November 5, 2023

Matthew 23:1-23

“Weightier Matters”

As many of you know, Nick and I spent almost three weeks of holidays on Prince Edward Island this past summer. We had a lovely time, and I shared some of the pictures with the Lunch Bunch in September. It was a low-cost holiday too, because we had the opportunity to stay in a Presbyterian manse for free. All I had to do was a little light preaching at a couple of local churches.

That’s the way I described it – light preaching. I chose a few of Jesus’ parables from Matthew and adapted some sermons I’d preached before on uplifting, not-too-heavy topics.

In contrast, I gave the sermon for today the title of “Weightier Matters.” And indeed, this does feel like a time for weightier matters. We are marking Remembrance Day this morning, and remembering those who were killed, or injured, or traumatized in wars past and present.

And unless we have been avoiding the news completely, we are deeply aware of the wars raging in Ukraine and Russia, in Israel and Palestine, and in many other places. We may be feeling somewhat anxious about the latest waves of Covid infections, the concerning trends towards alt-right ideologies in the U.S. and Canada, and the sudden rampages of violence like the one in Maine a few weeks ago.

Besides all of that, many of you are shouldering heavy burdens in your personal lives as well. You’re dealing with the rising cost of living, while your income may not be rising at all. You might be feeling overwhelmed by your responsibilities and getting close to burn-out. You may be worried about the future for your children or grandchildren, or there could be illness or infirmity in your family, adding to the stresses and strains of daily life. You may have challenges at work, or you may be under-employed. You may be struggling with relationships or feeling alone and unloved.

It’s a lot, isn’t it? With the constantly accelerating pace of life in the 21st century, the struggles of the world around us, and the fact that we hear about all these things through media and social media, we are all carrying very heavy loads in these days.

The world of first-century Israel and Palestine was very different from what it is today, and different from our current North-American context too. But the thing people had in common with us is that they also carried heavy burdens. There were conflicts between religions, cultures, and peoples. There was a lot of poverty and need, illness was rampant, and families were struggling. Jesus and his contemporaries lived in an occupied land, and people of faith were waiting and hoping for God to intervene and bring freedom, peace, and hope for their communities.

Much like churches today, the religious leaders of Jesus’ time were trying really hard to be faithful to God and to guide the people in a good way. But the scribes and Pharisees that we hear about in the Gospels often come across as the bad guys who miss the point of God’s message of love and grace, and make life even more difficult for the people.

In today’s passage from Matthew 23, Jesus criticizes the religious leaders very strongly. He says that they “talk the talk,” teaching people all the many rules of the Law of Moses, but that they don’t “walk the walk” by living according to the most important Law of Love.

Jesus suggests that the Pharisees are following God’s laws for the wrong reasons – so that they can look holy, and be seen and praised by others, and have places of honour in social circles. He also argues that the religious leaders are making life very difficult for regular people of faith. They require the people to observe long lists of commandments and laws, and give them grief when they cannot manage to keep them all.

Jesus scolds the leaders strongly, saying “Woe to you” again and again, and exhorting them to humble themselves and become servants to the people rather than arrogant hypocrites.

I have to admit that as I was thinking about this text and working on this sermon, it became clear that much of its message is aimed at people like me. Clergy and other church leaders today should be challenged by Jesus’ words to consider how our lives match up with what we preach and teach.

We should be reminded that ministry is not about becoming well-regarded and important in the eyes of others – that it’s about service. If we are following the Way of Jesus, we won’t often be found in the seats of honour at banquets, because we’ll be spending our time among regular people, helping out and washing feet.

The very last verse of the section suggested in the Revised Common Lectionary was the one that really struck me, partly because it mentions the practice of tithing which I was just preaching about two weeks ago. Verse 23 says this: “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.”

As I mentioned in a recent sermon, the practice of tithing is common in the Hebrew Scriptures. The general principle is that the first tenth of one’s produce should be set aside for the Lord. For example, Deuteronomy requires a tithe on all produce every year except for the Sabbath year. The tithe would often be spent in Jerusalem when a family was participating in one of the great pilgrimage feasts of their faith, and every third and sixth year the tithe was to go to the poor and needy.

The Law specifies tithes on produce, generally food. But there was no tithe required for wild herbs. The general principle seems to be, if you planted it, you tithe on it. So a Pharisee, concerned about making sure the proper tithe was paid, would take each item that they produced, even tiny seeds and herbs like mint, dill, and cumin, and divide out the tenth to give to the temple.

So Jesus is telling the religious leaders that their priorities are mixed up. They are spending time and energy on counting out miniscule portions of herbs, and they are neglecting weightier matters – things that are much more important like justice and mercy and faith.

It makes me think of a congregation I knew that needed to replace the carpet in the sanctuary. Instead of assigning the task to a person or small group to get it done, they all discussed and debated the best choice, even arguing passionately about whether it was acceptable to switch from red to blue carpet.

Other topics that may distract church leadership from more important things include the minute details around how Communion will be served, how exactly to word the motion approving a church rental, or endless discussions about “the way we used to do things” when someone proposes something new.

Jesus is not opposed to tithing. He declares several times that he did not come to abolish the Law, but to fulfill it. But he urges religious people to spend their time, energy, and resources on the most central and important aspects of the Law rather than let their attention be taken up with minutia that do not matter one way or another.

In this verse, he tells us that more important matters – weightier matters – include justice, mercy, and faith. That group of three important things might remind you of the famous verse from Micah 6:8 – What does the Lord requires of you? But to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.

Weightier matters for us to be concerned with should include things like feeding people who are hungry, standing up for people who are oppressed or discriminated against, learning to forgive one another, showing grace instead of holding grudges, and placing our trust and our hope in God who loves us, who is with us, and who has plans for us.

In other sermons from Jesus, and as recently as last Sunday’s Gospel text, he confirms for us what is the greatest pair of commandments in the Law of Moses, and that is the Law of Love. We are called to love God with all our hearts and souls and minds, and we are called to love our neighbours as ourselves.

It seems to me that focusing our attention on that most important pair of commandments is a very weighty matter for church leaders and people to strive for together. In the context of the conflicts of our world, the struggles of our communities and families, and the accelerating pace of life, we must not lay heavy burdens on one another, and especially not rules and expectations that don’t really matter.

Let’s remember what is most important, striving together to love one another and our neighbours as best we can. And let’s not forget that when our loads still seem very heavy, that Jesus walks with us.

Jesus invites us to come to him – in prayer and worship. Jesus invites us to rest in him – receiving his grace and his love just as we are. And Jesus invites us to embrace the Law of Love – to pick up the weightier matters and carry them – knowing that we do not carry them alone. We are shouldering them together, with Jesus bearing the heaviest part.