some things matter more than others

Flipping through my Bible this afternoon (actually, using an online Bible search tool, but somehow that just doesn’t sound the same), I came across this passage, which I’m sure I’ve read a thousand times before:

Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former.

— Matthew 23:23 (TNIV)

Some translations have it as the “weightier matters of the law.”

In the Hebrew scriptures, there were 613 commands… a lot to keep track of, if you were Jewish. Rabbis spent countless hours debating which laws were more important than others—which laws were “greater” and which were “lesser.” Which were “heavier” and which were “lighter.” After all, a comprehensive list, sorted by order of importance, might come in handy, should you find yourself in a situation where obeying one law requires you to break another.

What should you do, for example (assuming that you’re an observant Jew living in ancient Israel) if someone’s donkey collapses under a heavy load… on a Sabbath? On the one hand, you would be obeying Exodus 23:5 (not to mention Leviticus 19:18) if you lent a hand. On the other hand, by doing so you would violate Exodus 20:8-11. Dilemma.

How do you decide which law to keep and which to violate? Do you go by whichever passage is longer? Whichever has more verses? (Probably not the best method of deciding if you’re an ancient Jew, since your scroll wouldn’t have had verse numbers…)

Do you choose not to help, because the command about not working on the Sabbath was obviously more important, since it made it into the Ten Commandments, while the precise words “love your neighbor” did not?

You could ask some trusted rabbis, but you might not get the same answer twice. The good news is, pretty much everybody agreed that “love the Lord your God” was the greatest command. The bad news is, that’s where the agreement ended.

Some rabbis thought that “you shall have no other gods” was the next greatest command. Others said is was “keep the Sabbath.” Still others nominated “love your neighbor” for the distinction of “number two command in the Bible.”

Jesus weighs into the debate in Matthew 22:37-39, siding squarely with the “love your neighbor” camp—with a twist, of course. He says that the second greatest command in all of scripture is like the first. In other words, you cannot truly love God unless you love your neighbor. All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commands, Jesus taught.

Well, that’s nothing new. In fact, I think I’ve blogged about it before. Possibly more than once. (Can you say “one trick pony”?) But slightly less well known is Jesus’ rant in the very next chapter. Jesus works himself into a frenzy, directed at the religious establishment. Seven times he pronounces a “woe” upon them—which the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary says is a word “used to express grief, regret, or distress.” Um, that’s putting it mildly, especially when you read the content of Jesus’ seven woes. Not very nice stuff.

But it’s woe #4 that caught my attention today. The Pharisees and teachers of the law measured out even their tiniest spices to make sure they gave the required ten percent—not an ounce less (and presumably, knowing their hearts, not an ounce more). The problem is, at this point they wiped their hands in satisfaction, thinking they’d done their bit to stay in God’s good books.

Jesus accuses them of getting their priorities out of whack—obsessing with the most obscure minutiae of the law while completely forgetting about the “weightier matters.” And what does Jesus say these weightier matters are?




In other words, making sure the poor are taken care of matters more than making sure your prayer shawl is on straight. Or, perhaps, making sure we sing the “right” kind of songs (whatever your preference) in church.

In other words, freely extending God’s mercy to everyone we meet (which, according to Scripture, is a nonnegotiable if we hope to enjoy some of that same mercy for ourselves) is more important than making a list of who has and hasn’t got their theology straight and discriminating accordingly.

In other words, spending a lifetime caring for the poor and extending God’s mercy is more important than spending a lifetime playing religious games.

All of scripture matters to God—and the Pharisees were not wrong to make sure their tithes were in order, according to Jesus. But what they were doing was a lot like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.

Some scholars think that Jesus was expounding on Micah 6:8 in this particular rant (leave it to Jesus to always be interacting with the scriptures, even when he’s ripping into someone):

He has shown all you people what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.

That’s it. And when it comes right down to it, Micah 6:8 and Matthew 23:23 are just different ways of saying this:

Love your neighbor.

End of story.

Fast food continent

Recently, I saw this ad—one of several from the Acton Institute, a conservative think tank that advocates, among other things, the use of free market economics to help fight poverty.

I respect the Acton Institute. I think they have several good ideas about fighting poverty. Some of their other ads advocate things like microloans for the poor and access to global markets for developing countries so they can trade their goods freely.

But in the case of this particular ad, there’s another perspective worth considering. What if 30 grams of fat is not, in fact, good for the world’s poor? What if the Big Mac represents the kind of consumerism that can hurt the poor by damaging their environment?

Consider this example from Matthew Sleeth’s book Serve God, Save the Planet (which I blogged about last month):

To obtain billions of hamburger patties for a few cents each, America’s fast-food restaurants buy much of their meat from Central and South American farmers. These farmers clear-cut forests, often starting a cattle-raising process that can be sustained for only a few short years. The loss of rain forests in South America means that the clouds they once made no longer blow across the Atlantic to drop their water on Africa. As a result, the Sahara grows by thousands of acres a year. What is the bottom line for Africans? More starvation. And the bottom line for Americans? Cheap burgers and growing waistlines.

South American rain forests generate the clouds that deposit rain on African farmlands. As these life-giving forests disappear, children starve.

Incidentally, those working in places like East Africa confirm that the frequency and severity of droughts has increased significantly. Unfortunately, most of the mainstream media is too obsessed with the latest drunken celebrity incarceration story to cover the plight of the rural African farmer.

Meanwhile, these farmers report more and more difficulty as their climate changes for the worse. The Sahara is pushing southward, and the rains that once fell with some measure of predictability are becoming scarce.

In a world where children starve so I can scarf down a $4.00 value meal (one that will probably shorten my life span as well), can we really argue that unbridled consumerism is good in all its forms? Adam Smith, the father of free market economics, envisioned an invisible hand—the idea that a person who is free to pursue their own economic well-being will unwittingly contribute to the common good.

But what happens when consumerism reaches epic proportions? What happens when our appetite for more stuff—including things which, like the Big Mac, have no redeeming value—grows out of control? What happens when we embrace capitalism without restraint, without accountability, and without responsibility for those who are impacted by the choices we make?

Is it possible that we’ve bound the invisible hand? That the connection between self-interest and the common good has been broken by our unrestrained (and unrecognized) greed?

Is it possible that our choice of what and where to eat is really a choice of whether or not we will love our neighbors (including those who live on the other side of the planet)?

It may be that fast food is not only hazardous to our health. It may be that our addiction to fast food is hazardous to Africa’s health.

generosity redefined

More than once, I’ve heard it said that we Americans are a good and generous people. A few years ago, former Secretary of State Colin Powell described the US as “the most generous nation in the world.” Our president has frequently remarked that we are a “generous, kindhearted nation.”

The question is… are we?

Well, yes and no.

According to a recent CNN story, Americans forked over nearly $300 billion to charitable causes last year, including gifts to churches, universities, libraries, etc. That’s $13 billion more than the year before. And it’s more than twice the amount given by the next most generous country.

And that’s just private giving. For every man, woman, and child in this country, the US government provides nearly $24 in aid to developing countries every year. And thanks in no small part to the president’s promise to send an additional $30 billion to Africa over next five years to help fight AIDS, the total amount we give is on its way up.

That’s the good news. And make no mistake, it is good news. It’s good news for the 1.1 million Africans now receiving life-saving treatment for HIV. (Three years ago, only 50,000 Africans had access to such treatment.) It’s good news for the 16 million people who were given malaria nets last year. It’s good news for several hundred thousand families who got microloans to start small businesses to begin lifting themselves out of poverty.

But like almost every story, there is another side…

With per capita income at nearly $38,000, we’re one of the wealthiest countries on the planet. Yet when you measure foreign aid to developing countries as a percent of our wealth, we rank dead last among the rich countries of the world.

True, that’s just government aid, which means it doesn’t take into account the nearly $300 billion Americans gave out of their own pockets last year.

But here’s the thing. As big as $300 billion may sound, it’s barely more than 2 percent of our total wealth. (In a country where something like three-quarters of people identify themselves as Christians, why aren’t more of us giving closer to 10 percent?)

What’s more, for all our charitable giving, only around 2 percent of it goes to the world’s poor. (Which is the about same percent the average Protestant church sets aside for global outreach.)

And when you compare the rate of giving to the increase in our collective wealth, the amount we gave as a percent of income actually decreased slightly last year. From 2005 to 2006, our wealth increased by 6 percent. Meanwhile, our generosity lagged behind, increasing at just 4 percent.

We’re a country that gives 2 percent of our wealth to help others… 2 percent of which goes to the people who need it most. Two percent of two percent. In other words, for every $100 we earn, we give just four cents to help our poorest neighbors around the world.

How does that measure up to the Torah, which commanded the Israelites to set aside a tenth of their harvest every three years for priests, foreigners, orphans, and widows?

How do we reconcile our rate of giving with our allegiance to a messiah who once told a wealthy young man that the path to righteousness required him to sell his possessions and give to the poor?

How will God—who measures generosity according to what we have and not just the amount we give—judge us?

Jesus once sat and watched as people put their offerings into the temple treasury. Of all the offerings he saw that day, the one that caught his attention was that of a poor widow who gave just two small coins.

They were the only coins she had.

In God’s economy, it’s about sacrifice, not size.

May all of us remember this truth before we become too satisfied with the extent of our generosity. We in America have been entrusted with much—which means that much will be demanded of us.

Stamp Out Hunger

Tomorrow (Saturday) is the Stamp Out Hunger Food Drive. 1 in 10 Americans are at risk of hunger, while about 1 in 100 actually go hungry. This may be small compared to places like Sub-Saharan Africa, where 1 in 3 go hungry. But we’re a country that throws away nearly 100 billion pounds of food per year (and that’s just restaurants). We have what it takes to end hunger—both here and abroad. To learn more about tomorrow’s food drive, click here.

Film Faith and Justice :: day 2

Tonight we saw the film Black Gold, which chronicles Tadesse Meskela’s uphill battle to negotiate something approaching a fair price for coffee on behalf of 74,000 Ethiopian farmers who happen to grow some of the world’s finest coffee beans.

This film is powerful. Before you read another word, go to the official website. And make sure you see this movie:

There were two scenes in particular that I won’t soon forget.

The first showed several care-worn Ethiopian farmers gathered around freshly made coffee. (By “freshly made,” I mean the beans were roasted and ground by hand just moments before.)

As one of them poured the coffee, the others prayed. (Ethiopia has a large Christian population.) I was moved by the simple, elemental nature of their prayers.

The asked God to give them food — so they could eat. They asked God to give their children schools — so they could read. And they asked God to raise the wholesale price of coffee — so they could live.

They asked God to raise the price of coffee.

They were praying to the same God that I pray to.

And it hit me: when I make a choice as mundane as the coffee I drink, I can either become part of the answer this farmer’s prayer… or I can stand in the way.

If God hears the cry of the poor (Exodus 22:23, Psalm 69:33) — which means he heard the cry of this farmer — then with each cup of coffee I buy, either I am saying, “Your kingdom come; your will be done,” or I’m telling God he can do something else with his kingdom and his will.

Because coffee is a spiritual issue.

Another scene showed men from the farming co-op gathered in a room to hear the bad news that despite efforts to secure a better price for their coffee, they still had not earned enough profit to build a school for their children.

Then one of the men spoke. He said if there was not enough money to build a school, they should keep working until they earned more. And if there was still not enough, then everyone should give their own money to help build the school.

And then he said, “I will sell my shirt and give the money for the school.”

This from a man who earns pennies doing back-breaking manual labor each day. The women in his community sort the coffee beans by hand… for just 50 cents a day.

This man is willing to sell his shirt — probably his only shirt — so his children can learn to read.

Ah, but I must have that caramel macchiato.

what makes God mad?

Do not mistreat or oppress a foreigner, for you were foreigners in Egypt. Do not take advantage of a widow or an orphan. If you do and they cry out to me, I will certainly hear their cry. My anger will be aroused, and I will kill you with the sword; your wives will become widows and your children fatherless. (Exodus 22:21-24, TNIV)

Hey, I never promised warm fuzzies on this blog.

I’m sure I’ve seen this passage before, but when reading Exodus 22 a few months ago, I stopped in my tracks at verse 24. There aren’t many places in scripture where God threatens to kill his own people, at least not this directly.

That’s not to say there aren’t other things the Hebrew scriptures deemed worthy of death. Just a few verses earlier, God tells his people, “Do not allow a sorceress to live.”

…and, “Anyone who has sexual relations with an animal is to be put to death.”

…and, “Whoever sacrifices to any other god… must be destroyed.”

But what strikes me about these commands, in contrast to Exodus 22:24, is their passivity; God delegates the act of punishment. But when it comes to the one who mistreats the foreigner, the widow, or the orphan, God takes matters into his own hands.

It’s no longer, “Let that person be put to death.” Suddenly it’s, “I will kill you with the sword…”

Years later, Amos (the farmer-turned-prophet) recorded these words from God:

Strike the tops of the pillars so that the thresholds shake. Bring them down on the heads of all the people; those who are left I will kill with the sword. Not one will get away, none will escape. (Amos 9:1, TNIV)

Who is Amos speaking to? To find out, you have to turn back just one chapter:

Hear this, you who trample the needy and do away with the poor of the land, saying, “When will the New Moon be over that we may sell grain, and the Sabbath be ended that we may market wheat?” — skimping on the measure, boosting the price and cheating with dishonest scales, buying the poor with silver and the needy for a pair of sandals, selling even the sweepings with the wheat.

The Lord has sworn by himself, the Pride of Jacob: “I will never forget anything they have done.” (Amos 8:4-7, TNIV)

I think it’s safe to say God cares deeply about how we treat the poorest and the most vulnerable…

Of course, if mistreating the poor makes God this angry, imagine how pleased, how happy he is when we do our part to bring justice, compassion, relief… when we stand with the poor and not against them… when we use the wealth he’s given us to bless others…

According to the scriptures, God’s love far exceeds his anger (Exodus 34:6-8). That’s some pretty good news, especially for those of us who are just beginning to understand our responsibility to the poor.

poaching souls

I heard a guy from Lifewater International use this phrase, and I liked it.

(Lifewater is a group that brings clean water and sanitation to those who don’t have them.)

Anyway, he was talking about the need for holistic ministry when he said, “We’re not just poaching souls.” His point was that we have to meet the needs of the whole person, body and soul… because this life and this world matter immensely to God, not just the life to come…

When it comes to it, I can’t think of many things more “Christian” than giving someone access to clean water. (Matthew 10:42 is worth checking out.)

Speaking of which, today is World Water Day. Consider this…

1.2 billion people (1 in 6) don’t have access to safe water. (Imagine having to drink water that might actually kill you.)

2.6 billion people (2 in 5) don’t have basic sanitation. (Imagine not having any toilet paper or a toilet to flush it down.)

According to some estimates, every $1 spent on safe drinking water and sanitation creates up to $34 in economic development.

In other words, helping the poor is in everyone’s interest.

I’ll drink to that.