The experience of Jesus eating a meal with a Pharisee is described in Luke 11:37-44.
At the end of a day of teaching, a Pharisee invited Jesus to his house to eat. Christ entered the house and reclined at the table. The Pharisee was surprised that Jesus did not wash his hands before the meal for two reasons. First, most foods were eaten with the hands. Second, although not a Mosaic Law, Jewish hierarchy advocated a procedure for hand washing before meals. Knowing what his host was thinking, Jesus admonished him, saying that Pharisees clean the outsides of dishware while they disregard the insides which are full of greed and wickedness. Pharisees, tithe on mint, rue, and garden herbs, but neglect justice and the love of God. Christ admonished the Pharisees to practice justice and love as well as tithing.
The Pharisees were a sect of the Jews that began in response to two events in Israel’s history. First, when the Jews returned to Jerusalem from the Babylonian captivity, some of the laws outlined in the Pentateuch (Torah) seemed out-dated. The Jewish society had changed from the time Moses and the Children of Israel journeyed in the Wilderness. The Pharisees attempted to translate the original intent of the Mosaic laws into religious rules for Judean society in the centuries before Christ. The second event that gave rise to the Pharisees was the Jewish Hasmonean dynasty of the second century B.C. The Hasmoneans declared themselves both king and high priest, a decree and action that contradicted the Laws of Moses. Many Pharisees responded by becoming overzealous for the Law of Moses; they wanted a strict interpretation of the Laws.
The Book of Law required that Jews tithe. Tithing meant that they gave 10% of their money and/or crops to the Lord which usually went to the Temple (Leviticus 27:30). Mint and rue were herbs produced by farmers and other agriculturists for commerce; therefore, Mosaic Law required Jews to tithe on them. Importantly, when Christ spoke to the Pharisee, he did not tell the Pharisee that tithing on mint production was wrong. Just the opposite, Christ reinforced the need for God’s people to tithe. At the same time, Christ instructed the Pharisees that loving God and seeking justice were the greater good.
Mint, the Plant
The mint that grew in the Holy Land was Mentha longifolia, sometimes known as Mentha spicata L., wild mint, and horsemint. The large mint family, Lamiaceae, has 250 genera and 6,700 species; species names are often confused and confusing. Probably, M. longifolia originated in the countries of the Mediterranean Basin; however, South Africa claims it as indigenous. Mint thrives in most soils as long as soils are moist. If mint plants are propagated to secure a specific aroma, it is best to cut a piece of the original root (rhizome) and plant it. Virtually any part of a root will grow into a new plant. When mint is planted for its essential oils, full sun is optimal; however, it will grow in partial shade. Wild mint tolerates strong winds but not maritime exposure; it is not frost tender. In Israel, wild mint is found in Galilee, the central mountains and valleys, and south into the Northern Negev Desert and Aravah Valley.
Symbolism: Happiness, Joyful
The Greek word for mint is hēduŏsmŏn which is derived from hēdista meaning very gladly and kauchaŏmai, which means joy and rejoice. These two Greek words denote happiness and joy. Both words are appropriate for mint which medicinally relieves headaches, aids digestion, and is used to cover unsavory tastes and smells (Plants for a Future, 2012).
Seemingly everyone wants to be happy. The writer of Ecclesiastes penned that he knew of nothing better for a man than to be happy and do good (Ecclesiastes 3:12). In the Old Testament, happiness resulted from many scenarios. Barren women were happy and rejoiced over the birth of healthy children, e.g., Sarah, Rebecca, Hannah. After hearing the wisdom of Solomon, the Queen of Sheba exclaimed that happy were the men and officials of Solomon who heard his wisdom (I Kings 10:8). The wicked Haman was happy that Queen Esther invited him to a banquet with King Ahasuerus (Xerxes) (Esther 5:9). Jonah was happy because a vine grew over his head screening him from the hot sun (Jonah 4:6).
King David associated righteous behavior with gladness, happiness, and joy (Psalm 68:3). When Pharisees tithed on their income to include the relatively unimportant herb mint, they acted rightly. If they lived in strict adherence to the Mosaic laws, the Pharisees could have been happy, joyful people; yet, I could find no place in the Bible where the Pharisees were described as happy or joyful. Is it possible that righteous behavior does not lead to happiness? Was David wrong to associate righteousness with joy? Or was there something wrong about the righteousness of the Pharisees?
William MacDonald (1995) succinctly summarized why Pharisees were not happy and joyful. They were externalists; which means the Pharisees were punctilious about small details of the ceremonial law, e.g., handwashing. At the same time, they neglected the greater commandments to love God and their neighbors (Matthew 22:37-40). They emphasized the subordinate and overlooked the primary laws of God. Happiness and joy cannot come when God or his primary commandments are ignored. Happiness comes from loving God and striving to please him in all things. Joy comes from doing good to others.
Reflection. Christ said, whatever you do to the least man, woman or child, you do to me; and whatever you do not do to the least man, woman, or child you do not do to me (Matthew 25:40, 45). Christ is the “least” man, woman, or child.