By Morgan Guyton, Contributor
Director, NOLA Wesley Foundation
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 cumin, 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 cumin? That’s not in my Bible, not even in Leviticus.
When Jesus talks about tithing your mint, dill, and cumin, 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 cumin 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.