and we ask for your strength that we may show that same love in our lives. Help us to know what is truly important in our faith, as we seek to draw closer each day to you. For we pray in Jesus’ name, Amen.