Hello everyone and welcome to Friday’s foundations podcast. My last one of these weekly reflections on the Bible. Did you hear what Sam Watson shared this Wednesday on loving your neighbour and the call from God to a locality? It was brilliant. Do go back and give that a listen if you have time today. Next week, I believe Liam Brennan is taking on the daily podcast so do keep listening in.
Today, we are looking at Matthew 23:23-39. It’s part of Jesus’ Seven Woes on the Teachers of the Law and the Pharisees. Yesterday, we had 3 woes and today we have woes 4 through 7. Yesterday, we reflected on the idea of hypocrisy. It’s something we are all guilty of from one degree to another, consciously or unconsciously. I’ve heard it said that there are multiple perspectives of self, but here are 3. There is the stuff that lots of people know about us (public perception of me), there is also the stuff that lots of people don’t know about me (the private perception of me). That’s not a bad thing. It is good and healthy to have a private life. If we just dumped all our unfiltered thoughts on each other when we meet on zoom it would be a very strange dynamic. We might feel better for offloading our burdens but others will certainly go to bed worrying about us that night. Then there is another perspective of me… What people know about me that I don’t know about me (in a sense, my blind spots). How do people describe James Brown when I’m not there.
This is relevant to the Bible story today because Jesus is basically challenging the Teachers of the Law and the Pharisees. Some of it is to do with their public presentation, some of it is to do with their private intentions (as we have regularly seen in the last few days – some of the tricky questions given to Jesus came from evil places in their hearts), and finally, Jesus is challenging some of the blind spots – things they do that are harmful that are seemingly unconscious.
Let’s hear together verses 23 and 24 read aloud to reflect on. There is an Aramaic joke here thrown in for good measure but I think it loses its punch translated into English. Listen in.
“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.
“You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel” You get it? One commentary I read pointed out “This joke may have been aided by an Aramaic pun on galma (gnat) and gamla (camel).” Perhaps read that line in the podcast description for full effect. 🙂 [Both these animals were considered unclean… it’s funny how they made effort for and fuss for one small thing but neglected a huge error! I’ve probably fallen foul in this way before].
In the other part of our Bible reading Jesus brings the light on their meticulous observance of the Old Testament tithing law. If you haven’t heard that term before it is about giving a tenth of everything we have as an offering to God. It is an act of worship. And they’ve observed it right down to the spice rack. Imagine siphoning out a 10th of your bottle of Henderson’s Relish or gifting the first fruits of your allotment’s bumper harvest this year. That is radical devotion to Jesus. Jesus is not outright criticising their activity. Its not like God doesn’t like mint, dill and cumin! However, to have such concern for how the tithing law applies to your pantry that justice, mercy and faith have been ignored is to be understood as foolishness not faithfulness.
It’s not bad to do those things, it’s good – just don’t neglect the things that really matter.
There is another part of the Bible where this really hits home. It’s in Micah 6:8, and the words justice, mercy and faithfulness are used in the same way! Some have wondered if Jesus had this story in mind when he chose his reply. What is more important than extravagant sacrifices? What does the Lord [actually] require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”
With that in mind apply what Jesus is saying to our lives? What has this got to say to us today? How can we respond?
We must fall into the modern day trap of being so busy working and living for Jesus that we forget what is important. The covenantal piece of real relationship with God rather than routine or duty. We can pray daily that the Spirit of God would apply to our lives the truths of the Bible. Never has it been more vital that the Spirit is invited to do this internal work on our hearts, not just managing our external behaviour. As we read His words like the ones we are considering today, we come to understand that justice, mercy and faithfulness are 3 things that describe God. They are important to him more than mint, dill and cumin because justice, mercy and faithfulness are who God is and as we are children of God they are the family values that we are to grow up in.
We need, more than ever, the Holy Spirit to inspire us to remember these things. Outward behaviour, form and structure has its place but it is empty without the things that really matter. Justice, mercy and faithfulness are such things.
How might our lives be different if we prioritised justice, mercy and faithfulness today? Who might we look out for? Who might we speak up for? How would the way we speak and live be different?
Lord, with slight tongue-in-cheek, I pray take our mint, dill and cumin. These gifts of devotion we offer to you, would they make you smile. Our time, our talents, our things. When we lay them down would they always be an expression of love not of duty. Forgive us when we have got this wrong. More than this, would you grow us in the family values that reflect who you are. Help us “to act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with” you today. Amen.
BIBLE READING: Matthew 23:23-39
‘Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices – mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law – justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practised the latter, without neglecting the former. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.
‘Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean.
‘Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean. In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness.
‘Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You build tombs for the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous. And you say, “If we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.” So you testify against yourselves that you are the descendants of those who murdered the prophets. Go ahead, then, and complete what your ancestors started!
‘You snakes! You brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to hell? Therefore I am sending you prophets and sages and teachers. Some of them you will kill and crucify; others you will flog in your synagogues and pursue from town to town. And so upon you will come all the righteous blood that has been shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah son of Berekiah, whom you murdered between the temple and the altar. Truly I tell you, all this will come upon this generation.
‘Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing. Look, your house is left to you desolate. For I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.”’