Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others. You blind guides, straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel! (Matthew 23:23, 24).
There is something in human nature that strives to do as little as possible to appease one’s conscience. A classic case of this in many traditional church backgrounds is the act of tithing. It is this one act coupled with regular church attendance that makes some Christians feel as though they are square with God. They feel no guilt, and they feel that they are at peace with God in spite of the fact that God never once commands the Church to tithe and in spite of their utter neglect of the weightier call of God upon their lives.
Jesus Christ during his stint upon this earth also encountered a group who had clear consciences in spite of their disobedience to the law—the Pharisees. These self-righteous men thought that they could one-up God on his commandments so that they would be sure never to break them. They called this one-upmanship, “putting a hedge about the law.” For example, if the law commanded them not to use the Lord’s name vainly, the Pharisees would not speak the name of the Lord at all. If the law commanded them not to be drunk with wine, they would not drink wine at all. If the law commanded them not to work on the Sabbath, they would count their steps on each Sabbath and would even not save a man’s life if he were in need of rescue on the Sabbath.
Aside from not saving a man on the Sabbath, we might look upon the Pharisees’ practices quite favorably. Many of us do in fact choose not to participate in certain activities, not because they are forbidden by Scripture, but because we believe that those things are not profitable or might lead us into a certain temptation. Therefore many Christians choose not to drink, not to go to R-rated movies, not to listen to secular music, etc., all so that they might live lives that honor God. And all these are fine to practice so long as we recognize that they are not God’s law and that they are not a substitute for it.
In Matthew 23:23, this is exactly what the Pharisees had done, namely they had taken one part of God’s law given to the nation Israel, viz. tithing, and they had made it into a refined science of dividing herbs and spices. As the text indicates, this practice was not wrong in and of itself (in fact it was in accordance to the nation’s laws), but the Pharisees had put great weight and worth on tithing and regarded as worthless the truly weighty laws of God, viz. justice, mercy, and faithfulness. Christ’s condemnation of them is not light, for he declares that they not only will not enter into the kingdom of heaven, but they, by their teachings are blocking others from entering (cf. v. 23:13, 14).
Christ says elsewhere that the greatest two commandments are to love God with all our being and to love one another as we love ourselves. We should find no consolation for our consciences if we are not keeping these commandments every moment of our lives. If we are not and find satisfaction for our consciences in our tithing, our church attendance, and our G-rated movies, we are no better than the Pharisees and are just as likely to split hell wide open. And if you are wondering how loving God and loving others as we love ourselves looks, here is an example from 2 Corinthians 8:
We want you to know, brothers, about the grace of God that has been given among the churches of Macedonia, for in a severe test of affliction, their abundance of joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part. For they gave according to their means, as I can testify, and beyond their means, of their own accord, begging us earnestly for the favor of taking part in the relief of the saints—and this, not as we expected, but they gave themselves first to the Lord and then by the will of God to us. Accordingly, we urged Titus that as he had started, so he should complete among you this act of grace. But as you excel in everything—-in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in all earnestness, and in our love for you—see that you excel in this act of grace also.