Jesus taught us to deal with the big stuff first. He said that the weightier matters of the law took precedence. The Pharisees of His day had justified their neglect of such things by making a big deal over how they tithed out of the spice rack. Look at us go, they seemed to say. Jesus didn’t fault them for that practice, but rather faulted them for substituting their very thin slices of obedience for the thick ones. Slice it both ways, Jesus said.
Over the years I have noticed a tendency to try to solve convoluted problems with an appeal to a psychological spice rack. This happens in counseling, and it happens with people trying to work through controversies and big snarls. Suppose a man snuck over to his neighbor’s house in the middle of the night in order to shoot his dog. Suppose further that the dog-owner was a big personality who hardly ever let other people get a word in edgewise, who was an obnoxious bore at dinner parties, and who picked his teeth in an unsightly manner. When the whole story came tumbling out, the tendency I have noticed is that of trying to flatten the whole story so that there can be “faults on both sides.” A theory of moral equivalence takes over, one that is manifestly unjust. “Yes, on the one hand, he shot your dog, which, frankly, he should have left undone. But you have to recognize that sometimes you made him feel awkward with your offers to share a toothpick.”
This is one of the deep tendencies of liberalism — that of flattening everything. In the days of the Cold War, the consumerist manufacture of dumb trinkets in the West was put on a level with the gulags. The same thing happens with crime — somebody shoots somebody in the inner city over a pair of sneakers and we get lectures about the societal “root causes” of crime. Somehow the root causes of crime never seemed to include the criminal. This is ethical analysis of mint, dill and cummin, one which ignores the fact that an anarchist blew the spice store up, killing eleven.
But at the same time we have to remember that Jesus said that such refined analysis was perfectly okay, just so long as you didn’t forget which end of the log was heavier. Suppose I am counseling a man who had a distant father, free with hard criticism, a true miser of praise. The man I am counseling is married, and has a severe problem with porn, which is obviously damaging his marriage significantly. This is the “presenting problem,” the reason I am talking to him in the first place.
The weightier matter of the law here concern the man’s infidelity to his wife, and his mistreatment of her. That has to be front and center, and it needs to stay there. Otherwise we will find ourselves in the midst of liberalism’s victim society, where we assume that a man would only rob liquor stores if he was toilet trained in an insensitive way. At the same time, it would be counseling incompetence to treat the man’s relationship to porn as the only thing that is going on. Deal with the screamers first, but do not neglect the nuances, or the upstream contributing causes.
Ethical subtlety concerning the nuances separated from ethical simplicity concerning the weightier matters is not wisdom. It is the opposite.