Walter Brueggemann: Majoring in Minors

In the midst of the pandemic, Fareed Zakaria, a well known journalist and commentator, has published a short accessible book entitled, Ten Lessons for a Post-Pandemic World. In one of his chapters, Zakaria has this “lesson”: “The world is digital.” This “lesson” leads Zakaria to explore the current technological revolution and the expansive reach of Artificial Intelligence. At the end of his chapter he draws an important conclusion:

The smarter a machine becomes at calculating data and providing answers, the more it forces us to think about what is uniquely human about us, beyond our ability to reason. In fact, intelligent machines might make us prize our human companions even more, for their creativity, whimsy, unpredictability, warmth, and intimacy (p. 121).

Given his recognition that advanced and advancing technology increasingly takes over human functions, Zakaria ends his commentary in this way:

For much of history, humans were praised for many qualities other than their power to calculate — bravery, loyalty, generosity, faith, love. The movement to digital life is broad and fast and real. But perhaps one of its deepest consequences will be to make us cherish the things in us that are most human.

My hunch is that Zakaria did not spend great energy in articulating his inventory of human attributes: bravery, loyalty, generosity, faith, love. But it is an inventory that might occur to many of us.

His list is an invitation to think further about the singular capacity and distinctive responsibilities that belong to our humanness.

It is possible, given the world that technology makes available to us, that we become thoughtless, careless, or indifferent about the distinctively human, and expend our energy and attention on less noble or less appropriate matters.

That is, we might confuse what is urgent for us as human beings and what are more convenient and easier targets of satisfaction that may claim our energy and attention.

Because Zakaria has set up the problem in this way — the distinctively human and everything else — I am drawn to the recital of “woes” in the gospel of Matthew that Jesus articulates against the scribes, Pharisees, and hypocrites, the ones who distort the claims of faith for advantage in the world (Matthew 23:13-36). Specifically my attention turned to verses 23-24 in which Jesus sees that his opponents had focused on lesser matters and neglected the primary claims of faith:

Woe to you scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill and cumin, and neglect 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! (vv. 23-24).

The same distortion is noted in the tradition of cleanness and purity in Matthew 15:1-20 (see Mark 7:1-23). In both Matthew 15 and our text in Matthew 23, Jesus critiques an excessive punctiliousness about relatively minor matters while the big claims of faith are lost. Thus I suggest that the big claims of faith in the gospel are akin to the human qualities noted by Zakaria.

As technology crowds human qualities, so distorted punctiliousness detracts from the big claims of faith.

Given that distraction and distortion by expansive technology, the pastors, teachers, and interpreters of the church have an urgent responsibility to accent the big claims of faith at which Zakaria hints in his chapter.

In these strictures of Jesus, these big claims are justice, mercy, and faith (krisis, eleos, pistis). This triad focuses attention on human interactions that are generative of common well-being. We may notice much the same affirmation of human interaction in the familiar triad of Paul, “faith, hope, and love” (pistis, elpis, agape) (I Corinthians 13:13).

There is no doubt that that this triad of justice, mercy, and faith on the lips of Jesus is derived from Israel’s old covenantal-prophetic tradition. Behind this triad of terms in Matthew 23:23 are the recurring Hebrew terms of the Old Testament, mispat, raham, and emeth. When we consider this triad in the Old Testament, we can see that these terms articulate a familiar trope of faithful living. They are placed in the mouth of God when God renews and restores the Sinai covenant after the episode of the golden calf:

“The Lord, the Lord,
a God merciful and gracious,
slow to anger, and abounding in
steadfast love and faithfulness,
keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation…”
(Exodus 34:6-7).

This particular formulation is reiterated frequently in the Old Testament tradition with variations and differences of accent; see for example Numbers 14:18, Psalm 86:15, 103:8, and Jonah 4:2, and the fine review of the material by Nathan C. Lane, The Compassionate but Punishing God: A Canonical Analysis of Exodus 34:6-7. The terms are reiterated in the extended lamentation of Israel amid the destruction of Jerusalem and the exile:

The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases,
his mercies never come to an end;
they are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness (Lamentations 3:22-23).

Indeed, these verses are nearly the only hope-filled utterance in the Book of Lamentations. The same terms, moreover, are fleshed out more fully in the drama of Hosea 2 wherein God undertakes redress in order to reengage (remarry!) fickle Israel. Now the formula includes five terms:

And I will take you for my wife forever; I will take you for my wife in righteousness and in justice, in steadfast love, and in mercy. I will take you for my wife in faithfulness; and you shall know the Lord (Hosea 2:19-20).

These five terms that resonate with and complement the declaration of Exodus 34:6-7 and the affirmation of Lamentations 3:22-23 constitute the sum and structure of Israel’s covenantal faith, and the intent of YHWH toward Israel and toward all creation.

The terms may be voiced in various patterns; but the substance is unwavering. These five terms as the main claims of faith have to do with covenantal solidarity with covenant partners in the interest and service of a viable life of reliable interaction. The entire legacy of covenantal faith in ancient Israel is fully caught and voiced in the triad of Jesus in his “woe oracle.” This triad of affection, commitment, and solidarity is immensely demanding. It means giving over one’s life for the sake of the other. That is what the God of Sinai has done.

You shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation (Exodus 19:6).

It could not have been foreseen at Sinai that this deep commitment would eventually entail the costliness of the embrace of Hosea 2, but that is the nature of the case. And now Jesus is calling his own contemporaries to that same practice of costly solidarity that is not only inconvenient but risky. In the horizon of Israel’s covenant (that Jesus rearticulates), that is the reality of being human. To be human means to practice costly committed solidarity with others who belong to the creaturely network.

But because such covenantal existence is inconvenient and costly, the tradition is filled with attempts at lesser investment. Thus the priestly tradition in ancient Israel settled for a codification of rules for purity and cleanliness that were less demanding than covenantal solidarity. The utterance of Jesus suggests that his contemporaries, in like manner, had found lesser ways to practice faith by an acute focus on the exactitudes of offerings. (His example is perhaps like using a calculator to figure out exactly what “tip” is required or what social gesture is expected, rather than an act of exuberant of self-giving.)

The citation of “gnat and camel” in verse 24 is a glaring contrast between the big matters of faithful humanness and the miniatures of spiritual commerce. As the old priestly tradition of Israel and the parsimonious contemporaries of Jesus displaced the big claims of faith with minor matters, so now, ala Zakaria, our technological capacity draws energy and appreciation away from the claims of our humanness that depend upon serious investment for sustenance.

In their place have come all-consuming “minor” preoccupations. Covenantal living means to be “all in” for the neighbor and for the common good. But once that “all in” has been traded for calculated management, the claims for the human — bravery, loyalty, generosity, faith, love — all shrivel into a society of parsimony, fear, and tribal meanness.

The “majors” have been neglected; the “minors” take their place.

Not surprisingly, Karl Barth, in his great exposition of Jesus’ humanity, goes further by insisting that to be human is to have a vocation, that is, a call beyond one’s self:

Is the light of the universalistic passages of the Bible, we can say that man in every time and place stands already in the light of life…It simply affirms that no one exists who is not confronted by his vocation (Church Dogmatics : The Doctrine of Reconciliation IV Part 3, Second Half, 491).

Barth goes on to delineate the elemental human vocation in two ways. First, the bottom-line human vocation is “fellowship,” that is, a common shared communal life (539). Second, the task of human vocation is to witness to the God who gives life (575).

In Barth’s extended exposition he finally arrives at the great articulation of our elemental human vocation:

As such he stands under the command to love God and his neighbor, in which there is no question of self-love, even the highest and finest (593).

The purpose of human life, a life of vocation, fellowship, and witness is to attest the truth of God’s solidarity with us, that is, in justice, righteousness, compassion, steadfast love, and faithfulness.

This clear and uncompromising truth is urgent among us now as we, as in every generation, find it possible to fritter away [!] that truth to lesser matters of “mint, dill, and cumin.” Technology may be at best a distraction and distortion from the main tasks of a well-lived life, as the neighbor disappears from our horizon. Or at worst (with Ellul), it may constitute a threat and seduction that causes us to forget what it means to be human in a neighborly way.

Thus we might reflect on two zones where we readily confuse the major claims with lesser, more convenient matters.

First, we might reflect on the presentation of the “human” in TV commercials. It is no doubt a great gift of technology to provide ease for our life in so many ways. If, however, all we had to judge our human life were TV ads, we might readily conclude that the goal of human life is youthfulness, beauty, health, comfort, and easy longevity. Indeed we are daily offered a panoply of drugs, most of which carry ominous threats of side effects. They promise easy and cost-free well-being. This uninterrupted focus on self-care indicates that the claims of faith cannot be easily commercialized or made marketable, so the market must invent other products for offer. The force of TV ads, unless qualified, might be read as our current example of “mint, dill, and cumin,” as though they really mattered, to the neglect of weightier matters for our common life.

Second, it is a temptation in the church across the ideological spectrum to neglect the weighty gospel claims and to settle for the “mint, dill, and cumin” of easier disciplines. Indeed, it might be an urgent wake-up call to the church to reflect, in some sustained specificity, on the “big five” of Hosea 2, and what that might be indicated by them for the specific practice of the church. It is astonishing how even the church community can blink away to lesser matters in order to maintain privilege or advantage or simply the status quo.

It is certain that our technological advances that Zakaria has so well noticed will not keep the church centered on its main claims. That can and will happen only when there is sustained critical study, when there is honest speech, when there are voices from “the outside,” and when there is recognition that the church has a singular peculiar stake in what it is that makes us human. Zakaria’s shrewd notice of “things human” is helpful. But it remains on the surface.

We in the church know better than that. We know that self-giving relationships with all of the neighbors constitute the critical truth of covenantal existence. No amount of technology or product or knowledge can displace the reliability of the neighbor that is definitional for us. The great themes of relationality — justice, righteousness, compassion, steadfast love, faithfulness — have arisen because the sovereign Lord of creation has bound himself/herself to us for every season. From that we are also bound to each other for every season … all of us. No amount of mint, dill, or cumin can substitute for that self-giving binding that is the good truth of our life. It is to that binding that we are called.

*I am glad to borrow this title phrase from M. Eugene Boring, “The Gospel of Matthew,” NIB VIII (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995, 435), in his exposition of Matthew 23:23-24.


Walter Brueggemann

Walter Brueggemann is surely one of the most influential Bible interpreters of our time. He is the author of over one hundred books and numerous scholarly articles. He continues to be a highly sought-after speaker.


Used with permission. Originally posted on Church Anew, a ministry of St. Andrew Lutheran Church in Eden Prairie, MN.

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