‘Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites.
You pay tithes of mint and dill and cummin,
and have neglected the weightier things of the law:
judgment and mercy and fidelity.
But these you should have done, without neglecting the others.’”
— Matthew 23:23
I tend to hear these words, from the Gospel reading of August 23, as I believe many Catholics do: as a pointed rebuke to those who, like the Pharisees, are ever faithful—and often very visible—in following prescribed prayer rituals and worship, and contributing financially to the Church; but less so in meeting our obligation to take the Gospel out into the world in how we treat others—instead passing judgement, lacking mercy, failing to offer love and care to our hungry, or sick, or suffering neighbor.
That is all clear in this reading. But the last line is often overlooked:
“These you should have done, without neglecting the others.”
A long time ago, back when we were young, a pro-life friend and mentor had asked my brother and me to help with a high school CCD class he was teaching.
I don’t remember what the topic was this one night, but I reflected the above admonition when I quoted a line from Barry McGuire’s 1960s doomsday protest song, “Eve of Destruction”:
“Hate your next-door neighbor, but don’t forget to say grace.”
My point, of course, was to note the hypocrisy of those who—like the Pharisees—follow all the rubrics and requirements of prayer and worship, but do not love their neighbor.
My friend quickly, and correctly, offered a crucial clarification. The truth, he told the students, is that God “wants us to do both.”
Yes, He wants us to love our neighbor as ourself. But He also wants us to love the Lord our God with our whole heart, with our whole soul, and with all our mind. This, Jesus tells us in the same Gospel of Matthew, is “the greatest and first commandment,” love of neighbor being “the second.”
Of course, being all-knowing, all-loving, all-perfect and all-powerful, God does not need our love and worship. We need the humility that comes with giving glory to God, loving God, and understanding that all that we are comes from God. For it is through that humbling of self that we open ourselves to God’s will, strive to live as He intends us to, and thereby accept that transcendent destiny—eternal life in His glory—that His Son won for us on the Cross.
And humbling ourselves lovingly before God also helps us to more easily love our neighbor, as it opens us to seeing God, and God’s love, in every human person. This makes it easier for us to forgive and show mercy to others, as God forgives and shows mercy to us; to make sacrifices for others, as Jesus sacrificed and suffered for us; and, most importantly, to strive to bring others to Christ, so that they too may ask and receive God’s help in living according to His will, and ultimately being with Him in heaven.
So, yes, as Jesus taught the Pharisees, “these”—love, mercy, charity toward neighbor—we all should do; but “without neglecting” the prayer, worship, and sacrifice that are also essential to our practice of the faith.
And all of it should be done to the greater glory of God, without whom nothing—our transient lives on earth, our transcendent eternal destiny—would be possible.
Those are my thoughts when I read this Scriptural passage.
What are yours?