I have a small herb garden: a couple of varieties of thyme, some tarragon, chives, basil, dill, oregano, rose geranium, parsley, lavender, sage, rosemary, and two kinds of mint, regular and chocolate, though the chocolate is gradually disappearing, replaced by the spearmint. I use some of them in cooking, but not often (except for the basil when the tomatoes are on). I like growing herbs and seeing them and smelling them. Usage takes an important but second place.
I let the mint grow as a ground cover. It gives the garden a good scent, helps keep the ground from drying out, and isn’t that difficult to control: every two weeks or so I have to pull it back from the plants it is trying to overcome, and cut it down to about six inches high so it doesn’t block the light. The product of pulling and trimming is two or three bushels of mint, most of which goes into the compost. I don’t have any use for that much mint, nor does anyone else I know.
The other day, trimming the mint, I began to think about Matthew 23:23:
Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For ye pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have omitted the weightier matters of the law, judgment, mercy and faith: these ought ye to have done, and not to leave the other undone.
Luke changes the quotation slightly: “ye tithe mint and rue and all manner of herbs, and pass over judgment and the love of God.” But the message is the same: those he condemns have been rigorous in their interpretation of tithing, even tithing something as insignificant as mint, but they have not been nearly as rigorous in their attention to the heavier, more important parts of the law, justice, mercy, and trust in God. In spite of their claims to righteousness, they are “blind guides” to those who would seek to be righteous.
I remember wondering whether we should tithe the produce of our garden. Years ago we had a large one that went a long way to feeding us during the year. I asked the bishop about tithing it, but he didn’t take me seriously. Looking back, I think he was probably right not to; I may have been showing off. I might even have been pharisaical, proving my righteousness publicly by showing my scruples over even little things like mint or, in those days, tomatoes and broccoli.
Trimming the mint and remembering the verse from Matthew made me wonder how often I am a blind guide to my family, to my friends in church and out, to my students, to my acquaintances. How often do I scruple about essential but lighter things and neglect the weightier matters of justice, mercy, faithfulness, and the love of God? I wish I could say “Seldom,” but I’m not sure. Indeed, I think it is our natural tendency to emphasize our scrupulousness with regard to the light things in order to avoid dealing with our attention to the weightier ones. “Look at me! I pay my tithing exactly–I often pay more than is required. I never watch inappropriate movies or listen to inappropriate music. I abstain from all caffeinated drinks, and never touch alcohol in any form. And I have done not only four generations of genealogy, but six. I dress modestly, attend my meetings regularly, and do my home teaching. Etc., etc.” How could anyone accuse me of unrighteousness when the marks of my righteousness are so obvious? By tithing my mint, I blind myself and try to blind others to my unrighteousness.
We are all familiar with that kind of hypocrisy. We find it easy to condemn in others and fail to see it in ourselves–but tithing my mint isn’t the only way for me to justify my failure to take up the weightier matters that Christ commands. One alternative is to use the fact that I don’t tithe to demonstrate quite vividly that I cannot yet bear the weightier matters: “Look at me! I try as hard as I can, but how can you expect much from me if I cannot even tithe my mint?”
Another is to pooh-pooh mint tithing by congratulating myself for my superior righteousness: “I know that justice and mercy are more important than tithing mint. In fact, I know it so well that I don’t worry about tithing. Look at me! Unlike you self-righteous hypocrites, my concern is with what is important.” I go wrong in two ways when I do that. I forget that I ought “not to leave the other undone.” And, I forget that the weightier matters include faith and the love of God, which preclude my condescension toward and derision of my fellow Saints. Instead, what is weighty is what I judge to be weighty (and, often, the more abstract and far away, the better). Not all blind guides tithe their mint.
I ought to spend more time concerned for justice, mercy, faith, and the love of God in my daily affairs–in the way I treat my colleagues, acquaintances, and family at least as much as in my political dealings. Unfortunately, it seems that a lot of my acts and a lot of what we discuss in our church classes, our private conversations, and on the bloggernacle amounts to a worry about tithing mint. But if my focus is on whether I tithe my mint, the yoke that would allow me to bear the weightier matters slips from my shoulders.