A Handful of Herbs
by Rev. Daniel P Standlund | November 2, 2017Hi friends, our lectionary has us skipping a great deal of text in Matthew’s Gospel over the next couple weeks. Today, I want to write about a portion of chapter 23 we won’t get to hear on a Sunday. Chapter 23 is Jesus’ long invective against the scribes and Pharisees, replete with lots of “woe to you” statements. There’s one verse in particular, 23:23, I’m interested in:
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have practiced without neglecting the others.
First, some background. Matthew writes his gospel during a time of conflict between his community of Christian Jews and the leaders of Rabbinic Judaism. The Pharisees and scribes are part of that group, and they are deeply concerned with the faithful interpretation of the Torah. With all the “woe to you” phrases in chapter 23, Matthew highlights Jesus’ role as a prophet of Israel calling Israel’s religious leadership to account. Thus, Jesus isn’t an opponent of Israel; he’s a prophetic voice within it. Jesus’ invective against scribes and Pharisees is like a bitter fight between siblings at the dinner table.
Second, and more close to home for me, is the focus on tithing. I wrote last week about Lucy’s and my own practice of tithing, a practice we’ve only just begun at St. Liz—and here is Jesus convicting us with “the weightier matters of the law!” What are our little twice-a-month checks compared to mercy, justice, and faith? Insubstantial, like sprigs of dill blown about.
To tithe is to set one tenth of one’s wealth apart for the Lord’s use: “All tithes of herd and flock, every tenth one that passes under the shepherd’s staff, shall be holy to the Lord” (Lev. 27:32). Tithes went to the Temple: “In the presence of the Lord your God, in the place that he will choose as a dwelling for his name [the Temple], you shall eat the tithe of your grain, your wine, and your oil, as well as the firstlings of your herd and flock, so that you may learn to fear the Lord your God always” (Deut. 14:23).
Two things about this are significant. First, this one tenth number isn’t random. It was common for vassals to pay one tenth of their produce to their monarch as a tribute. For example, when the Israelites ask for a king, the prophet Samuel says it’s a terrible idea, warning them that an Israelite king will do what all kings do: demand a ten percent tribute (1 Sam. 8:15-17). By tithing to God, however, the Israelites are acknowledging God’s kingship: they are tenants tilling the land of the one true King (Lev. 25:23-24).
This is where the mint, dill, and cumin come in. The Deuteronomy commandment about tithing includes grain, wine, oil, and flocks—nothing about herbs in there. The Pharisees and other students of the Torah interpreted this as meaning anything that comes from the ground should be tithed to God. The earth and all its resources belong to God, even down to the little box of herbs you grow on the window sill.
It’s no wonder that Jesus doesn’t actually disagree with the Pharisees about tithing herbs. We must not neglect the weightier matters of the law (mercy, etc.), but neither should we “neglect the others” (mint, etc.). After all, the earth, even the earth in your little window pots, is the Lord’s.
Perhaps that handful of herbs isn’t so insubstantial. Mercy, justice, faith—these are the meat and potatoes, so to speak, the spiritual food on which we live. Our financial offerings are more like the mint, dill, and cumin: they don’t make much of a meal on their own, but they are part of God’s recipe. That handful of herbs brings the meat and potatoes to their fullest flavor.
That’s the second significant piece to this tithing business in the bible: it’s almost always about food! Did you notice anything odd about Deuteronomy 14:23 quoted above? Here it is again: “In the presence of the Lord your God, in the place that he will choose as a dwelling for his name, you shall eat the tithe of your grain, your wine, and your oil, as well as the firstlings of your herd and flock, so that you may learn to fear the Lord your God always.” What we offer to God is returned to us as a feast. We are united by a meal we share with God. Bread and wine become body and blood; individuals become one body at God’s table.
One tenth of a paycheck, a handful of coins, the two-percent your family can manage right now—whatever it is, that handful of herbs can sweeten the world if the hand holding them is God’s.
God’s peace, friends.