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Weightier matters

When there is a failure to maintain the principle of balance, the greatest danger is that the very first principles of right conduct may be neglected, while all attention is bestowed upon matters of little importance which for the moment chance to loom large.

This indifference to essentials and scrupulous whitening of exteriors is such a common failing of humanity that we can gather lessons from almost all parts of history. The essentials do not change. They can be expressed in a few laws, perfectly beautiful, appealing to our intelligence so completely that no man dares to call them in question. They are never disputed, but they are continually obscured and thrust into the background by mutable man - made laws.

The essential duties enumerated by the prophet Micah are substantially the same as those laid down by Christ. The prophet declared that the ideal was "to do justly, to love mercy and to walk humbly with God. Christ declared that the weightier matters of the law were judgment, mercy, faith and the love of God. Justice and judgment here surely have the same meaning. There can be no doubt as to the meaning of mercy. An infidel might be humble, but mere humility is not all that is required. A man cannot walk humbly with his God apart from faith. Conversely, if a man has the true faith and a proper appreciation of the love of God, he will be guided to the true humility. Why is it that these principles, though never disputed, are nearly always neglected in favour of something which seems large in human affairs just for the moment, but which, after the lapse of a century or so, is seen even by men to be of little consequence?

The Pharisees would not have disputed the fundamental principles laid down by Micah. They might have been quite able to point out the faults of their forefathers in neglecting those principles. They were blind to their own faults, however, as men are nearly always. With the deceitfulness of the human heart they were able to satisfy themselves that all their worst actions were due to a zeal for God. It was zeal for the law that made them want to stone the sinful woman; a punctilious regard for the Sabbath that caused them to condemn the works of healing on that holy day; and doubtless after the crucifixion, many pious adversaries of the Lord went home to their families each man "proclaiming his own goodness", and explaining that his apparently severe action was only a righteous zeal for God.

How can we escape from this frightful self deception which makes men become so unbalanced that they put too much emphasis on relatively small duties and neglect the weightier matters of the law? We are all liable to fall into such errors, and the causes axe so different in different generations that unless we maintain a very clear view of principles, the faults of men in the past do not enlighten us as to our own mistakes. We see clearly that there was lack of balance in former days. We are under no misapprehension as to the relative size of ancient gnats and camels. It is the near gnats under the microscope of our present concentration that seem so large, and if once we make a mistake all the instincts of the deceitful human heart tend to exaggerate it, in the effort to build up defenses of our judgment.

The first step we must take if we desire to avoid such evil is to impress the mind with a clear recognition of the possibility that we may have erred. We must try to recognize this as a practical possibility, not merely as an abstraction. Here again the factor of time effects great changes. Even the span of an individual life is enough to enable us to correct our judgments. A man can be far more just and impartial in reviewing his actions of ten years ago than those of yesterday. In bitter controversies of the past there always seemed absolute conviction of right and the most vehement expressions of sincerity, even by those who were working havoc. In some instances the passing of a decade sufficed to effect a complete change of view, and brethren in private conversation have heard some pathetic admissions of mistaken judgment and vain regrets for evil wrought.

There is an explanation of this obtuseness, but an effort to lay bare some of the deceitful labyrinths of the human mind would lead away from the present subject. We may be able to examine the wicked and deceitful heart a little later, but for the moment the subject is the principle of balance in relation to the weighty matters of God's law. In this matter we shall probably find help by taking a distant view rather than by introspection. When we are painfully crawling up a steep hill it may seem the greatest object in all the landscape; but at a distance of a few miles it is perhaps invisible, or only seen as one of many insignificant hillocks at the foot of a great mountain.

In the same way we obtain a truer view of human duties and privileges when we can look at them without the prejudice which comes with personal contact. We can easily imagine that two Pharisees might agree as to the great principles laid down by Micah. They might so fully agree, in fact, that their minds would never be agitated over these essential virtues. Truths admitted by everyone may become dead truths. The mind grows along the line of its activities. That is why men always tend to exaggerate the importance of matters to which they have given much attention or which have been the subject of their discussion. Our two Pharisees might have a lifelong dispute over some matter of ceremonial washing or of keeping separate from others of their nation. In the most natural manner they would exaggerate the importance of these subjects while the essential principles on which they agreed received no attention. In the final result they might do unjustly, hate mercy and walk arrogantly without God, though never for a moment denying that the prophet Micah was right.

Christ's condemnation of the Pharisees was mainly because of their arrogant assumption of righteousness and their merciless treatment of more unfortunate sinners. He continually urged the importance of the essential principles of right conduct rather than the exteriors to which they devoted attention. He told them that in their zeal for little duties they had neglected the weightier matters of the law, judgment, mercy, faith and the love of God. He told them that if they had known the meaning of scriptural injunctions regarding mercy they would not have condemned the guiltless, and he told them -- no doubt it seemed to them a most scandalous statement that the grosser sinners of humanity, harlots and publicans, should go into the Kingdom of God before them.

To his disciples the Lord gave similar instruction. Mat 25 gives more consecutive teaching on this subject than has been generally recognized. The very emphatic lesson concerning positive virtues follows the parable of the talents. What are the real talents? Are they not the opportunities to give to the least of Christ's servants the life-giving bread and water and the protecting garment? In the parable the one who hid the money and brought upon himself the disapproval of his lord is not represented as a waster who had spent his talent in having a good time in service to the flesh. He hid the money because he feared his lord as a hard man who would want to reap where he had not sown. It was only logical that this servant should be condemned out of his own mouth. If his lord was a hard man, expecting to reap where he had not sown, surely he would demand to reap where he had sown. The unprofitable servant apparently hid the talent he had received and then puzzled his brains trying to produce something for which his lord had not asked, but which it was assumed that -- being a hard man –- he would demand. Is not the history of Christendom full of such anomalies? The fruits for which Christ asks have not been rendered, but tremendous efforts have been made to produce fruit where Christ has never sown. It is the worst of all the ill effects of lack of balance, and the danger threatens us all the time.

The picture of the judgment which follows puts all the emphasis on the positives. The righteous are approved for doing good, not merely for abstaining from evil. The rejected are condemned for their neglect of duty, not for evil they have wrought. "Come, ye blessed, because ye have fed the hungry, given drink to the thirsty, visited the sick and clothed the naked with a garment. Depart, ye cursed, because ye have not done these things." The principle is laid down that what we render or fail to render to the least of Christ's servants provides the measure of our attitude toward the Lord himself.

In the final day of judgment we shall not be able to excuse sterility in these essentials by reference to our strenuous labours to produce fruit for which Christ never asked. If any such excuses came to mind we should surely think of the unfaithful servant in the parable and become dumb. We have not a hard master who will demand fruit where he has never planted, who will require a personal rectitude of super refined separation which he never commanded; but we have a just Master who will require the performance of those essential duties that he so patiently explained. If we give bread and water, either natural or spiritual, to servants of Christ who hunger and thirst, we give to the Lord himself. If we neglect our opportunities to give, we neglect Christ. If we sin against the brethren and wound their weak conscience we sin against Christ, and assuredly if we cut off those whom he approves we cut off Christ.

It is strange that some fail to realize even the possibility of sinning in this matter of cutting off brethren who have offended or are supposed to be of unsound views. We have heard earnest members defend what seems to us an extreme in the matter of withdrawals, by saying, "I grieve for this but I dare not imperil my salvation by fellowshipping one who is not sound on this point." As if there were many scriptural reasons for dreading utter condemnation if we fellowship one who is not quite sound in his understanding of duty; but no fear whatever of imperiling our salvation by cutting off and condemning and even traducing those who differ from us in judgment but are still hearty believers in the Gospel of Christ and the magnified and holy scriptures in which that gospel is enshrined. It is difficult to see how such a conception of the will of Christ has arisen. It cannot be from Christ's treatment of his immediate disciples. It cannot be from the letters to the ecclesias which give us much instruction as to ecclesial relationships if only we will receive it. The idea that there is safety in severe judgments should not be gathered from the letters of the apostle Paul, for though he commands disciples to withdraw from those who walk in a disorderly manner, from fornicators, from those who work not at all, and who do not conform to his righteous teaching, he is almost as explicit as the Lord himself in warning us of the danger of condemning ourselves in judging others.

The truth is that we might imperil our salvation either by an extreme toleration or an extreme of separation. We must take the whole counsel of God and apply the lessons to the circumstances of our day as honestly and faithfully as we can. We must not be drawn to extremes in a competitive zeal for purity. We must certainly not allow a feeling of resentment at the repudiation of our judgment to make a difference of judgment the end of all fellowship. We must certainly try to avoid the horrible blight of a kind of party politics, with its astute manoeuvres, its personalities and its unholy alliances for a common offensive. We must be taught of God and try with all our powers, at whatever cost of loss of friends or of personal humiliation, to take the course which Christ would approve so that if we have to go before him this year we shall be able to claim that we have really tried to be faithful stewards. We are weak and erring, with fleshly desires and many evil taints which make us sadly in need of divine mercy; but let us be able to claim that in the administration of his truth we have at least been honest, caring nothing for the counsels of mere men, but trying with all our powers to put the weighty matters of God's law in the right place. In short, let us be able to claim that we have paid attention to the essentials that Christ explained so patiently, instead of hiding away our talent and wasting our energies by hard exactions regarding which he has not spoken.

(PrPr)

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