“The Weightier Matters”

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have practiced without neglecting the others.” —Matthew 23:23

Jesus was quick to spot religious hypocrisy. The Pharisees have got a bad name because of Jesus’ criticisms of them, but in truth they were the ones Jesus had the most affinity for. They were serious, pious and scrupulous keepers of Torah.

What Jesus condemned them for was that they had a skewed focus on what was truly important to God. Yes, they kept the religious law down to the smallest detail, but they neglected what Jesus called “the weightier matters.” In their preoccupation with rules and rituals they were forgetting God’s passion for justice and mercy, and his call to faith, not religious observance.

He told them, “You strain gnats and swallow camels!”

Given his constant critique of such misplaced focus it is tragically ironic how much hypocrisy goes on today in Jesus’s name. Of course it is always easier to spot a religious hypocrite when you are not looking in the mirror.

The “good religious people” in any age are always at risk of such hypocrisy. It is easy to go eagerly to church to get our souls manicured while walking by the beggar at our gate. Easier still to let the societal systems that put the beggar there unchallenged.

The ancient prophets were like the “canaries in the coal mine” that warned of impending societal danger. They preached God’s righteous passion for justice, mercy and faith. Jesus echoes their words when he tells the good religious people of his time (and ours) not to neglect these weightier matters.

Prayer: Save us from being hypocrites, O God. Grant us a passion like yours for justice, mercy and faith.

(This is my United Church of Christ Daily Devotion for November 4, 2017. To see the original go here. To subscribe to the UCC Daily Devotional and receive it every day by e-mail go here.)

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“Silence is Golden!” A Devotion on Job 42:3

“I have spoken what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.” —Job 42:3

I was taught never to say, “Shut up!” It was considered rude. So I still don’t.

But I am tempted from time to time. I have an allergy to certain pious phrases that I know are meant to give comfort but do not, at least to me. Continue reading

“Staying on the Trail”

“My steps have held fast to your paths; my feet have not slipped.”—Psalm 17: 5

I have belonged to a hiking group for nearly 20 years. We pad around the Berkshire Hills year round, wearing cleats on our boots or snowshoes during the long icy winter. Many of the various trails are well marked, but sometimes one of us will go astray and have to blow a whistle to be searched for and found by the group. Continue reading

“Tried and Found Wanting”

“For you, O God, have tested us; you have tried us as silver is tried.”—Psalm 66:10

I’ve noticed that many of the people I follow on Twitter describe themselves as “Jesus Follower.” I’m guessing they think this is more personal and less institutional than just labeling themselves “Christian.” Some of them seem aware of the bold audacity of their claim, and modify “Jesus Follower” with something self-deprecating such as “I’m not very good at it.”

I have tried to be a Jesus follower most of my life, so my profile could well be “trying to be a Jesus follower.” I’m not very good at it! G. K. Chesterton famously observed, “Christianity has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and not tried.” Continue reading

“The Community that Mercy Makes”

“Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.” —1 Peter 2:10

The First Letter of Peter was written to encourage Christians in Asia Minor who were being persecuted for their faith. Most of them were Gentile converts to Christianity, and Peter reminds them that their inclusion in the church and in the promises of God was by an act of divine mercy made real by the cross and resurrection of Jesus. Continue reading

“Searching for Holy Ground”

“Then God said to Moses, ‘Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.’” —Exodus 3:5

You can’t find holy ground with your GPS. You won’t even find it at famous holy places, though you might. Ordinary places become holy ground only because we meet God there. Continue reading

“The Seven Last Words of the Church”

seven-last-words“Jesus said to them, “Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written, ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.’ You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.” – Mark 7:6-8

Some of the scribes and Pharisees questioned Jesus as to why his disciples had not washed their hands before eating, as was “the custom of the elders.” He chastised them for their slavish devotion to custom, while neglecting their relationship with God.

Our customs and traditions are important for institutional continuity and for doing things in the church “decently and in order.” But customs followed for their own sake can stifle needed change and quench the flame of the Spirit. Continue reading