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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. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.

Matthew 23:23-24

How does one eat an elephant? An elephant is eaten one bite at a time, of course. No doubt, the same is true of swallowing a camel. Years ago I heard the story of the boiled frog. If you place a frog in a pot of boiling water, the frog will simply jump out. If you place a frog in room temperature water and bring it slowly to a boil, the frog will lay in the water, comfortably, until it has been boiled to death. The proverbial slippery slope offers a comfortable path-to-nowhere-good. Before long, in Jesus’ example, we become so consumed and comfortable straining gnats we find we have swallowed a camel.

Biblical references to “the Law” point to the 600+ laws listed in the first 5 books of the Old Testament – the rules for righteous living established by the early Hebrews. The belief was that one must obey the Law – all of it – in order to earn one’s salvation. The “scribes and Pharisees” that Jesus was often so critical of were the religious leaders of the day. They were pious and believed themselves to be a holy cut above the common folks. Modern day equivalents to the scribes and Pharisees may be some of the televangelists and others who believe their grasp on ultimate truth is exclusive. They tell us the Gospel is so clear and the path so easy – all we must do is follow a set of rules they are more than happy to glean for us from the Bible. To me, this is the “camel” that Jesus references – we lose sight of the forest by focusing on the trees; we miss the larger purpose by focusing exclusively on the details.

Jesus called the scribes and the Pharisees “hypocrites” because they attended to the letter of the Law but ignored the spirit of the law. Granted, the spirit of the law is more difficult to discern, requiring much prayer and contemplation. The spirit of the Law is not generally black and white because it can vary from situation to situation. It requires the application of love and perspective, making decisions more challenging. What is a loving act in one arena may be received as cold and heartless in another. In Jesus’ own words, the “weightier matters of the law,” or the spirit of the law, are “justice and mercy and faith.” It is much easier to ignore justice, mercy, and faith and simply follow a set of rules. It is much easier to write a check to a soup kitchen than to actually go and serve the poor. Certainly, soup kitchens need money, but if we think we can fulfill our obligations for justice and mercy by simply writing a check, we have probably swallowed a camel. We miss the point. God’s children need benefactors, certainly, but they also need helping hands. The weightier matters of the Law require service to others that improves their condition, not simply following a set of rules.

Those who follow a blind guide down a slippery slope may end up swallowing a camel.

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Life Worship Notes—January 16, 2104 

“Now Mount Sinai was wrapped in smoke, because the Lord had descended upon it in fire; the smoke went up like the smoke of a kiln, while the whole mountain shook violently. As the blast of the trumpet grew louder and louder, Moses would speak and God would answer him in thunder.” Exodus 19:18-19

Is it any wonder the Israelites feared God? God tells Moses to gather the people at the foot of Mount Sinai, where God will come down in their sight. However, God warns the people not to touch the mountain or try to go up it, for they will be put to death for doing so. When God descends upon Mount Sinai, it is in a thick cloud of smoke with thunder, lightning, and fire. A trumpet blasts so loud it makes the people tremble. The entire mountain shook violently. In the Gulf War of the 1990’s, the United States began its attempts to unseat Saddam Hussain with a bombing campaign described as shock and awe. I imagine God’s appearance to the Israelites as the original shock and awe campaign. Moses spoke to God, and God answered in thunder. It was in this setting that God gave the Ten Commandments, the original laws of the Judeo-Christian tradition.

The Ten Commandments, in their entirety, appear twice in the Old Testament. Their first appearance is in Exodus 20, with a repeat appearance in Deuteronomy. God carves the words onto two stone tablets for the people, and Moses carries the tablets to the camp at the base of the mountain, after having spent forty days with God at the summit. They build an elaborate Ark of the Covenant to house and carry the stone tablets. The six-hundred-plus laws contained in the Old Testament are probably outgrowths of the Ten Commandments, or perhaps guidelines for their application. Even so, many of those laws appear unrelated to any of the commandments. It is not unlike the thousands of laws in our society, and the millions of legal regulations, all emanating from our relatively brief Constitution. The Ten Commandments are among the most widely known of biblical writings. They form the basis for many of our western laws, and appear in many courthouses and other public places. They are recognized and taught in most of the world’s major religions, either in the form given to Moses, or in a similar version. Some are obvious, some are subtle; all are important and form the basis of justice, as we know it today. That is why they are the Ten Commandments, and not the Ten Suggestions. In the coming weeks, I will explore each of the Ten Commandments. Although some appear straightforward, a closer inspection creates room for contemplation and discussion.

Come home to church this Sunday. It is only a suggestion, but it is a good one…

Greg Hildenbrand, Life Music Coordinator

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