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.
If life were a book, how would you write it? It would be a great idea to have a copy of The Elements of Style handy. Every writer should strive to be on intimate terms with apostrophes, the semicolon, and especially the commas. Without punctuation, nothing reads well.
The Jewish scribes and Pharisees have the reputation of being punctuation masters. Having all the rules of Moses memorized, they assume expertise at being grammatically correct. They famously carry around their annotated edition of the Hebrew law and mark everyone’s life in red ink (vs. 4a). Even Jesus doesn’t escape their editing. At one point, they mark Him wrong for misusing the passive voice (Matt. 9.2b) and using a verb that does not agree with the subject (9:6a).
In our verse, Jesus confronts their hypocrisy. It’s not that their commitment to tithing is irrelevant. The problem is that they are meticulously zealous in tithing herbs but neglect “justice and mercy and faithfulness” (cf. Micah 6:8). It’s the equivalent of nitpicking over commas while disregarding words altogether. It’s loving rituals, lesser things, over relationships, greater things. What meaning could commas have while living an independent existence on an empty page? The same goes for rituals without relationships. There is no meaning in life without relationships, and no relationship can last without the triad of justice, mercy, and faithfulness. Justice guards the duties we have for each other and for God. Mercy steps in when we break them. And faithfulness is our devoted allegiance to God and each other. Without the living syntax of this triad arranging our vertical and horizontal lives, our narratives cannot hold; our lives have no meaning.
So if life were a book, how would you write it? Jesus teaches that you should write it with “justice and mercy and faithfulness […] without neglecting the others.” His call is to be faithful in both the lesser and the greater things. You might have a question mark about how such obedience is possible for your script. Expert writer or not, unintentional typos are bound to appear on almost every page. But don’t let syntax or misplaced commas overwhelm or overburden you. Obedience, like good writing, takes time and practice, period. Write faithfully, not for public recognition like the Pharisees (vv. 5-7, 28a) but for the joy of following the faithfulness of Jesus. He established a covenant on your behalf through His death – He signed a contract making your book publishable (26:28). Eternal royalties are awaiting you (5:12).
All in all, the book you write with Jesus is worth living. Write page after page after page faithfully in both lesser and greater things. That way, you stay as far as possible from the exclamation point of Matthew 23:23, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!”
Lord, Great is Your faithfulness. Your justice and mercy never fail. They are new every morning. You are faithful, and I have been called into the fellowship of Your Son, Jesus Christ, my Lord. Empower me to embody the faithfulness of Jesus in word and deed, in lesser and greater things. Amen.
Ben Pascut, PhD
Ministry Director, Christian Union Lux (Yale University)
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