“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 faith”. Matthew ch23 v23
For the Bible, the law is the expression of God’s will.
That is why it is a good thing, fundamentally.
But we must distinguish, on the authority of Jesus, between the unimportant aspects of law and “the weightier matters of the law”.
The “weightier matters” are the fundamental principles, expressing what God really wants from people.
What has become known to us as “law” may include features which don’t express those fundamental principles, or express them badly.
In previous threads, I’ve tried to identify this difference among the “social” laws of the Pentateuch;
God’s Law; Your patient teacher
The argument is that the code given to us in the name of Moses represents a joint enterprise between God and man, in which the contribution of God was
to improve the laws and customs inherited from human culture, to bring them closer to his own fundamental principles. The result was a compromise in
which human flaws were still evident.
The distinction can be seen in God’s treatment of David.
David is called by God “a man after my own heart” (1 Samuel ch13 v14).
But this approval is given to a man who will be a serial breaker of the laws of Moses.
David the law-breaker
The episode of Bathsheba broke three of the Ten Commandments- coveting, adultery, and murder. David was rebuked and chastised, on that occasion, but
he was never rebuked for any of the more technical offences which he committed. It would appear that some of the collected laws are more important
On the subject of burnt offering and sacrifice, Jeremiah claims (and I believe him) that God did not ask for these things. His principal command on
the departure from Egypt had been “Hear my voice” (Jeremiah ch7 v22).
Similarly the Psalmist says “Burnt offering and sin offering thou hast not required…
I delight to do thy will, O my God, thy law is within my heart” (Psalm 40 vv6-8).
And again Micah says “What does the Lord require of you, but to do justice and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah ch6
Even in the Old Testament, then, God is less interested in the letter of the law of Moses than in the basic principles of the law; namely, the right
relationship with God and the right treatment of other people.
That is the traditional way of summing up the Ten Commandments themselves.
We see the same priorities in the teaching of Jesus, in his declaration that “all the law and the prophets” can be summed up in the two great
commandments, “You shall love the Lord your God” and “You shall love your neighbour as yourself” (Matthew ch22 vv35-40).
Elsewhere, he sums up “the law and the prophets” as “Whatever you wish that men would do to you, do so unto them” (Matthew ch7 v12).
Again, he says that no man will enter the kingdom of heaven but “he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven” (Matthew ch7 v21). But the
previous comments have already made it clear that “doing the will of my Father” entails the right treatment of other people.
The implication is that laws not founded on those two basic principles are less important. Indeed, any laws that run against them must be invalid. We
find these conclusions applied in the teaching of Jesus on specific issues.
For example, the sabbath command is not to be allowed to interfere with people’s needs.
The common explanation is that Jesus was faithful to the laws themselves, on this point and in other respects, while he challenged the human
traditions which the Pharisees had been adding to the laws.
But that is not quite how Jesus explains himself.
When the Pharisees grumble at the disciples for working on the sabbath, he could have pointed out that plucking a head of grain, even rubbing it in
the hand, is a trivial action which hardly deserves the name of “work”.
Instead, he offers them the example of David in the “shewbread” episode (1 Samuel ch21).
On that occasion, David is evidently travelling on the sabbath, which is very relevant, but Jesus doesn’t even bother using that aspect of the
Instead, he refers to the ritual prohibition which should have kept the bread out of David’s hands.
Thus making the more ambitious point that ritual laws in general are less important than meeting people’s needs (Mark ch2 vv23-28).
Similarly in the next story, when they question the lawfulness of healing on the Sabbath, he does not bother to suggest that healing is not work. He
has already said that “the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” He now applies that principle again, underlining his point by
observing (in Matthew’s version) that that the Pharisees do the same thing to meet their own understanding of “necessity” (Matthew ch12
On the subject of divorce, his critique of the law is more direct.
He makes a clear distinction between the provisions of the law and the intentions of God.
God’s intentions were expressed in the statement in Genesis, that a man should “cleave to his wife”.
Therefore the law, which implicitly allowed a man to abandon his wife to suit his own convenience, was a departure from God’s intention, driven by
“the hardness of your hearts” (Matthew ch19 vv1-8).
If he had been asked about the practice of polygamy, which is implicitly accepted in the laws of Moses, he would have been obliged to give the same
answer for the same reason.
Again, he showed himself reluctant to enforce the death-penalty on the woman caught in adultery (John ch8 vv1-11).
Yet this was not any “human tradition” modifying the Law, but a clear and unambiguous command found in Deuteronomy.
This question did not arise by accident.
Evidently his opponents knew very well that he would not want the woman to be stoned, and they were hoping to expose the clash between his principles
and the letter of the law.
That is the common factor in all these examples. The letter of the law needs to be set aside, because it frustrates the basic principles of the
This brings us to his complaint about Corban(Mark ch7 vv9-13).
A man might swear that part of his property was dedicated to God, and then it ceased to count towards his obligation to support his parents. This was
allowed by the letter of the law, which encouraged gifts to God, so the letter of the law was part of the problem.
So when Jesus says “You make void the word of God through your tradition”, the letter of the law itself is being labelled as “human
“The word of God”, in this case, means the basic principle of the law, the right treatment of other people.
Therefore the attitude of Jesus may be summed up in the verse quoted at the beginning.
God’s law is not in the meticulous observance of tithing and in other trivial details.
But the essence of God’s law is in justice, mercy, and faith.
“You shall love the Lord your God, and your neighbour as yourself”.
The basic principles of the right relationship (“faith”) with God and the right treatment (“justice and mercy”) of other people.
edit on 12-7-2019 by DISRAELI because: (no reason given)