The Law I: Misdemeanors and Felonies

Today, we’re moving on to the fifth of the “woes” Jesus conferred upon the Pharisees. We are not leaving our former topic of blindness behind entirely, because as we’re going to see, over the next few woes Jesus repeats the indictment that they are (spiritually) blind men, blind fools. Here is the context:

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cummin, and have neglected the weightier provisions of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness; but these are the things you should have done without neglecting the others. You blind guides, who strain out a gnat and swallow a camel! (Matthew 23:23-24)

What are the “weightier provisions” of the law? Jesus says they are justice, mercy and faithfulness, but what does that really mean? He contrasts weightier matters of the law with tithing. He does not dismiss tithing. He says you should have done that but not neglected the other; you should have done the weightier matters without neglecting the tithing. Jesus seems to establish a principle that there is a hierarchy to God’s laws. Are some laws more important than others?

We know that the Pharisees were meticulous keepers of the law. To help them be so punctilious, they made up innumerable interpretations and explanations, so that they would be law abiding and never miss a turn. It would be easy to say that Jesus is making a distinction between God’s laws, which are weightier, and man’s laws, which are lightweight. Yet we know from the book of Leviticus that tithing was a law of established by God Himself.

Are there some of God’s laws which are heavyweight and some of God’s laws which are lightweight? If so, who decides which are which? What makes a law light, and what makes one heavy? If it’s God’s law, it doesn’t seem that we can pick and choose. But if we can’t pick and choose, then what defines a lightweight law and a heavyweight law? There’s a puzzling passage in Scripture in this context:

If anyone sees his brother committing a sin not leading to death, he shall ask and God will for him give life to those who commit sin not leading to death. There is a sin leading to death; I do not say that he should make request for this. All unrighteousness is sin, and there is a sin not leading to death. (1 John 5:16-17)

What does it mean that there is mortal sin and non-mortal sin? Is a lightweight sin non-mortal, and a heavyweight sin mortal? Is one a divine misdemeanor and the other a divine felony?

Jesus throws a monkey wrench into the subject of law keeping. It is strange that Jesus referred to justice, mercy, and faith as the weightier provisions of the law, because neither justice nor faith are mentioned at all in the 10 commandments, and mercy is only mentioned briefly, alluding to God’s mercy to those who love and keep His commandments (Exodus 20:6). So what are the weightier matters and how should they be identified?

In this passage…

But now faith, hope, love, abide these three; but the greatest of these is love. (1 Corinthians 13:13)

…the apostle Paul supplants faith, which is given by Jesus as one of the heavyweight laws, with love. One might say that justice and mercy are things which you do to other people—that establish relationships with other people; while faith establishes your relationship with God.

Is Jesus just giving the law that you should love God and love your fellow man, but in a different form? He labels justice and mercy and faith as the heavyweights but then gives no explanation as to how to practice them. We’re told that they’re important, but we’re not told with crystal clarity how they should be practiced.

Jesus is a poet, but what we want is an engineer or maybe an accountant, to spell things out for us with diagrams and rows and columns that add up. Explicit laws and directions can be followed regardless of who the lawgiver is. But poetry is another matter. What does the poet really mean? What you hear when you read a poem may be quite different from what I hear. That’s why the Pharisees are so reassuring: They lay everything out, chapter and verse, every detail explained, no questions unanswered, nothing ambiguous. Give us a spreadsheet any day, and keep us away from poetry.

We demand from our Bible an owner’s manual with answers and rules for every occasion of life. We want it to be searchable like Google. How should you pay your tithes? How should you keep the Sabbath? What should you eat for breakfast? How should you pray? Will homosexuals go to heaven? What is right? What is wrong?

This is what we want. We want it all laid out, chapter and verse. But instead, Jesus writes poetry, he paints word pictures: Love your neighbor as yourself, turn the other cheek, go to the back of the line. And what does it all mean? More empowerment? How does it help us to live? And don’t forget that the heavy duty, industrial strength law of justice and faith and mercy are required as well.

In a world full of rules, the rules themselves become the authority. Leaders of most groups of any kind seldom make the rules; they just make sure everyone lives by rules set by their predecessors. The rules become the authority, and authority becomes vested in whoever inherits the rule book. But the rules themselves are the primary authority.

You can learn to live by a set of rules even if you don’t know who wrote them. But poetry is different. The exasperating thing about poetry is that only one person really knows what the poetry means, and that’s the poet him- or herself. If you know the poet, you may have a good idea what his or her intentions are. But there’s always room for interpretation and there’s always some uncertainty, some ambiguity. We really wish God was not a poet. Give us an accounting God any day. An accountant would categorize everything by weight, light or heavy, properly identified and precisely spelled out.

Jesus the teacher does not use “multiple choice” examinations to test our knowledge of the pathway to Heaven. It is more like an essay, and we can’t stand essays. Did I get off on the right note in my essay? Did I write enough? Did I include what the teacher wanted to hear? Did I write too much? Was I too verbose? Was I witty? Was I clever? Was I insightful? Was I convincing? Was that thorough? Was I complete? Was I focused? Did I draw the right conclusions? How about my spelling? My grammar? My punctuation?

Over the next several weeks, I hope that together we will write an essay on the weightier matters of the law as outlined by Jesus. I want to talk individually about justice. I want to talk about mercy. I want to talk about faith and faithfulness. I want to look at each of these elements of (what the teacher says are the weightier matters of) the law. What does Jesus mean, after all, when He says they are weighty matters? What is a heavyweight law? What is a lightweight law? And who gets to decide which is lightweight and which is heavyweight? How can we even know what is lightweight and heavyweight? And finally, what difference does it make anyway? What did Jesus mean when He told the Pharisees they were good in the lightweight but deficient in the heavyweight?

Jay: A word that seems to be missing in these passages relating to the law is obedience. We think and talk about the laws of society as things to be obeyed, to be followed, but obedience is not mentioned in these passages as something that is weighty in itself. It might be wise for us to contrast the individual weighty matters of justice and mercy and faithfulness with obedience and other potentially weighty matters.

Robin: I wonder if there is a correlation between obedience to the law and character. Perhaps our responsibility to humble ourselves and ask for a change in our character is what will empower and enable us to be obedient. You don’t want to be obedient to a rule if you can’t see the sense in it, or if you feel like it’s impossible to do. But as Jesus, through the Spirit, changes our character, then we don’t see the law as an obstruction but rather as something to be kept for the sake of love.

Jay: Perhaps what Christ is doing here is redefining obedience. We often think of obedience as following a very specific set of rules. The example given in the woes passage is tithing, which we have definitely made a matter of obedience. If you’re obedient to God, if you follow the law of God, tithing law is something that you will obey. But maybe what Christ is doing is defining obedience to the law not as tithing, not as what you do or don’t do on the Sabbath, not as something black or white; but, rather, as the extent to which you show justice, mercy and faithfulness.

Don: Tithing is one of those things that you could put on a spreadsheet, or into a multiple choice test, as opposed to mercy and justice and faith, which are less precise, less quantitative. You can measure a tithe precisely by its amount, but you can’t measure faithfulness, mercy and justice.

Donald: Guidelines are at one end of a spectrum, law is on the other. Telling a struggling student to “Try to do better!” means nothing. A student skipping class four days a week could “do better” by skipping three. So I used to tell such students that if they skipped more than three classes in a term their ability to continue in school would be curtailed. Of course I showed mercy where necessary, but the students actually liked my “law” because it told them where the line was. It was the difference between an essay and a multiple choice test.

In the Adventist church if you’re not tithing you won’t be invited to participate as an elder or a deacon and so on. So apparently that rule is pretty high on the scale within the church.

Don: Jesus calls it a lightweight law.

Donald: Apparently doctrine turns it into a heavyweight! Maybe doctrine is where hierarchy is defined, and that’s what Jesus said was the wrong thing to focus on. If we could only separate the two things and ask what’s God’s will, what does God want and expect from us in our lives. If you went into a marriage with a rule book you’d be looking at that rule book on a pretty regular basis! We rank everything.

Don: I never thought about the law in this way until, on rereading the passage and thinking about it just now, it became shockingly clear that Jesus is placing some kind of hierarchy on even God’s laws. You would think that God’s laws would all have equal solemnity and weight. And yet Jesus clearly delineates a lightweight and a heavyweight. I found it extremely perplexing.

Rheinhard: If we look at the 10 commandments, of course killing somebody and stealing are considered sins. In the law of the land, people who commit first or third degree murder may receive punishment ranging maybe from life to as few as 10 years in prison. The punishment for transgressing God’s law, however, is not years in prison but eternity in hell or heaven. The issue we all face is how far the sins that we commit put us on one path or the other. James wrote:

My brethren, if any among you strays from the truth and one turns him back, let him know that he who turns a sinner from the error of his way will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins. (James 5:19-20)

It is a mystery how God will judge in all His wisdom, with all His power and authority. I think confession is the key. Whether our sins are heavy or light, in the end we will be judged on our attitude regarding our sins, small and big. Confession makes us turn away from sin. The choice, and the punishment, is binary. Even though judgment is a mystery, I think we know the bottom line.

David: To me, Jesus is more Daoist than poet, and certainly not doctrinaire. Doctrines are defined and drawn from Scripture. Anyone could create a spreadsheet from the Bible, with rows naming each sin and columns denoting the weight of each sin. Tithing would appear in row X column Y. Essentially, that’s what the Pharisees did.

But what’s interesting about this discussion is its relationship to blindness. Jesus told the Pharisees: “You’re blind, you can’t see.” In their proselytizing, the Pharisees would point to the Bible (their spreadsheet) and say: “See? It’s right here! Here’s how and why you have to pay your tithe. It’s in the Bible! See?” And Jesus was telling them: “But you can’t see—you’re blind. You’re looking at Scripture but you’re not seeing the truth.”

The truth is not external, not in written words, not in the detailed law, not in the cell of a spreadsheet. It’s internal, in the form of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit does not lay down laws. It suggests guidelines, and guidelines are what matter.

Adaure: It’s not a matter of the weight or literal importance of laws per se, but more a matter of their impact, of how they drive us. For example, tithes are tangible, but justice, mercy, and faith are intangible. However, their impacts on our character, personality, and concepts drive how we obey tithing and other tangible laws.

Anonymous: Jesus was asked:

“Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”
Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Matthew 22:36-40

I think that kind of sums it up. If we love God and our neighbor, then justice, faith and mercy will flow naturally. The poetry in Christian life is that everything good just flows out of the heart. Words don’t always affect our behavior as much as our conscience does. Jesus also said:

“In everything, therefore, treat people the same way you want them to treat you, for this is the Law and the Prophets. (Matthew 7:12)

So that’s the basic law. All we need is faith, and the Law will be completed in our life.

Donald: We tend to look mainly at things we can measure: Sabbath observance, for instance. Swimming is going to get a little tricky. Wading may be okay. Water is okay but now we’re starting into the tough ones. Adventists like to think of themselves as a little bit “peculiar.” We would love to be peculiar in regards to justice, mercy, and faith, but how would we measure those? We can’t, so we tend to pick the things that we can measure. It is our natural response.

Don: Is that a basis for hierarchy? If it’s measurable, it’s a lightweight, low impact concept. If it’s not measurable, it’s a high impact concept. …?

Jay: It seems as if Christ’s ministry focused far more on qualitative than on quantitative concepts. Concepts such as going to the end of the line, etc., turn quantitative measures on their head; the opposite of them actually begins to happen. Words such as “weightier” assume quantification and categorization according to an hierarchical scale. As well, the heavier an object, the greater its potential energy, so the weightier things in life have more potential to affect life. Hence, justice, mercy, and faithfulness have more potential to accomplish the will of God than lighter things such as tithing.

Kiran: The late Harvard business professor Clayton Christensen’s lecture How Will You Measure Your Life? discusses quantifying as the easiest thing to do. We can’t measure everything, so we average. An average is just one number, it’s only a part of the dataset for the whole. Christensen concluded that Judgment Day won’t be about quantifying the things we did or did not do, but on our behavior in our interpersonal relations. Fighting for justice for somebody costs a lot. So does having mercy on somebody. We might say the same about tithing, but I could actually use my tithe money to gamble instead. Would that make it any better? To average and then quantify things is the easiest but the worst thing to do.

Jim: I think we can sit down as individuals and make a spreadsheet of lightweight and heavyweight laws from the Bible. But each one of our spreadsheets would be different, because what is lightweight to me may be heavyweight to you. So it’s an individual thing.

Robin: That reminds me of the Pharisees and the poor widow who paid her last mite in tithes. What was a heavy burden on her would have been a light burden to the rich.

Donald: We do describe what happens in the end by the word judgment. People taking a multiple choice test don’t have to even understand the questions. There’s no judgment needed. The choice is either right or wrong. I think that’s pretty much what we do. We, as individuals, if we care to, will review our faith perspective. We don’t literally put it into a spreadsheet, but we are pretty good at assessing, averaging, where something fits in the hierarchy. And then we find a church that matches our assessments. And I’m not sure that that’s wrong. Why wouldn’t we want to be with people of like mind? Why would we want to be in a place where everyone else is wrong? So now we’re back to the concept of a slate. As a faith community, we’re content to agree upon a communal slate. It’s those who dispute our slate, our spreadsheet, that cause ill will.

Carolyn: Sin is sin. The only way I can resolve this dilemma of lightweight and heavyweight is through the Holy Spirit, which directs my thought process when I ask Him to. He directs my day. And therefore, I’m not sure I have the answer. I have nothing wonderful to say, but the Holy Spirit is my connection to know where I am in my walk with my Lord. What seems lightweight or heavyweight depends on our personalities and on where we are on our path to salvation and sanctification. But I think I’m treading pretty dangerous waters. Because if we love the Lord, and we love our fellow man, and we have the Holy Spirit, it kind of puts us on the same path, doesn’t it?

Chris: Scripture tells us that he who believes in Him is not judged. He who does not believe, has been judged already:

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son. This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed. But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what they have done has been done in the sight of God. (John 3:16-21)

It all comes down to judgment when we try and weight and categorize these items.

In the end, I don’t think the weighting really matters. I don’t think that Jesus was trying to say that the weighting mattered here. I think what He was doing was shedding light on where their focus was at. But judgment had already occurred, so what does weighting really matter when it comes to these things?

Don: Doesn’t anyone want to stand up for some good old fashioned rules?

David: Not me! In the first woe Jesus castigated the Pharisees for devouring widows’ houses, which I think can be equated to taking their last mite. So the Pharisees were wrong to expect the widow to pay any tithe. But the widow was right to pay it because she did so out of good, pure, intention to support the cause of God. So there is a judgmental dilemma: Tithing is wrong if expected of poor widows but right when poor widows offer it.

The Pharisees got their instruction on tithing from Scripture. Maybe the widow did, too. But I like to think that Jesus meant that it came from her heart and soul, out of love, the greatest of things. Love doesn’t come from Scripture. It comes from inside. If you look for it externally, then you are blind. If you look for it internally, you will see. You will not be able to define it perhaps; you can’t put it down in a spreadsheet. But you will know what to do.

Robin: Jesus Himself said:

You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; it is these that testify about Me; and you are unwilling to come to Me so that you may have life. (John 5:39-40)

Scriptures are meant to be stories of encouragement, lessons. It’s no good to be able to quote massive portions of the Bible if your heart isn’t right. People turn it into a prideful thing. Scriptures do not hold salvation, but serve as a guide and history book.

Carolyn: That is why I really feel we need the Holy Spirit. That’s what the Lord gave us. It has to come from the heart. We all seem to agree with that. My desire is to be so in tune with God that the Holy Spirit is just a free spirit within me. But I have to ask for it.

Janelin: Because Jesus was a poet and therefore somewhat vague and not clear cut, it allows us to continue seeking. Because if it was all in there, we might just say, okay, we know it all now, and then the book is closed and we’re not going to continue seeking. So perhaps Jesus’ being a poet stimulates these discussions.

David: Jesus is a Daoist too! The Daoist “bible”, the Dao De Jing, is very short, about 20 or 30 pages in the English translation and even less in the original Chinese. Yet people have been talking about it, analyzing it, debating it, discussing it, for nearly 3000 years. We do not need something as thick and weighty as the Bible to stimulate deep and continuing discussion and introspection concerning the Way, Goodness, and other weighty topics. I think what Jesus was trying to do through His life and His ministry was to give us the much lighter and easier “burden” of a gently nagging Holy Spirit than the heavy and stern burden of memorizing “the law and the prophets”—that is, Scripture.

Donald: Is it dangerous to do a spreadsheet and then share it? Is the danger when you start making judgment calls and saying “Your spreadsheet is wrong”? It is fascinating to talk with people who don’t necessarily agree with one, as long as we can talk. If somebody says, “No, you’re wrong,” then what’s the point of our talking? If we were discussing poetry and not spreadsheets, we could have a meaningful discussion.

Chris: Does the spreadsheet enable one to practice truth? Because “whoever lives by the truth comes into the light” (John 3, cited earlier). That, I think, is what trips us up, because you may think you have the truth on your spreadsheet while I think I have the truth on my spreadsheet. And when I start judging whether your truth is actually right or wrong that’s where things get complicated, because it’s not about me judging your truth. Because if your truth brings you to the light even if I don’t agree with it, where does that put me?

Jeff: When Jesus said…

“‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Matthew 22:36-40

…He provided a kind of reaffirming basis, or hierarchy, to the law. The interesting thing is that there’s no judgment involved in that at all. So if we’re utilizing everything below that prescribed judgment, I think we may need to go back to the principle.

Jay: I would add that the thing that’s placed at the top of the hierarchy is not quantifiable. The problem is that we want a spreadsheet so that we can quantify. But what Christ is saying is that at the top of the hierarchy are the qualitative things that are not quantifiable at all. And so if you want to focus in on quantitative things, like tithes, like obedience to very specific law and rules and regulations, those are important. He’s not dismissing them and saying those are bad things that you shouldn’t be doing. But you are going to miss the mark if you want to quantify your relationship with God, or if you want to quantify what the will of God is.

Jesus stressed that over and over and over again, especially in conversation with the Pharisees: “You want to deal in quantitative things. You want to deal in hierarchy. You want to deal in what’s most important, Fine, let’s talk about what’s most important. I put at the top of the hierarchy, justice, mercy and faithfulness. Measure that! You can’t.” With that, the human power that comes from control of the law is lost, because no human has the power to measure whether you have enough faithfulness and mercy and justice. All we can measure is whether you give 10% of your mint in tithes.

David: Adventists appear to take tithing seriously; mainly, I suppose, because it’s in the Bible that tithes are the law. Would Adventist leaders expect the widow to obey the law pay her mite to the church? I suspect the answer would be no, that on the contrary, they would encourage the widow to disobey the law and keep her mite so she can keep a roof over her head. If so, the church would be making the judgment that tithing law carries no weight at all in certain circumstances. It would be different in the case of someone who could who afford the tithe.

If the church leaders make that judgment, where are they getting their guidance from? It’s not from the Bible; not from Leviticus, anyway. How are they reaching the judgment that it’s OK for a poor widow to disobey the law on tithing? Obviously, I think, they must be taking their cue from the Holy Spirit within themselves.

Adaure: In Catholicism, there is not just an hierarchy of sins and penances, but there are also hierarchies within both hell and heaven. It has not been an issue for me since I converted to Adventism, perhaps mostly because when there ceases to be a hell, there is basically just salvation or death, depending on your sin. When Jesus was in the home of a Pharisees and the woman came in and kissed and perfumed His feet, He said:

For this reason I say to you, her sins, which are many, have been forgiven, for she loved much; but he who is forgiven little, loves little.” Then He said to her, “Your sins have been forgiven. (Luke 7:47-48)

So there’s a measure of forgiveness, a measure of more or less sin, and a measure of more or less love.

Don: We’re going to work on on the subject of hierarchy. We’re going to work on the individual, on the “weightier matters” of justice and mercy. Justice is much in the news these days.

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