Hypocrite: Details or Substance?

Matthew 23:23, 24

Determining the important is essential to everyone! Always there are priorities! Priorities are based on properly grasping what is more important among the numerous importants. Consider. Parents ‘lay the law down’ to a 14 year old: “Under no circumstance are you allowed to drive the car!” The 14 year old arrived home after school. The house was empty but on fire. Should he drive the family car parked in the garage to the street? If he does, will he be praised or punished? At that moment, which is more important to the family: hearing the parent’s voice saying “under no circumstance,” or taking immediate action to save the car from the house fire? Both were important, but which was most important at that moment? What was the priority?

To grasp the condemned hypocrisy in Israel’s first century spiritual leaders, we urgently need an accurate understanding of the concepts Jesus used.

  • First, God’s people must understand God has priorities. Tithing the garden herbs was not to be neglected! However, to God, justice [treating others fairly], mercy [being kind or forgiving when kindness or forgiveness is undeserved], and faithfulness [keeping promises and assurances] are the “weightier provisions of the law.” A failure to recognize God’s priorities led religious leaders to use the law to rebel against God’s desires!
  • Second, note that Jesus plainly stated God has “weightier matters” [in all ages!]. That does not mean that some of the things God instructed are unimportant. Nor does it mean that God deals in optional instructions. It means God has priorities just as we do. The most important godly considerations are those that directly involve “justice,” “mercy,” and “faithfulness” [loyalty; devotion]. God Himself is just. Those who follow God cannot knowingly be unjust. God is merciful. Those who follow God can not be willfully unmerciful. God is dependable. He keeps His promises. He will not abandon us. Those who follow God must be dependable promise keepers who do not abandon God or other people. Never does a Christian use an instruction from God to excuse being unjust, unmerciful, or unfaithful!
  • Third, we refer to “mint, dill, and cummin” as cooking spices. Commonly a few plants of these were grown to give flavor to food. When I was a boy, my mother planted three dill plants to provide dill for canning pickles. Three dill plants would provide all the dill needed for a lot of pickles! Jesus addressed leaders who demanded devout Jews tithe [give ten per cent of] these herbs to God.
  • Fourth, consider the gnat and the camel. In Palestine, the gnat was among the smallest of the unclean creatures [forbidden as food for Israelites] and the camel was among the largest unclean creatures [forbidden as food for the Israelites]. Read Leviticus 11:4, 20-23, 41. Israelites were to eat neither gnats nor camels. Both were unclean.
  • Fifth, note it was proper to tithe mint, dill, and cummin. Jesus did not suggest tithing even the smallest blessings was unimportant to Israelites. A primary purpose for tithing was to acknowledge dependence on God. Jesus did not deny the importance of that. He declared justice, mercy, and faithfulness expressed in human interactions was more important to God than tithing garden herbs.
  • Sixth, only the spiritually blind regarded themselves to be among God’s righteous people because they never ate a gnat [the smallest unclean creature in Palestine], but regularly consumed a camel [the largest unclean creature in Palestine] without even a small twinge of conscience.

It is easy to regard ourselves as God’s devout followers because we are careful about details and do not violate even the smallest matters. We find great comfort in being able to say, “We keep even the least rules!” Too often we believe that attention to small things verifies we yield to God’s authority.

It is easier to protect one’s food from gnats than it is to be just to all people [including the poor and the unjust!], to be merciful to those who make mistakes [including the lazy and the successful], and to be faithful in all our dealings with others [even those who would be unfaithful to us!]. Straining gnats is not fun! However, being fair to all people, being merciful to those who need mercy, and being faithful in awkward circumstances is much more difficult! Gnats are hard to strain, but human association and relationships are more challenging!

A teacher I deeply respect once declared to a class studying the Old Testament prophets: “The prophets often said to Israel that they could not be righteous simply by knowing the mistakes of others.” What an insight! Applied to us, we Christians will not go to heaven simply because we are well informed about the mistakes others make! Sometimes we feel good about ourselves because we accurately see others “swallowing gnats” while never realizing they watch us regularly “swallow camels.”

Some “are shocked” if a person who claims to be a Christian is careless about attendance, or “has a meal in a place that serves alcohol,” or is not watchful about what he or she does “in a church building,” or expresses “theological concerns” about the order of worship. Yet, these same Christians might regularly humiliate a spouse, or regularly treat their children with contempt, or be horrible neighbors, or be unjust to people in their work place, or cheat the poor as a matter of “good business,” or consider strangers as nothing more than “business opportunities,” or treat others “like they deserve to be treated” instead of defeating evil by doing good (Romans 12:21). However, they feel quite godly because they “attend every time the doors are open,” boycott places that serve alcohol, are careful about what they do in a “church building,” and observe “the correct” order of worship. Jesus would say such Christians are accomplished at straining gnats, but with unconcern swallow camels.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Discuss what is the nature of a “priority.” How do we identify God’s priorities?
  2. What six understandings do we need to grasp about Matthew 23:23, 24?
  3. Discuss why it is easy for Christians to consider themselves devout if they observe details.
  4. Discuss why God emphasizes human-to-human relationships as “weightier matters.”
  5. In your past, what religious things were “shocking” to the church?
  6. Why do Christians too often fail to regard the treatment of a spouse, a child, a neighbor, a person at work, the poor, or strangers as God’s “weightier matters”?
  7. Discuss Jesus’ statement: “These are the things you should have done without neglecting the others.