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In Matthew 23:23 Jesus places justice, mercy, tithing, and faith (πίστις) all within the category of the law (νόμος). Of these four I am specifically asking why Jesus included πίστις as a matter of the νόμος? This seems contradictory.

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. These you ought to have done, without leaving the others undone.

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    This seems contradictory with what? Could you specify, in your question, how or with what Jesus's statement seems contradictory
    – Austin
    Nov 20 at 3:45
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    @Austin a common teaching is that faith is somehow opposed to or antithetical to the law. If that is true then how can it be said (by Jesus) that faith is a matter of the law?
    – Derek
    Nov 20 at 4:07
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    Thanks, do you have a specific scripture in mind that you think contradicts Matthew 23:23 otherwise this question looks like its merely opinion-based as there is nothing inherently contradictory about law and faith especially if the law requires you to have faith. For example, you must love the Lord your God, implies that you must have believe and have faith in the LORD your God. Providing a specific scripture you think contradicts this would help focus answers to this question.
    – Austin
    Nov 20 at 5:58
  • Can you say even which English Bible you're using? Either way, how is it more reasonable to read justice, mercy or faith as 'matters of the law' than to suggest more simply that that wasn't the best translation, and 'law' might at least well, and likely better, have been rendered 'lore'? Nov 20 at 20:56
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    The 'weightier matters' to which Jesus refers are 1. law 2. mercy 3. judgment and 4. faith. You are presuming that 'law' is a heading under with 2 to 4 reside. I believe that are incorrect to do so.
    – Nigel J
    Nov 20 at 23:28

7 Answers 7

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Although the Greek text says "law" the Hebrew word that Jesus would have used here no doubt was Torah, which covers both law and teaching. To quote the Jewish Encyclopedia article:

The Torah receives its title from its contents, the name itself connoting "doctrine." The Hellenistic Jews, however, translated it by νόμος = "law", whence came the term "law-book"; this gave rise to the erroneous impression that the Jewish religion is purely nomistic, so that it is still frequently designated as the religion of law. In reality, however, the Torah contains teachings as well as laws, even the latter being given in ethical form and contained in historical narratives of an ethical character.

In Jesus' days the rabbis were engaged in debates about how the biblical laws were to be applied. Tithing was not a simple matter. As the My Jewish Learning website explains: "The rabbis developed an elaborate system of tithing produce, mostly to provide livelihood for priests and Levites." There is, in fact, no specific commandment to tithe mint and rue, so this statement by Jesus is a jibe at those who make sure to tithe relatively worthless crops, while ignoring the more important teachings such as loving God with all one's heart (Deuteronomy 6:5) and one's neighbor as oneself. (Leviticus 19:18) Jesus follows this with the even more stinging rebuke:

Blind guides, who strain out the gnat and swallow the camel!

Thus the answer to the OP is that Jesus was referring to the Law in the sense of overall Jewish religious instruction, in which "justice and mercy and faith" were indeed the weightier matters compared to Pharisaic discussions about the complexities of proper tithing.

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  • How are we to understand that tithing was an "overall Jewish instruction" when the website you provided lists different tithes (ma’aser) as all coming from the Mosaic law (Lev, Num, Deut)? How are you separating "teachings" from "law"? Tithing 1/10th of mint and rue, while not explicitly commanded, is still within the Mosaic definition of 1/10th of produce.
    – Derek
    Nov 20 at 2:43
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    it's not clear that Jesus would have been using Hebrew here, rather than e.g. Aramaic (as he clearly does on the cross). This doesn't affect the substance of the answer though, as Aramaic Oraitha has a pretty much identical sense to the Hebrew Torah
    – Tristan
    Nov 20 at 10:58
  • I agree... The point is that the Greek word "law" is more narrow than the either the Hebrew or the Aramaic. Nov 20 at 14:24
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    @Derek.. The Torah as 'Teaching' includes tithing laws, just as ethics is a larger category than tax law. Jesus criticized this group of Pharisees for giving too much weight to relatively small points (the gnats) and not enough weight to the ethical teachings (the camel) of the Torah. Mint and rue grow like weeds and have little value but loving God and one's neighbor are priceless. Nov 20 at 14:45
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Regarding the Greek for 'faith' used in Matthew 23:23, I noted this comment in the Study Bible below, which puts the matter in a different light.

"faith, or, faithfulness, as in Rom. 3.3" The Companion Bible, page 1362, Zondervan, reprinted Bullinger 1974

If, in those two scripture verses, 'faith' is understood to be 'faithfulness' then what Jesus said to the scribes and Pharisees was exposing them as being unfaithful with regard to the Law. They meticulously showed faith in the requirements of the Law as to tithing, but were unfaithful as to its requirements regarding judgment and mercy.

This idea also fits in well with Romans 3:3 which is then understood as the unbelief of some not making the faithfulness of God invalid. Their unbelief was unfaithfulness. God's faithfulness was untouched by their lack of faith. Otherwise, if the translation is taken to be, "Shall their unbelief make the faith of God invalid?" then the idea is that God has faith in the same way as humans have faith; giving rise to the unthinkable notion that God might possibly lapse into lack of faith.

This would mean, then, the Jesus was not saying faith was a matter of the Law, but that faithfulness to the Law required consistency in carrying out all of the Law, not majoring on details like tithing on herbs while giving scant regard to the Law's requirement regarding justice and mercy.

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The law requires:

Exodus 20:2-3 KJV

2 I [am] the LORD thy God, which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. 3 Thou shalt have no other gods before me.

Deuteronomy 6:4-5 KJV

4 Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God [is] one LORD: 5 And thou shalt love the LORD thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might.

These commandments require us to put God first in our lives. Doing that inherently requires faith, for the same reason brought to light in Hebrews 11:6:

But without faith [it is] impossible to please [him]: for he that cometh to God must believe that he is, and [that] he is a rewarder of them that diligently seek him.

We cannot make the Lord our supreme God without believing He exists, by faith.

Furthermore, making God supreme requires trust and reliance on Him, which are aspects of faith. Jesus says:

Matthew 6:24 KJV

No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon.

God cannot be our supreme God if we are serving money (as the Pharisees were! - Matthew 23:14; cf Luke 16:14), or treating getting what we need to survive as our first priority. God's law requires that His service be our first priority! But, as animals with a survival instinct, we cannot put God first in our lives unless we also believe Jesus's promises that

Matthew 6:33 KJV

[S]eek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you.

and

Matthew 7:7-8, 11b KJV

7 Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you: 8 For every one that asketh receiveth; and he that seeketh findeth; and to him that knocketh it shall be opened. ... 11 [H]ow much more shall your Father which is in heaven give good things to them that ask him?

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  • You should have added a few OT verses by searching for keywords "faith/trust God" or just "faith". Deut 32:20, 1Sam 26:23 The LORD rewards every man for his righteousness and his faithfulness (faith pistis) Hab 2:4 the righteous shall live by his faith.
    – Michael16
    Nov 22 at 13:54
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The 'weightier matters' to which Jesus refers are 1. law 2. mercy 3. judgment and 4. faith. You are presuming that 'law' is a heading under which 2 to 4 reside. I believe that you are incorrect to do so.

του νομου την κρισιν και τον ελεον και την πιστιν [TR]

the law the judgment and the mercy and the faith [literal]

By concentrating on formal rituals and outward observance, the Pharisees totally neglected law, judgment, mercy and faith, all four.

Faith is not defined by law. Faith is nothing to do with law. Paul teaches that :

And the law is not of faith: but, The man that doeth them shall live in them. [Galatians 3:12]

Law does not require faith. Law requires works. The man that does the commandments of law shall live in those commandments.

But the man of faith is 'dead to the law by the body of Christ', as saith the apostle.

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    Note, however, that του νομου is genitive while την κρισιν και τον ελεον και την πιστιν are all accusative. I don't think it's correct to say that "the law" is parallel with the other three. A literal translation of the whole clause would be "you passed by the law's heavier things the judgment and the mercy and the faith." You could maybe argue that the list is 1. the weightier matters of the law 2. judgment 3. mercy and 4. faith. (Although I'd argue that the placement of και points to a three-item list rather than four.)
    – DLosc
    Nov 21 at 20:03
  • @DLosc Much appreciated. I take your point, Thank you.
    – Nigel J
    Nov 21 at 22:05
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"Law" as used in the NT is often (not always) is an abbreviation for "Law and prophets" meaning what we now call the OT. Such is definitely the case in Matt 23:23. For other examples, see John 10:34, 12:34, 15:25, 1 Cor 14:21.

Understood this way, "Justice Mercy and faithfulness" is a frequent them of the Law and prophets (Ie, OT). For example, we often see these three elements of "Justice Mercy and faithfulness" -

  • 1 Sam 15:22 - But Samuel declared: “Does the LORD delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as much as in obedience to His voice? Behold, obedience is better than sacrifice, and attentiveness is better than the fat of rams.
  • Ps 40:6-8 - Sacrifice and offering You did not desire, but my ears You have opened. Burnt offerings and sin offerings You did not require. Then I said, “Here I am, I have come— it is written about me in the scroll: I delight to do Your will, O my God; Your law is within my heart.”
  • Ps 51:16, 17 - For You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it; You take no pleasure in burnt offerings. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and a contrite heart, O God, You will not despise.
  • Prov 21:3 - To do righteousness and justice is more desirable to the LORD than sacrifice.
  • Isa 1:11-17 - “What good to Me is your multitude of sacrifices?” says the LORD. “I am full from the burnt offerings of rams and the fat of well-fed cattle; I take no delight in the blood of bulls and lambs and goats. When you come to appear before Me, who has required this of you— this trampling of My courts? Bring your worthless offerings no more; your incense is detestable to Me— your New Moons, Sabbaths, and convocations. I cannot endure iniquity in a solemn assembly. I hate your New Moons and your appointed feasts. They have become a burden to Me; I am weary of bearing them. When you spread out your hands in prayer, I will hide My eyes from you; even though you multiply your prayers, I will not listen. Your hands are covered with blood. Wash and cleanse yourselves. Remove your evil deeds from My sight. Stop doing evil! Learn to do right; seek justice and correct the oppressor. Defend the fatherless and plead the case of the widow.”
  • Jer 7:3-6, 20 - Thus says the LORD of Hosts, the God of Israel: Correct your ways and deeds, and I will let you live in this place. 4Do not trust in deceptive words, chanting: ‘This is the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD.’ For if you really correct your ways and deeds, if you act justly toward one another, if you no longer oppress the foreigner and the fatherless and the widow, and if you no longer shed innocent blood in this place or follow other gods to your own harm, ... Therefore this is what the Lord GOD says: Behold, My anger and My fury will be poured out on this place, on man and beast, on the trees of the field and the produce of the land, and it will burn and not be extinguished.
  • Hos 6:6 - For I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.
  • Micah 6:6-8 - With what shall I come before the LORD when I bow before the God on high? Should I come to Him with burnt offerings, with year-old calves? Would the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousand rivers of oil? Shall I present my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? He has shown you, O man, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you but to act justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God?
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    Just a little added color here.... the Old Testament as a whole is usually called the Tannach by Jews. This is an acronym for Torah, Nevi'im and Ketuvim, meaning Law, prophets and writings. (Ch and K refer to the same Hebrew letter). Within the NT references to the OT can vary. The Law can mean just the Torah, or the whole book. Sometimes it is given as the law and the prophets Act 13:15, sometimes The Law, the Prophets and the Psalms Lk 24:44. Here Psalms by synecdoche means all the other writings such as the historical books, Ezr, Neh, Song and Proverbs (and maybe some others I forgot.)
    – Fraser Orr
    Nov 21 at 0:19
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The Lord came not to abolish Law but to fulfill it (Matthew 5:17), which means to drive it to the perfection, Himself featuring as the Perfecter of the Law. But the same perfecting in Pauline language is termed also "abolition" the "end" of the Law (Romans 10:4).

But the contradiction between Paul and the Lord is only apparent and terminological, while essentially they both speak of the same ontological occurrence. It is the same, to use this analogy, if at a table the feasters are feasting with a grape juice (cf. Law) in expectation of wine (cf. the Advent of the Lord), now, drinking the grape juice is necessary for the feast to go on with a hope that the grape juice will be surpassed by wine, which hope hinges upon continuous tasting of the grape juice that gives a pre-smack of the wine. When the wine comes, one can say both "Wine has fulfilled the grape-juice drinking" (the Lord Jesus Christ), or "Wine has abolished the grape-juice drinking" (the Apostle Paul), which has the very same semantics!

Now, "faith" is the part of the fulfilled/abolished Law, for now not the precepts of Law should be followed but faith working through the grace of love (Galatians 5:6), which is the realm of the mentioned fulfilled/abolished Law.

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Jesus was referring to Mic. 6:8.

He hath shewed thee, O man, what is good; and what doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God? (KJV)

At Matt. 23:23 faith is accomplished by and through trust and fidelity. It is the meaning at Strong's Gr. 4102 , definition 2, of keeping the faith, and trusting in YHWH. The first commandment, Ex. 20:3,

`Thou hast no other Gods before Me. (YLT)

The scribes and Pharisees were twisting the words of God, the laws by adding to and inventing new commandments to lay upon the people (Matt. 15:3-9). They were therefore not believing and trusting to keep God's word, but stepping around Him and placing themselves above Him. Who were they honoring, God or themselves? Where was their faith placed, in God or in themselves?

Faith is conviction or knowledge of the truth of someone or something. You cannot have faith in God without knowing His word. No one can have trust in another without learning of Him. So, as the scribes and Pharisees were not abiding by His word, they were not walking with Him, then they were not doing what would bring faith to completion. It is expressed as love in Luke's gospel.

`But wo to you, the Pharisees, because ye tithe the mint, and the rue, and every herb, and ye pass by the judgment, and the love of God; these things it behoveth to do, and those not to be neglecting. (Luke 11:42, YLT)

Because the love of God is a doing thing by keeping His commandments because of our belief and faith in Him. If we do not do the things He has commanded then how can we or anyone say they have faith in Him. Luke 6:46, and John 14:15

And why call ye me, Lord, Lord, and do not the things which I say? (KJV)

If ye love me, keep my commandments. (KJV)

The scribes and Pharisees did not trust in God's word, and were not walking with Him. They were not keeping the faith.

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    But how is faith a matter of the law (like tithing)? I'm not sure how your response answered this.
    – Derek
    Nov 20 at 0:16
  • Jesus did not accuse these particular Pharisees of not trusting in God's word. He accused them of getting God's priorities wrong... focusing on minor problems instead of the important ethical issues of the Law (Torah). Nov 20 at 2:10
  • @Derek - the broke the 1st commandment by putting themselves above God, trusting in themselves instead of in God's word.
    – Gina
    Nov 20 at 2:14
  • @DanFefferman, certainly they were magnifying minor issues, but they were ignoring the weightier commandments for mercy and justice. They did so by altering the rules under their oral traditions to avoid what the law required them to do as in avoiding the care of their parents (Mark 7:9-12).
    – Gina
    Nov 20 at 2:20

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