Strain a Gnat, Swallow a Camel
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cumin, and 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 23:24-25
This scripture passage is part of a rant Jesus releases in Matthew 23 upon the religious leaders of his day, the scribes and Pharisees. He accuses them of perpetuating ignorance while pretending to be guardians of knowledge. He calls them hypocrites, blind guides, snakes, and a brood of vipers. He says they are full of greed and self-indulgence, hypocrisy and lawlessness. In verse 27, he says, “For you are like whitewashed tombs, which on the outside look beautiful, but inside they are full of the bones of the dead and all kinds of filth.” Is it any wonder they had him killed? Jesus may have been physically non-violent, but he could be a verbal assassin when he felt it was justified.
Jesus knew the leaders of the Temple were selectively applying scriptural principles for their own benefit. The leaders were not just embarrassed by the accusations, some almost certainly feared Jesus might be right! The common people looked to them for guidance in understanding the scriptures most had no access to (and could not read if they did). Instead of receiving the larger picture of how the Bible applied to their daily lives, the people were given a bunch of rules to follow that mostly benefited the leaders. These rules served to perpetuate the Temple institution more than the community it was erected to serve. The rules also served as a means of behavioral control over the people. It is ironic that the same thing continues today in many houses of worship. Certain charismatic religious leaders convince followers to empty their pockets for the “work” of the church – never mind that a significant work of some churches appears to be the glorification of the pastor. I remember a joke about a pastor who was asked how he determined what money in the collection plate was his and what was God’s. The pastor replied, “I take the money given each Sunday and throw it all up to God. God grabs whatever He needs and lets my share fall back to me.”
Jesus said, “You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.” We do the same thing today when we overly focus on a single word or line in scripture and strain out the spirit and the context of the larger work or historical trend. When we focus on minutia, straining gnats, we almost certainly miss the big picture. Father Richard Rohr writes that the lowest level of understanding of scripture is the literal level. In my opinion, we invite the camel when we believe scripture was dictated by God, instead of being inspired by God and written by imperfect, human beings. These words of Jesus stand as a warning to all (myself included) who pretend to have more than a vague sense about the nature of God. God cannot be known as we know other things of the earth. The things we know are of God, but they are not God. We can only observe where God has been. Any attempt to capture or limit God in words is like trying to catch the wind. If someone assures us he or she is serving God for dinner, we can rest assured it is really a camel.
Jesus says we “neglect the weightier matters of the law” like justice, mercy, and faith when we focus on minutia. It is easy to give rules and dole out salvation based on one’s compliance with those rules. The weightier matters of the law require us to change. When Jesus calls the scribes and Pharisees blind, he accuses them of ignorance. They can only focus on minutia because either they do not understand the bigger picture, or they choose not to acknowledge it. Worse, they encourage others to focus on minutia, and so the ignorance perpetuates itself. Wrestling with the totality of scripture is hard and reveals parts of ourselves we prefer to remain hidden. Jesus tells us not to ignore any part of the scripture, but to apply it in a way that includes the difficult and self-incriminating issues of justice, mercy, and faith. Only such an application of religious practice is consistent with the (unwritten) Word of God from which all of life arises.
This is the 28th in a series of Life Notes entitled “What Did Jesus Say?”
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