God’s Priorities: The Weightier Matters of the Law

Jesus used stark contrasts to make powerful points. What should we learn from comparing tiny spices with weighty matters like justice, mercy and faith?

Throughout His ministry, Jesus was opposed and derided by the religious leaders of His day, including the scribes and the Pharisees. They were jealous of His popularity with the common people, and so they tried to trick Him into saying something they could use against Him.

Some of them believed He was claiming things no man could claim, but others recognized God’s hand in His work.

Near the end of His ministry, Jesus took the scribes and Pharisees to task. He recognized their position of authority, sitting in “Moses’ seat” (Matthew 23:2), but He decried their hypocrisy, desire for respect and power, pride, absurd teachings, desire to look good without being good and their opposition to God’s true messengers.

Eight woes

In Matthew 23, Jesus proclaimed eight woes against the religious leaders. The fifth woe really stands out and can be especially instructive to us today.

Jesus said, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. These you ought to have done, without leaving the others undone” (verse 23).

Tithing means obeying God’s command to pay Him a tenth of our earnings, and the scribes and Pharisees were meticulous in doing this even for tiny amounts of spices. They were fastidious about tithing exactly 10 percent of these spices—no more, no less. But Jesus indicted them for neglecting justice, mercy and faith.

What does weightier mean?

The Greek word barys, translated “weightier” here, does mean heavier. This serves as a contrast to the tiny seeds the scribes and Pharisees were so meticulous about tithing. The clear implication is that these matters are more important, more momentous, and of higher priority to God.

Jesus isn’t saying not to tithe. He said, “These you ought to have done, without leaving the others undone.” (To learn more about the biblical teaching on tithing, read “Tithing: What Is It?”)

But since God is the One who sets the rules and priorities, we should look to His definition of what He considers weightier.

God’s scale

God’s perspective on what is heavy, or weighty, is much different from the human perspective. Isaiah described how the things we consider heavy can be as nothing to God:

“Who has measured the waters in the hollow of His hand, measured heaven with a span and calculated the dust of the earth in a measure? Weighed the mountains in scales and the hills in a balance?” (Isaiah 40:12).

In verse 15 Isaiah added: “Behold, the nations are as a drop in a bucket, and are counted as the small dust on the scales; look, He lifts up the isles as a very little thing . . .

“All nations before Him are as nothing, and they are counted by Him less than nothing and worthless” (verses 15, 17).

These things that are substantial to us, and all the physical things that are important to us, are like dust on the scales to God. To God, men of low degree or high degree are “lighter than vapor” (Psalm 62:9).

But what is important to God? What does He weigh? God “weighs the hearts” (Proverbs 21:2). He weighs “the path of the just” (Isaiah 26:7). Our motivations and actions are important to Him—and He wants them to align with His motivations and actions.

Weightier but not burdensome

It’s interesting that the Greek word barys is used in two other passages that present a contrast between the scribes and Pharisees’ approach and God’s approach.

Jesus said, “For they bind heavy [barys] burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on men’s shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with one of their fingers” (Matthew 23:4).

The scribes and Pharisees added extra rules and burdens to the biblical commands. In their zeal to protect the law, they made it burdensome. Yet Jesus showed they didn’t always apply their own rules to themselves.

On the other hand, the apostle John wrote about God’s law itself, in the letter and the spirit, but without the traditions and extra rules.

“For this is the love of God, that we keep His commandments. And His commandments are not burdensome [barys]” (1 John 5:3).

God’s laws are beneficial, not burdensome.

A reference to Micah 6:8?

Various commentators see Jesus’ list of justice, mercy and faith and His parallel list of justice and the love of God (Luke 11:42) as references to Micah 6:8.

Micah 6:8 says, “He has shown you, O man, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God?”

The lists are not exactly the same, but they overlap. Walking humbly with God “presupposes and comprehends both the ‘faith’ of Matthew and ‘love’ of Luke” (Jamieson, Fausset, Brown Commentary on Matthew 23:23).

See more about Micah 6:8 in our blog series starting with “What Does God Require of You? Do Justly.”

The weightier matter of justice

It seems the Pharisees were quick to judge others according to God’s laws and their additional rules. But Jesus showed they weren’t good at recognizing their own faults or hypocrisy. (See His parable of “The Pharisee and the Tax Collector,” for example.)

Faith includes recognizing how great, powerful and wise God is and how small we are. This allows us to walk humbly with God and to grow to become more like Him by showing the godly love He shows.Jesus said many surprising things about judgment and justice that should make us judge not just our actions, but our motives. Jesus said our righteousness must exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees (Matthew 5:20). This can happen only if we judge ourselves by God’s standards, repent and seek God’s help to live the right and just way.

One key to godly justice is what Jesus said in John 7:24: “Do not judge according to appearance, but judge with righteous judgment.”

Godly justice includes treating others fairly, not rushing to judge others and carefully judging ourselves. (Study more about justice in our articles “Judge With Righteous Judgment,” “What Did Jesus Mean by ‘Judge Not’?” “Justice for All: How Will It Come?” and “Judgments of God: The Real Story.”)

Godly justice is also intimately tied to godly mercy.

The weightier matter of mercy

God offers mercy. He also expects us to show mercy.

Jesus told the Pharisees who were wrongly judging His disciples, “But if you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless” (Matthew 12:7).

He tells all of us, “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy” (Matthew 5:7).

Showing mercy includes “readiness to help those in trouble” (Thayer’s Greek Lexicon, definition of eleos), as well as being forgiving. (Study more about mercy in our articles “Blessed Are the Merciful” and “Mercy Triumphs Over Judgment.”)

Of course, showing mercy and seeking God’s mercy are matters of faith.

The weightier matter of faith

“‘Faith’ means trust, confidence, assurance, and belief” (The New Strong’s Expanded Dictionary of Bible Words, p. 1315).

What do we believe? That God exists “and that He is a rewarder of those who diligently seek Him” (Hebrews 11:6). Believing these things makes it possible for us to please Him.

Faith includes recognizing how great, powerful and wise God is and how small we are. This allows us to walk humbly with God and to grow to become more like Him by showing the godly love He shows. Faith and love give us the motivation to act rightly—to obey God’s law, which is for our good (Deuteronomy 10:13).

(Study more about faith in “How to Grow in Faith,” “What Is Faith?” and related articles.)

“Swallow a camel”

Jesus capped off this section with another powerful analogy in Matthew 23:24. God’s laws on holiness tell us not to eat animals God designates as unclean, including everything from gnats to camels.

The Believer’s Bible Commentary says: “Using a figure of speech unsurpassed for expressiveness, Jesus described [the scribes and Pharisees] as straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel. The gnat, a tiny insect that often fell into a cup of sweet wine, was strained out . . .

“How ludicrous to take such care with the insignificant, then bolt down the largest unclean animal in Palestine! The Pharisees were infinitely concerned with minutiae, but grossly blind to enormous sins like hypocrisy, dishonesty, cruelty, and greed. They had lost their sense of proportion” (comment on Matthew 23:23, 24).

Avoiding gnats is good. But don’t focus on them so much you miss the massive camel.

Jesus’ teachings and the guidance of God’s Holy Spirit can help us see things from God’s perspective. Then we can avoid the errors of the scribes and Pharisees and instead seek God’s help to never neglect the weightier matters of the law.

About the Author

Mike Bennett

Mike Bennett

Mike Bennett is editorial content manager for the Church of God, a Worldwide Association, in the Dallas, Texas, area. He coordinates the Life, Hope & Truth website, Discern magazine, the Daily Bible Verse Blog and the Life, Hope & Truth Weekly Newsletter (including World Watch Weekly). He is also part of the Personal Correspondence team of ministers who have the privilege of answering questions sent to Life, Hope & Truth.

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