The musical “The Phantom of the Opera” tells the story of Christine, a former orphan who is given the opportunity to sing in the Paris Opera. Two men fall in love with Christine. One is Raoul, the opera’s patron and a childhood friend of Christine’s. The other, a masked menace called the Phantom, has long adored Christine and even keeps a life-sized doll resembling Christine in his secret lair beneath the Opera House. Act 2 of “The Phantom of the Opera” begins with a masquerade ball at which the Phantom appears. The Phantom wears a mask to hide his hideously disfigured face. But all of the other guests also wear masks. As they dance, they sing a song called “Masquerade.” Here are some of the lines: “Maquerade! Paper faces on parade. Masquerade! Hide your face so the world will never find you. Masquerade! You can fool any friend who ever knew you.” The masks allow each guest to play a role. They can pretend to be someone they are not. They can hide from others who they truly are. Using the masks, they can “fool any friend who ever knew you.”
In our Sunday morning series “Masquerade” we’ve been exploring how something similar happens in spirituality. In Matt. 23 Jesus walks through 7 woes. Seven times he condemns people who put on spirituality like a mask in order to hide their true nature underneath.
We’ve listened to Jesus describe the major problem with this faith of the frauds. In the first two woes Jesus condemns masquerading faith because of its negative impact on others. In woe #3 we listened as Jesus critiqued the way that some try to keep some of their lives out of the reign of God—doing whatever they want in certain areas of life while pretending that their whole life belongs to God.
In this morning’s text, woe #4, we hear Jesus attack another element of the faith of the frauds: 23 “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 faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others.” (Matt. 23:23 ESV) Jesus targets two things here: the gifts these people were giving to God and the things they were giving up for God. And that’s really a good summary of the spiritual life. Spirituality involves many things, but it clearly involves gifts we give to God and things we give up for God.
First, Jesus targets the gifts we give to God. Jesus’ talks about the scribes and Pharisees tithing mint, dill, and cumin. Let’s talk for a moment about tithing. Tithing involves giving certain things to God.
- Tithing emerges in Genesis 14, when Abraham offers a tithe to Melchizedek. God doesn’t tell Abraham to tithe. Abraham just volunteers to tithe. One author suggests there was something instictive about tithing. As Abraham searches for a gift that would be worthy of God, he develops the idea of a tithe.
- In Genesis 28:8-10 Jacob says he will give God a tithe since God promises to bless him. Here, in the thought of at least one author, is another glimpse suggesting that there is something instinctive about offering a tithe.
- At the end of Leviticus 27, tithing is both assumed and an occasion for God to remind Israel that it should not be avoid. They are to tithe virtually everything, even the best of their flock and produce. Tithing was to be comprehensive.
- The most common perception of tithing is that it is for “clergy.” This comes from Num, 18:21-32 where tithing goes to the Levites. The tithe takes care of those who care for the Temple.
Thus tithing, or given ten percent of things, tapped into something instinctive in humans. It was to be a comprehensive practice. And it supported the temple workers.
The scribes and Pharisees were scrupulous about tithing. They realized how important it was to God. Thus they tithed even small garden herbs like mint, dill, and cummin. The oils present in mint made that herb a useful condiment. The seeds and leaves of dill were widely used for culinary and medicinal purposes. Cummin was used to flavor dishes and is said to have medicinal properties as well. Thus all three herbs were important in the ancient world. And the scribes and Pharisees tithed even these garden herbs. Their devotion to God appeared to be so comprehensive that they gave to God what others would normally neglect.
Imagine that today is God’s birthday and you want to give a gift. You look around and you decide that you’re going to give God the biggest possession you have—your car. So you wrap it up, walk to God’s house, ring the doorbell, the angel Gabrielle opens the door, and you put your gift on the gift table. Of course, you’ve left everything else you have at home. But you’ve brought your biggest gift. Then the Pharisees arrive. They put their presents on the table. Finally, after a massive cake—you didn’t think God would ever blow all those candles out—it’s time for presents. God opens your present: “A car—thank you very much!” God opens the gifts brought by the Pharisees. And it quickly becomes apparent that they didn’t hold anything back. Under their birthday paper are cars, boats, jewelry, iPhones, iPads, clothes, and china. They’ve brought the big stuff. But they’ve even brought the little stuff. God unwraps a toothbrush, a box of Cheerios, a roll of pennies, a package of staples, seven paper clips, and two push pins. The Pharisees have brought everything.
That’s what it appears that the Pharisees and scribes were doing. They went out to their gardens and cut leafs of mint, dill, and cummin. And they even gave those to God. Their giving appeared to be so comprehensive that they gave what others would normally neglect.
The problem, however, was that while they were giving the one gift everyone else had neglected, they had failed to give the one gift God really wanted: “For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others.” While giving to God the one gift normally neglected, they had failed to give the one gift truly desired. They’ve brought the little garden herbs. But they’ve left at home the biggest gift: justice, mercy, and faithfulness.
It would be harder to find three bigger words from the Old Testament than these three. These three words show up about 650 times in the Old Testament. In many ways, these three words are the Old Testament summary of who God is and who God wants us to be. Let’s just listen to some of their occurrences (the words translated “steadfast love” and “kindness” are the same as Jesus’ word “mercy”):
- For the LORD your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great, the mighty, and the awesome God, who is not partial and takes no bribe. 18 He executes justice for the fatherless and the widow, and loves the sojourner, giving him food and clothing. (Deut. 10:17-18 ESV) Justice is God’s concern for orphans, widows, and travelers—for those who have little resources and even less hope.
- The LORD passed before him and proclaimed, “The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, 7 keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin (Ex. 34:6-7 ESV). This text comes at a moment when Moses asks God to show himself. God does and he describes himself with these words. Part of the way God sees himself is as of a God of steadfast love—mercy.
- For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings. (Hos. 6:6 ESV) This is one of the most important lines in the entire Bible. God is not after religious ritual. He’s after lives of steadfast love (mercy).
- He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? (Mic. 6:8) This is perhaps the greatest summary in the Bible of the life God’s called us to. It’s a life of justice and mercy.
- There is one place where all three of the words Jesus uses come together to describe God: For the word of the LORD is upright, and all his work is done in faithfulness. 5He loves righteousness and justice; the earth is full of the steadfast love of the LORD. (Ps. 33:4-5 ESV).
If you want to describe God in three words or less, these are the words: justice, mercy, and faithfulness. If you want to summarize the life God’s called us to lead in three words or less, these are the words: justice, mercy, and faithfulness.
While giving the one gift everyone else had neglected, the Pharisees and scribes had failed to give the one gift God really wanted. And this is particularly disturbing because the very thing they remembered, a tithe, was tied to these three qualities. According to Deut. the Jewish calendar was divided into seven parts. Normal tithes were to be given in years 1, 2, 4, and 5. Year 7 was a Sabbath year. But in years 3 and 6, there was a special tithe. And this special tithe was given as a gift to orphans, widows, and strangers. Twice every 7 years, a special tithe was collected and given to people in need. It was a way of demonstrating justice, mercy, and faithfulness. The Pharisees and scribes were scrupulous about their tithes, but they had forgotten this link between tithing and justice, mercy, and faithfulness. While giving to God the one gift normally neglected, they had failed to give the one gift truly desired.
Our giving to God can appear to be comprehensive because we give what others might normally neglect. But in fact we’ve failed to give God the one gift he desires—a life of justice, mercy, and faithfulness. A priest was coming back to his office one evening in the dark when he was accosted by a robber. The robber pulled a gun on him and demanded, “Your money or your life!” The priest reached inside his coat to get his wallet. But then the robber realized this man was a priest. The robber said, “I see you’re a priest. Never mind, you can go.” The priest was surprised at this show of piety. So, he offered the robber a candy bar that was in his pocket. The robber turned down the gift. He said, “No thank you, Father. I don’t eat candy during Lent.” Our giving to God can appear to be very comprehensive because we give what others might ordinarily neglect. But in fact we’ve failed to give God the one gift he most desires—a life of justice, mercy, and faithfulness.
But the spiritual life isn’t just made of the gifts we give to God. It also consists of the things we give up for God. Thus Jesus presses his attack: 23 “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 faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others. 24You blind guides, straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel! (Matt. 23:23-24 ESV)
Jesus has noticed the way the scribes and the Pharisees drink wine. Wine was a big part of the ancient world. It was consumed when families celebrated circumcision, engagements, or marriage. It was also present at the annual festivals (Passover, Pentecost, Tabernacles). Like our wine, their wine was fermented. But it was often mixed with water or other liquids. The pure wine was stored in large jugs. It would be poured into a mixing bowl where the water or other liquid was added. Then drinking bowls or cups would be filled with the mixture. When the wine was poured, perhaps from the mixing bowl into the cups, it was poured through a metal sieve or a cloth. The sieve or the cloth would strain out contaminates like dirt or insects.
And for the Pharisees and scribes this was very important. Small insects like gnats, mosquitoes, and sand flies were considered unclean. Thus the Pharisees and scribes would very carefully strain their wine because they did not want to swallow even a miniscule insect which could make them unclean. Other’s might easily neglect this, but not the Pharisees and scribes. Their devotion appeared to be so comprehensive that they gave up for God what others would normally neglect.
People saw the Pharisees and scribes scrupulously straining out even a gnat from their wine. “Wow!” they thought. “These guys are so devoted to their dream of being godly they even take the time to get rid of that miniscule bug which could make them unclean.” Their renouncing appeared to be so comprehensive that they gave up for God what others would normally neglect. They wouldn’t allow anything, even a tiny two-winged insect to get in between them and God.
But take a closer look. They aren’t as scrupulous as you think. You’ve heard of the elephant in the room? Jesus points out the camel in the cup. Spiritually speaking, they strain out the gnat, but there’s still an entire camel sitting in their cup! If a gnat was one of the smallest creatures in the ancient world, the camel was one of the largest. Like the gnat, it was also ceremonially unclean (Lev. 11:4). Spiritually speaking, the Pharisees and scribes were so scrupulous that they would give up even the smallest thing for God. But in reality, there was still a camel in their wine cup. There were still major sins and offenses in their lives which needed to be surrendered. Jesus may have even been using an Aramaic pun here: the word for gnat is qalma and the word for camel is galma. The scribes and Pharisees were careful enough to give up the qualma (gnat) but they entirely missed the galma (camel). They were devout enough to pick out even the smallest thing that could make them unclean. But they completely missed the filthy and enormous camel which had just plopped into their cup! While giving up for God what others normally neglected, they had failed to give up what was truly desired.
In other words, many of us have a blind spot. When it comes to our spiritual lives, there’s an elephant in the room. There’s a camel in the cup. There’s some major sin in our lives that ought to be glaringly obvious to us. But we’ve gotten so busy dealing with the minor offenses that we’ve completely lost sight of these big ones.
There have been churches which have given up what others have neglected. They’ve said, “We’re going to give up dancing, we’re going to give up calling the preacher a pastor, we’re going to give up putting any name on the building besides a name we find in Scripture.” They strained out every gnat they could find. But they remained blind to some of the glaring and obvious sins in their midst. They marched in line with the racism of their time. They were slaves to the American Dream like the rest of the culture. They ignored global poverty and injustice. They were prideful, arrogant, and intolerant. They had gotten rid of those pesky little gnats. But there was still this filthy and disgusting camel in their cup.
In fact, every generation of Christian has struggled with this. Dr. Monte Cox, the dean of the college of Bible at Harding University, spoke with me about this on the way back from our staff retreat. He said, “Every Christian generation has had its blind spot. For one generation it was racism. For another it was the environment. For another it was their lust for political power.” He said, “I wonder what the next generation will say was our blind spot?”
We’re really good at finding the gnats that everyone else overlooks and making a big show of renouncing those. But we often have glaring blind spots—major sins that consume our lives yet which we remain unaware of or choose to ignore. We have camels in our cups.
I want to close by drawing our attention to the big picture of this text. Eugene Peterson in his translation The Message puts part of this text this way: Do you have any idea how silly you look, writing a life story that’s wrong from start to finish, nitpicking over commas and semicolons? That, I think, gets at the real heart of this 4th woe. Jesus critiques our tendency to miss the story for the semicolons. For some reason it’s very easy for us spiritual people to get caught up with the semicolons. And we can do such a good job with the semicolons that we look very spiritual and we appear very pious. But while nitpicking over commas and semicolons, we often forget the story. The spiritual life is about so much more than just the semicolons. It’s about a story. It’s about an adventure. It’s about a life devoted to a God who calls us to pursue a plot of justice, mercy, and faithfulness. It’s about the director of our lives who’s given us a script to right every wrong we see in our society—especially for the orphan, the widow, and the stranger; a script to show mercy, kindness and steadfast love to every human being possible; a script to persevere and to be faithful to a purpose and a calling so great it cannot be done unless God is a part of it. The faith of the frauds is content to nitpick the semicolons and get them just right. But the religion of the real pursues the real story, the real adventure.
 John Goldingay, Key Questions about Christian Faith: Old Testament Answers.
 Wood, D. R. W., & Marshall, I. H. (1996). New Bible dictionary (3rd ed.) (466). Leicester, England; Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press.
 Harold A. Buetow, Embrace Your Renewal (Alba House, 2004)
 Myers, A. C. (1987). The Eerdmans Bible dictionary (1058). Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans.
 Elwell, W. A., & Comfort, P. W. (2001). Tyndale Bible dictionary. Tyndale reference library (1303). Wheaton, Ill.: Tyndale House Publishers.
 Elwell, W. A., & Comfort, P. W. (2001). Tyndale Bible dictionary. Tyndale reference library (1303). Wheaton, Ill.: Tyndale House Publishers.
 Easton, M. (1996). Easton’s Bible dictionary. Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc.
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 France, R. T. (1985). Vol. 1: Matthew: An introduction and commentary. Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (332). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.