False Leaders Are Cursed for Their Inversion
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! (23:23–24)
Fourth, Jesus cursed the scribes and Pharisees for inverting divine priorities. They magnified the insignificant and minimized the essential.
Mint and dill and cummin were garden herbs used as kitchen spices, and were not generally considered farm produce, of which the Mosaic law required a tithe be paid to the treasury in Israel (Lev. 27:30). Because it helped support the government, which was a theocracy operated to a great extent by the priesthood, the tithe was a form of taxation. A second tenth was to be paid each year for support of the various worship ceremonies and national festivals (Deut. 12:11, 17). Another tithe was to be paid every three years for a type of welfare, to support the Levites, aliens, orphans, and widows (Deut. 14:28–29), which amounted to an additional 3.3 percent a year. Israelites were therefore required to pay just over 23 percent of their income a year in taxes to fund the theocracy.
The instructions for tithing produce (see also Deut. 14:22) related to marketable farm crops such as grains, olive oil, wine, fruits, and vegetables. But the legalistic scribes and Pharisees extended the provision to include the smallest potted plant grown in a kitchen window. As today, herbs then were grown mostly for their leaves and seeds, and when the scribes and Pharisees picked leaves from a mint plant or gathered seeds from the dill and cummin plants, they would carefully count out the leaves and seeds, separating out one for God from each ten counted. They gloried in the self-righteousness of subscribing to such minutiae.
But with all their carefulness in such insignificant and often noncompulsory matters, they neglected the weightier provisions of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. They were obsessed with counting leaves and seeds but indifferent to basic ethics.
Jesus borrowed the word weightier from the rabbinical tradition, which had divided the law into light and heavy categories. In their inverted priorities the scribes and Pharisees had reduced such matters as justice and mercy and faithfulness to the light category, and elevated the tithing of garden herbs to the weightier category. In His reference to the truly weightier matters, Jesus paraphrased the words of Micah. Some 700 years earlier that prophet had declared, “[The Lord] has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Mic. 6:8).
The scribes and Pharisees were inequitable, unfair, unjust, unmerciful, brutal, unforgiving, unkind, greedy, and abusive of others. They were everything that is contrary to the weightier provisions of the law. Worst of all, they walked by sight rather than faith, trusting in their own works rather than God’s grace.
Jesus did not denounce the tithing of herbs, which would have been perfectly acceptable if done in sincerity and faith. And because tithing was at that time still a valid requirement under the Old Covenant, He certainly did not reprove tithing in general. “These are the things you should have done,” He said, “without neglecting the others.” In light of the fact that such garden plants had not generally been considered covered under the Mosaic laws of tithing until rabbinical times, it seems likely that by these … things Jesus was referring to tithing in general. In other words, while being faithful to tithe according to scriptural instruction, they should not have neglected the Lord’s much weightier demands.
The tithe, however, was strictly a requirement of the Old Covenant. It is mentioned only six times in the New Testament, three times each in the gospels and in the book of Hebrews. In the gospels it is always used, as here, in regard to its abuse by the scribes and Pharisees (see also Luke 11:42; 18:12). In the book of Hebrews the Mosaic tithe is mentioned only in regard to its use in ancient Israel (Heb. 7:8–9; vv. 5–6). At no time in the New Testament is tithing mentioned as binding on the church or even recommended as the standard for Christian giving. This is easy to understand if one recognizes that tithes were a form of taxation to support the national life of Israel (see the author’s 1 Corinthians [Chicago: Moody, 1984], pp. 454–55). The closest New Testament parallel is the requirement to pay taxes indicated in Romans 13:6–7.
Almost without exception, false religions strongly magnify the insignificant and minimize or entirely ignore the truly spiritual. The worldly is idolized; the spiritual is disregarded.
It is also possible for true believers to become caught up in minutiae. Some Bible students, for instance, claim to have ascertained the meaning of virtually every obscure sign and symbol in Scripture yet give scant attention in their lives to the Bible’s clear and unambiguous moral truths.
Jesus graphically illustrated the scribes’ and Pharisees’ inversion of priorities by saying that they would strain out a gnat and swallow a camel. The gnat and the camel represented the smallest and the largest, respectively, of the ceremonially unclean animals (see Lev. 11:4, 42). Fastidious Pharisees would drink their wine through clenched teeth in order to filter out any small insects that might have gotten into the wine. In their typical reversal of values, those Jewish religious leaders were more concerned about being contaminated by a tiny gnat than by a huge camel. They were painstaking about formal, ceremonial trivialities but were unconcerned about their hypocrisy, dishonesty, cruelty, greed, self-worship, and a host of other serious sins. They substituted outward acts of religion for the essential virtues of the heart.
23–24 The OT law on tithing (Dt 14:22–29) specifies grain, wine, and oil, though Leviticus 27:30 is more comprehensive. Certainly in the first century, there was debate about how far the law of tithing should extend. The consensus was to include greens and garden herbs (v. 23; Str-B, 1:932). Jesus does not condemn scrupulous observance in these things (“without neglecting the former”) but insists that to fuss over them while neglecting the “more important matters of the law” (cf. 22:34–40)—justice, mercy, and pistis (GK 4411; here rightly translated “faithfulness”)—is to strain out a gnat but swallow a camel (v. 24), both unclean creatures.
Several points deserve notice.
- The “weightier” matters are not the “more difficult” or “harder” but the “more central,” “most decisive” (Ridderbos, Coming of the Kingdom, 302) or (as in NIV) “more important” versus “peripheral” or trifling ones (cf. TDNT, 1:554, 558; Kaiser, “Weightier and Lighter Matters,” 184).
- Yet it goes much too far to interpret vv. 23–24 as expanding the love command into the central feature of the law (see comments at 22:34–40 and literature cited there; also Garland, Intention of Matthew 23, 139).
- In essence, what Jesus accuses the teachers of the law and the Pharisees of is a massive distortion of God’s will as revealed in Scripture. At a fundamental level, they fail to focus on the thrust of Scripture, a point made with equal force in the two references to Hosea 6:6 in this gospel (see comments at 9:9–13; 12:1–14).
- The chiastic structure of the “woes” centers on this fourth one, where the basic failure of the Pharisaic teachers is laid bare. Moving out from this center, it becomes clear that where Scripture is interpreted by the Pharisees, there is danger of misappropriation of truth (woes 3 and 5) and of corrupting other people (woes 2 and 6), coupled with blindness to true revelation when it comes supremely in the person of Jesus the Messiah (woes 1 and 7).
- All this presupposes that Jesus holds readers of the OT responsible for discerning its purpose and recognizing its most important emphases (see comments at 22:40). Only those who do this please God and recognize the Messiah (cf. Lk 24:44–46; Jn 5:39–40).
- The current debate over the words “without neglecting the former”—namely, whether they show Jesus or Matthew as a very conservative interpreter of the law, or whether they can possibly come from the historical Jesus (cf. Garland, Intention of Matthew 23, 140 n. 66; Westerholm, Jesus and Scribal Authority, 58–59)—badly misses the point. For neither Jesus nor Matthew do these verses focus on the problem of continuity/discontinuity between the OT and the reign of Jesus Messiah but on the relative importance of material within the OT. Jesus describes what the Pharisees should have done; he is not here questioning how the “former” will relate to the reign he now inaugurates (12:28) or the church he will build (16:19), any more than in vv. 16–22 he discusses what role the temple altar plays under the new covenant.
23:23–24 / The fourth woe relates to the Pharisees’ practice of scrupulously tithing even the vegetables and spices of the garden but failing in the weightier demands of justice, mercy, and integrity. “These last,” said Jesus “you ought to have put in practice, without neglecting the first” (TCNT). According to Deuteronomy 14:22, the Israelites were to “set aside a tenth of all that [their] fields produce each year.” Mint (hēdyosmon) was a garden plant, as was dill (anēthon), and was used for seasoning. Cummin (kyminon, of Phoenician origin) produced tiny fruits (or “seeds”) that were tithed despite their slight value (BAGD, p. 457). Jesus does not oppose their practice of tithing garden spices, but criticizes them for having neglected the essential qualities of justice and fidelity (cf. Mic. 6:2). Their hypocrisy lay in their desire to appear conscientious about even the minute details of religious law while ignoring those central issues that were infinitely more important. They are blind leaders who filter their wine in order to avoid drinking a ceremonially unclean gnat (cf. Lev. 11:41; perhaps the larva of a gnat) yet gulp down a camel (v. 24). There may be a wordplay in Aramaic between “gnat” and “camel” (the words sound very much alike). In any case, it is a typical example of Jesus’ use of hyperbole (cf. 7:3 and 19:24 as well).23:23–24.The fourth woe. The same could be said about Jesus’ fourth accusation, which, like the third, showed how the Jewish leaders had perverted God’s law to allow them to disobey its true intent.
The hypocrites tithed (gave ten percent) of everything, right down to the herbs in their pantry—mint, dill and cummin (see Old Testament laws on tithing in Lev. 27:30; Deut. 14:22–29). As with their vows and zealous evangelism (23:15), this looked quite righteous to the undiscerning observer, so the leaders received much respect.
But their tithing served only as a smoke screen, distracting people from noticing that they had neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness (cf. Deut. 10:12–13; Mic. 6:8). They made it appear that they were paying “full rent,” when in reality they were only keeping up the “newspaper subscription.” The implication is that they were guilty of committing injustice and acting unmercifully at the expense of others and for their own profit.
Jesus did not say the hypocrites were wrong in their tithing. Rather, he said they should have given greater attention to these more important matters of the law while also giving attention to their tithing and other requirements. Compare this with “I desire mercy, not sacrifice” (Hos. 6:6, quoted by Jesus in Matt. 9:13; 12:7).
As in the third woe, Jesus again called the Jewish leaders blind guides. Their self-deception about the various Old Testament laws also deceived the people who followed them, so no one knew how to go about pleasing God.
Jesus’ hyperbole in verse 24 was humorous. His hearers would have chuckled at the picture of the Pharisees straining out a small insect (gnat) while swallowing a huge camel.
In their self-serving greed, the leaders of Israel had perverted the law into a man-made version that allowed them to get away with a show of obedience while avoiding true obedience. And they led others into similar disobedience.
23, 24. Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! because you tithe mint, dill, and cummin, but have neglected the more important requirements of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness.… On the one hand these men scrupulously observed the tithing ordinance of Lev. 27:30–33; Deut. 14:22–29. In fact, as was usual with them, they even overdid it, by giving to the Lord the tenth portion of the small aromatic herbs which they grew in their gardens, and requiring their followers to do likewise. As they saw it, the “sweet-smelling” mint, the well-known dill, and the small, tender seeds of cummin (or cumin), all three of this series being used to flavor food, must by all means be tithed! Now in the law of Moses not a word is said about tithing these. However, if a person had reminded these scribes and company of this fact, they would immediately have answered, “But does not the law definitely demand that ‘all the increase of your seed’ be tithed?” To the mind of a scribe or Pharisee this would have amounted to an unanswerable argument in favor of their position. However, careful examination of the context shows that what the law really meant—at least emphasized—was that, as far as products of the field were concerned, the three “great” crops of the land, namely, grain, wine, and oil, should be tithed. Scribes and Pharisees were always illegitimately over-extending or over-stretching the law. Was not that exactly what they also did with respect to fasting, hand-rinsing, sabbath-observance, etc.?
However, they committed even a far greater sin: their inflexible insistence on tithing mint, dill, and cummin was coupled with neglect of the more important requirements of the law, namely, justice and mercy and faithfulness. They stressed human regulations at the expense of divine ordinances! It is upon this point that all the emphasis is placed here in verses 23, 24.
As to the triad “justice and mercy and faithfulness,” it would be difficult to find a better commentary than the one offered in Mic. 6:8, “He has shown you, O man, what is good; and what does Jehovah require of you, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God?” So interpreted we see immediately that the combination justice and mercy means the exercise of fairness and helpfulness with respect to the neighbor. This so often was the exact opposite of the attitude of the scribe and Pharisee toward the common people of their generation (see on verse 25), and had also been lacking in the Israel of Micah’s day, as is clearly indicated in Mic. 2:2, 9; 3:2, 3. We shall have no trouble therefore in explaining these concepts when we examine them in the light of their specific contexts. In Micah’s day the Lord’s “controversy” was pre-eminently with the leaders: the prophets, priests, and princes. Therefore Micah denounced idolatry and hollow ritualism. So also Christ’s controversy is with the leaders, whose similar hollow ritualism he condemns. There is also this further parallel between Mic. 6:8 and Matt. 23:23, that in both cases not only the duty a man owes to his neighbors is emphasized (for this see also Zech. 7:8–10; Col. 3:12, 13), but in the same breath also his obligation toward God: walking humbly with him, being and remaining faithful or loyal to him. Such faithfulness cannot exist apart from faith in God!
Jesus adds: but these you should have kept, without neglecting the others. This addition has led to conflicting interpretations. As I see it, two extreme positions should be avoided. On the one hand we should not interpret this to mean that, after all, Jesus is here endorsing the tithing of mint, dill, and cummin. If he were saying this, would he not be defeating his very argument? Besides, the parallelism in verse 24 shows that the Lord is subjecting such overly conscientious tithing to scorn and is comparing it to filtering out a gnat but swallowing a camel! On the other hand, it is not necessary, it would appear to me, to draw the conclusion that since these words seem to be out of line with Christ’s doctrine of freedom and with his entire argument against the scribes and Pharisees, he cannot have uttered them; so that, consequently, they must be regarded as a marginal note which, without any justification, was by a legalistic scribe subsequently inserted into the text. What Jesus probably meant was this: “These, that is, God’s ordinances with respect to tithing, you should have observed, without neglecting the weightier matters of the law: justice, mercy, and faithfulness.” As long as the divinely enacted ceremonial ordinances had not been blotted out (Col. 2:14), that is, as long as Jesus had not as yet died on the cross, the law with respect to tithing was still valid. The reference here is to God’s law, as actually found in Lev. 27:30–33 (and a few other places), not to man-made over-extensions of God’s law. Such totally unwarranted misapplications and misuses of the law had, of course, never been justified.
When the question is asked, “What principles does the New Testament contain to guide the believer in the financial contributions toward kingdom causes which he should make, and by gratitude feels impelled to make, the answer would be as follows: a. he should give systematically and proportionately, that is, in proportion to his ability (1 Cor. 16:2); and b. he should give generously and cheerfully (2 Cor. 9:7).
Jesus adds: You blind guides, who strain out the gnat but swallow the camel. This is not an entirely new thought. It is simply another and very impressive way of repeating the same denunciation and stressing the same truth. By tithing mint, dill, and cummin, while ignoring justice, mercy, and faithfulness, these enemies of Christ were indeed straining out a gnat (unclean, Lev. 11:42), while gulping down a camel (also unclean, Lev. 11:4)! It is perhaps unnecessary to add that this is figurative language, the type of style Jesus is using repeatedly (see also 5:13, 29, 30, 39; 7:3–6; 8:22; 12:43–45; 18:8, 9; 21:21; etc.). The meaning is: they were paying no attention to the really important requirements of God’s law but spending all their thought and energy on that which was totally unimportant. No wonder that Jesus prefaces his metaphor by calling these men “blind guides.” To be blind is sad enough; but, while in this condition, to serve as a guide, that is disastrous for all those who allow themselves to be guided by such willfully blind men.