The Forest and the Trees (A reflection on Matthew 23.23-26)

The other week in the post on the character strength of Perspective as good spiritual fruit, I brought up the old proverb about losing the forest through the trees. This saying came up again this morning as I was reading the Gospel.

Jesus is in the middle of a diatribe against the “scribes and Pharisees,” two groups of first century Torah scholars. We have to be careful when interpreting these passages, as historically Christians have taken these specific rhetorical complaints against specific people representing a specific subset of first-century Jewish religious life, and turned them into blanket statements about Judaism as a whole. But with that warning in mind, what is Jesus going on about, and what might it tell us today?

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cummin, 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. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel! (Mt 23.23f).

I have often heard this interpreted as a statement of the futility of Torah-keeping as a way of salvation, that the Law blinds people from seeing what’s important. I don’t think this is what Jesus is saying. In fact he says that they should practice both the moral imperatives of justice, mercy, and faith and tithing. I think the point is less that it’s bad to care about the details than it is that it’s easy to get so caught up in the details that we forget that they aren’t ends in themselves but means to an end. 

The image that comes to mind is of preparing Christmas dinner. The point of the feast is to celebrate together as a family, to be together joyfully. If you get so caught up in perfecting the details of the recipes that you spend the entire feast in the kitchen, the individual dishes may turn out great, but you’ll have missed the point of the feast.

As a project coordinator who manages a lot risk-mitigation projects at work, I tend to think of things in terms of strategic planning. A good project works at four interconnected levels: Vision (the overall purpose), Goals (how your purpose will be expressed), Strategies (that efforts you will take to achieve the goals), and Techniques (the specific tasks needed to enact each strategy). A project falls apart when one of these levels is ignored, or, as more often is the case, when the different levels are divorced from one another and stop working together as a system.

In the example of the Christmas dinner, the individual dishes are tasks chosen to enact the strategy of the feast, which supports the goals of celebration and togetherness, that express the vision of having a meaningful Christmas. In the rush of dinner preparations, however, it’s easy to become so focused on the details that you forget why you’re doing it. It’s possible to complete all the tasks and miss out on living out the vision. 

I think Jesus’ criticism of the scribes and Pharisees in today’s Gospel works the same way. The tithing of even these small herbs and seeds is a technique they used to enact the strategy of tithing more generally, which services multiple goals, including developing a proper understanding of one’s relationship to God and wealth and cultivating a sense of community identity, all of which are expressions of the vision of being the People of God. 

Jesus’ complaint doesn’t seem to be that the technique is wrong, but that it’s become divorced from its purpose and has become an end of itself. 

Worse yet, in other attacks on the Pharisees, Jesus suggests that their techniques have come to be in service to other purposes altogether, such as self-aggrandizement or the maintenance of privilege. This sense is reinforced by his second criticism in this passage:

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and of the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. You blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup, so that the outside also may become clean.

And so we need to make sure that the vision — the heart, the “inside of the cup” — is clean. 

Getting back to forests and trees, what I like so much about this proverb is that both the forest and the trees are important: the trees definitely speak to something bigger than themselves, but that something bigger wouldn’t exist without them. And, in fact, the more we learn about forest ecosystems, the more we see how trees don’t exist in isolation, but are part of vast, interconnected webs of life and communication, together with not only members of their own species, but other trees and shrubs, smaller plants, mosses, lichens, fungi, birds and mammals that make the forest a forest. 

If we think of our life of faith like this, whether individually or corporately, a similar web of connections should appear: What arises in my lectio divina should inform my intuitive practices (such as journaling, the inner wisdom circle, Gospel contemplation, and spiritual discernment), which often involve the communion of saints, through the disciplines of prayer. And so on. Or, at the church level, what we do liturgically on a Sunday morning should inform our community life, which should involve service, which will be an outflow of our corporate Scripture-reading, and so on. No one thing defines the life of faith and no one thing is “the one thing needful”, but the life of faith is weakened by reducing the number of both individual elements and the connections between them.

So I guess the point I’m trying to make is, by all means, be like the scribes and the Pharisees: tithe even the dill and cumin if that’s part of your discipline. (Or do you daily devotion. Or participate in Sunday eucharistic worship.) But remember that this discipline serves a greater purpose and is not an end in itself, and is only one small means to an end. Remember that a healthy life of faith is an ecosystem of interconnected practices, a forest filled with all kinds of trees (and mosses and lichens and fungi…).

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