The Social Gospel movement, which arose in America in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries under the inspiration of theological liberalism, downplayed sin and reduced Christianity to feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, and other acts of social justice. There was a justifiable backlash against this movement in the churches and an exodus of people who affirmed the essential truths of the Christian faith. Unfortunately, some theological conservatives were so afraid of falling prey to the Social Gospel that works of charity ranked at the bottom of their priority list, if they were done at all.
Those who neglected acts of social welfare for fear of looking like liberals were guilty of throwing out the baby with the bath water. Though the parallels between this historical example and today’s passage are inexact, Matthew 23:23–24 warns us that it is possible to become focused on one set of God’s demands at the expense of another. The scribes and Pharisees tried to obey God’s law scrupulously; they tithed their herbs even though the Torah did not specifically require the giving of such (Deut. 14:22–23). However, their obedience did not include the weightier, and more difficult, matters of the Law. It is easy to count out a tenth of one’s cumin seeds, but it is much harder to help needy people in a substantial way. Sacrifice of time and leisure might be required to show mercy to the one who is downtrodden. Faithfulness may mean the loss of one’s job or reputation as the result of bearing witness to Christ.
The scribes and Pharisees were not wrong to tithe their smallest things; in fact, they rightly gave God a portion of all they had (Matt. 23:23–24). They erred in following the Law superficially, concerned with its letter, not its spirit, and mistakenly focused on minutiae at the expense of the duties to which tithing, and every other commandment, pointed: “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?” (Micah 6:8). Bishop Hilary of Poitiers, a fourth-century defender of Trinitarian orthodoxy, warns us: “God laughs at the superficial diligence of those who measure cucumbers” (On Matthew 24.7).
John Calvin writes, “The Law is kept only when men are just, and kind, and true, towards each other; for thus they testify that they love and fear God, and give proper and sufficient evidence of sincere piety.” Commitment to justice, mercy, and faithfulness demonstrates commitment to Christ (James 2:14–26). Thus, our care for the poor and oppressed must be as evident as our concern for doctrine. What sacrifices are you making to help the poor and marginalized?
For further study:
The Bible in a year:
For the weekend: