Straining Out Gnats and Swallowing Camels
Woe to you scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. These you ought to have done, without leaving the others undone. Blind guides, who strain out a gnat and swallow a camel. – Matthew 23:23,24
Given my druthers, I wouldn’t swallow a gnat or a camel, but if forced to choose between the two I’d quickly be heading out the door with my gnat net. The Pharisees of Jesus’ day, on the other hand, seem to have had a more voracious appetite. Even though they painstakingly avoided swallowing a tiny gnat, they did not hesitate stuffing large, long legged and gangly camels into their mouths.
Actually the Pharisees did well to avoid eating gnats, as gnats (although not mentioned specifically) were probably considered unclean under the dietary laws of the Old Testament (see Lev.11:10,20). To be sure, they were among the most minute of the unclean animals. The Pharisees were so precise in observing the details of the law that they literally strained their wine and drinking water through a cloth in order to avoid the possibility of swallowing an unclean insect. But they would then turn around and engage in religious activity that was grossly unlawful, immoral and ungodly, and think nothing about it. This blantant hypocrisy Jesus described as “straining out a gnat and eating a camel.”
The fastidious hypocrisy of the Pharisees is also illustrated in their tithing. According to the Law of Moses, one tenth of the harvest was to be given to God (usually going to the Priests and Levites (Nu.18:20-24; Dt.14:22-29). The Pharisees would go to the extreme of paying tithes on mint, anise (dill), and cummin (fennel) – three tiny garden herbs grown for their fragrance or as seasoning for food. To pay tithes on these crops was to be scrupulously attentive to detail because a tithe of these small plants was scarcely worth the trouble of removing them from the garden.
Understand, however, that Jesus was not condemning their tithe in this instance. What he was condemning was the leaving undone of the more important matters – omissions of which the Pharisees were guilty.
The Pharisees dismissed as needing no attention at all the more important spiritual requirements of the law such as justice (the act of righteously judging our fellow man), mercy (forbearance toward the guilty and compassion for the suffering), and faith (manifesting belief in God through our manner of life).
Lets take the spot light off the Pharisees for a moment now and shine it on ourselves. Could it be that we too are guilty
of the same legalistic attitude which received such a stern rebuke from Jesus? Is it possible that in our enlightened spiritual environment we could be replacing more important matters of the Lord’s work with less important details? It would be the height of religious arrogance to assume that it could not happen to us.
When it comes to justice, for example, are we judging the worth of others based on the details of outward appearance, clothing, social standing or former behavior rather than on the value of their soul and their need for salvation? In John 8:3-12 Jesus encountered a group of these same Pharisees who had taken a woman in the act of adultery. In handling the situation, Jesus did not excuse the woman’s sin of adultery, but insightfully reminded her accusers that they needed to be more concerned about the weightier matter of their own sin before they accused others.
Are we reflecting the justice of God when we place more importance on the order and formality of our worship services than upon the spiritual needs of those who may be acting in what we consider to be adisorderly manner? Acts 20:7-10 tells the story of a young man by the name of Eutycus who, while listening to Paul preach a rather lengthy sermon, went into a deep sleep and fell out of the window. I don’t recall reading anything about Paul becoming upset over the young man who must have obviously been falling asleep during his sermon. (On the other hand, it may have been that Paul, aware of what was about to happen, was content to let the sleepy young man learn his lesson the hard way.) Nonetheless, most of us would have considered falling asleep during worship services to be quite out of order.
The hypocritical justice of the Pharisees consisted, not in the keeping of God’s law, but in the keeping of their traditions. Like the Pharisees, we are sometimes more scrupulous in keeping our traditions and defending our personal preferences than in keeping the New Testament Scriptures. Christians are sometimes more concerned about the church building than the spiritual edification of the people who compose the church. Preachers are sometimes more concerned about collecting books, reading religious journals, writing articles and discussing issues with other preachers than the truly spiritual work of saving souls through simple gospel preaching and teaching. In light of these matters, our form of justice may not look any better in God’s eyes than that of the Pharisees.
When it comes to our expression of mercy, we must follow the example of Jesus who attended to physical needs such as hunger and sickness, etc. but was primarily concerned with man’s spiritual needs (Lk 19:10). To be merciful through our hospitality or by helping a needy person with a helping hand is certainly commendable, but to assist that same person in obtaining a saving knowledge of the Word of God is one of those more important weightier matter.
As far as personal faithfulness is concerned, we all realize the importance of attending worship services. We have even established the profitable traditions of gathering for public worship and Bible study at times other than the first day of the week. But what about our faithfulness when our actions are hidden from the public? How do we treat our spouse and children in the privacy of our own homes? If they could speak frankly, what would our spouse and children say about our attitude and behavior around the house? What about our thoughts? Our hidden desires? Does our personal faithfulness extend to the inner man?
The message of Jesus in Matthew 23:23,24 is not that we neglect the details of Christianity but to make sure we put into practice the more important principles of the Faith. Giving perfectionistic attention to details and traditions, as noble as those traditions may be, while neglecting justice, mercy and faith will result only in our being condemned with those who foolishly strain out gnats and swallow camels.