Jesus rebuked the Pharisees saying, “Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye tithe mint and anise and cummin, and have left undone the weightier matters of the law, justice, and mercy, and faith: but these ye ought to have done, and not to have left the other undone” (Matthew 23:23, ASV).
With the “weightier matters” of justice, mercy and faith, Jesus lays out some guiding principles for his followers. While it might be nice if the Scriptures laid out a specific response to every single thing that might ever happen in the course of a lifetime, they don’t. Often we’re left to discern for ourselves what course of action we ought to pursue when the Scriptures don’t specifically address the situation in which we find ourselves. Principles act as beacons to guide us toward the appropriate action, even if they don’t always reveal a specific path.
For instance, in expressing the principles laid out in the story of the Good Samaritan, we stop to assist an injured person and realize that he needs emergency care immediately, and there is no way to call an ambulance. We load the injured person in our car and rush to the hospital. What do we do about the posted speed limit? The principle behind speed limits is to save lives. But to save this life, we must exceed the limit. If a police officer comes up with the lights flashing, once he realizes a life is on the line, does he pull us over to ticket us? Or, does he drive up ahead to clear the way? If a ticket is later issued for speeding, would a judge even uphold it? The principle – saving life – is honored generally in one way (obeying the speed limit), but may be honored by doing the opposite under special circumstances.
In the Nadab and Abihu affair (Leviticus 10; Numbers 3:4; Numbers 26:61) the sons of Aaron violated God’s law by offering “strange fire” of a type, or from a source, God had not commanded, and they died. Later, as the story continues, Aaron and his other sons violate God’s law in regard to the offering which the priests were to eat. Moses, at first is angered when he learns the offering had not been eaten, until Aaron responds that they had not eaten it in order to honor God. Moses accepted the reasoning and was satisfied, indicating God’s approval as well. Similar to our speed limit illustration, a specific ruling regarding the disposition of the left-over offering was overturned in keeping the principle of honoring God.
We are called upon to sing in our assemblies before God, but due to a personal tragedy, it might be better if we remained silent if the congregation is singing, “Sing and Be Happy”, when there is nothing but a funeral dirge in our heart. The principle to act from the heart may better call for silence in the presence of some songs under some personal circumstances.
Jesus held his critics responsible for making the proper inference regarding principles in regard to his disciples’ actions in Matthew 12:1-8, citing Hosea 6:6: “For I desire goodness, and not sacrifice; and the knowledge of God more than burnt-offerings.” The principle applied over the critics’ objections, and if they had understood the law and the prophets, they would have known this.
Lest the wrong impression be given, Jesus affirmed the Pharisees’ actions regarding the tithing of spices “but these ye ought to have done,” Jesus’ concern was not what they did, but what they were leaving undone, the greater principles of justice, mercy and faith.