“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe … (but) have neglected 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!” Matthew 23:23-24
Too often, I lose sight of what really matters. Usually, it is easier to get lost in the details of an issue than to focus on the bigger picture. The minutia in our life is clear-cut, but the whole-life-view is blurry. We have sayings that capture the sentiment: “He cannot see the forest for the trees,” or “She majors in minors,” or “Perfect is the enemy of good.” Jesus said it even better: “You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.” We immerse ourselves in the small stuff while neglecting the reason for doing the small stuff.
Jesus reserved his harshest name-calling for two groups of people: the scribes and the Pharisees. These two groups were devout and pious about their religion. In their attempt to do everything “right,” they did nothing righteous. In fact, because they did not understand religion’s larger purpose, they led others astray. They made following the religious laws the focus of seeking God, and ignored God’s issues of justice, mercy, and faith. Jesus called these obsessive zealots “hypocrites” and “blind guides.” That was strong language for such “holy” beings. It is little wonder they had Jesus crucified.
How does one eat a camel? Just like one eats an elephant – one bite at a time. We consume our days in endless details, leaving no time or energy for the weightier matters of justice, mercy, and faith and Gulp! We just swallowed a big bite of camel. As time passes, we get used to the taste. Not having to deal with the squishy, impossible-to-solve issues of faithful followership can make the lingering aftertaste of camel fur almost pleasant by comparison. Straining out gnats is so much easier, and at the end of the day, we feel like we accomplished something. Unfortunately, straining gnats does not bring us into relationship with Christ, nor does it move God’s will forward on earth.
Clearly, we cannot accomplish anything worthwhile without paying attention to certain details. We also cannot mistake the details for the end goal, however. If, at the end of the day, everything on our to-do list has been checked off, we should be a step closer to something else of larger importance. Small tasks are like fruit flies – kill one and a hundred more appear. Eventually, we may have to allow a few gnats into our soup in order to focus on our purpose on earth. We are created in the image of God, and we, in partnership with our spiritual brothers and sisters, were created for great things!
Come home to church this Sunday. Better to eat a few gnats than to swallow a camel.