As I prepare this month’s column, the scripture that refuses to let me rest is:
“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” (Matthew 23:23, NRSV).
This passage is a reminder that durable faith does not stop with relatively palatable matters such as love, grace, hope, and/or engaging the whole of the biblical story,1 but justice and mercy, though less palatable, are equally part of the gospel message.
In the Gospel of Matthew, chapters 21-25 comprise Jesus’ last public discourse. In these chapters, Jesus is talking almost non-stop. Similar to how we cling to the last words of someone we hold dear, it is as though the writer is trying to record every last word of Jesus for his community members. Jesus’ answers to questions regarding taxes, resurrection, and the greatest commandment along with his unanswerable question about his relationship to David (Matthew 22) had silenced his opponents.
In the full text of Matthew 23 Jesus points out the faults and failures of the religious he had just silenced. He began by noting that the leaders understood the importance of following Moses’s teaching. Following the teachings to the letter, they hoped never to lose the nation again. Yet, as Jesus pointed out, they misunderstood how to practice what Moses taught. While the leaders were sincere, they were sincerely wrong. Their focus on the details caused them to miss the most important matters. In other words, somehow, they couldn’t see the forest for the trees.
More than once in this chapter, Jesus turns our understanding, our perspective, on the world upside down. It is as though Jesus picked up where John the Baptizer left off: hypocrites, blind guides, blind fools, whitewashed tombs, snakes, brood of vipers. Jesus uses strong language, as would any speaker in his day to critique his opponents, to get his point across — the leaders had missed the mark. Not only had the leaders missed the mark, by implication, they misled the entire nation.
Anyone unfamiliar with Matthew 23:23 and/or the chapter from which it is taken likely would be taken aback by Jesus’ words. In fact, the unfamiliar reader/listener might be inclined to overlook this passage since Jesus’ tone is incongruous with the meek and lowly Jesus to which so many have become accustomed.
Yet, his words are indeed a sign of love. This sign of love is in the form of correction. This is the kind of love that doesn’t want anyone to continue the mistaken path they’ve been following. This is the kind of love that points out what went wrong and what needs to be done to correct it.
The leaders were missing justice and mercy. Justice and mercy involve the communal dimension of faith. Correcting this omission means living in the spirit of justice and mercy. It means looking out for one another. It means looking out for the needs of everyone in the community. It means looking out for those who society would disregard, ignore, or overlook. It means paying attention to people thought unimportant, insignificant, or invisible.
Much like an email that has been truncated, the church’s message, has largely omitted these weightier matters. Too often justice and mercy are treated as though they are add-on or optional aspects of faith. Yet, Jesus made it plain that justice, along with mercy and faith, are central to the gospel message.
In a society so focused on the individual, it is possible to miss the significance of the communal dimension of faith. It is unfortunate, even tragic, that the church, beginning with preachers, often dismisses or diminishes this aspect of the gospel message. Yet, individual and communal dimensions of faith are like two sides of a coin — the two are inseparable. Neglect of either diminishes the quality of life for everyone.
Justice is about honoring the humanity of and looking out for the needs of every person. Mercy means having compassion and treating another with kindness. Jesus lived and breathed justice and mercy. He paid attention to everybody, including people who others, even the disciples, would overlook.
Jesus paid attention to the blind man on the side of the road, the one who cried out, who others wanted to silence. He paid attention to the man sick thirty-eight years at the side of the pool, encouraging him to take up his bed and walk. He paid attention to Nathanael under the tree and invited him to be his follower. He paid attention to the woman with the issue of blood, healing her illness and welcoming her to a life of faith. Jesus paid attention to the woman at the well. He changed her life when he listened, really listened, to her story, heard her unspoken pain, and took time to engage in theological discourse with her. He paid attention to the Canaanite woman and honored her persistence by healing her daughter. He paid attention when he blessed the children that the disciples wanted to dismiss.
The chapter closes with Jesus’ lament over Jerusalem.
“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! See, your house is left to you, desolate. For I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord” (Matthew 23:37-39, NRSV).
These last verses use female imagery to address the communal dimension of faith and how it affects the city and by implication, the nation. Jesus laments the spiritual condition of the city. His critique of the leaders and his lament over the city are inexorably connected. His words illustrate just how dire the situation is. Did they not realize that neglect of weightier matters of faith, justice, and mercy would weaken the nation and lead to its downfall? Didn’t the prophets preach the same message generations ago?
Ultimately, it’s not a matter of justice and mercy, of yes or no. Instead, it’s a matter of: How do I live in a spirit of justice and mercy? How do I need to grow in my faith, in my understanding of myself, of God and the world to live in a spirit of justice and mercy? For the preacher, it is a matter of how do I preach and teach what it means to live in a spirit of justice and mercy? How do I live in a spirit of justice and mercy? How do I lead my congregation to do the same? It begins when preachers examine themselves and enlarge their perspectives as they embrace the communal dimension of the gospel message.
As with the ancient church, justice and mercy is a message that the 21st century church needs to hear. The good news is Jesus enlightens, empowers, and enables his followers not only to hear, but also to live out the message of the weightier matters of faith, justice, and mercy. If preachers help the church pay more attention to justice and mercy, how different the world will be.
1. These are topics which I’ve addressed in previous articles in this series.