In Matthew 23:24, Jesus condemned the scribes and Pharisees for majoring in minors. They gave legalistic attention to small things and neglected big things. Jesus pointed out their hypocrisy by using hyperbole, i.e., exaggeration for the sake of effect. His words grab our attention: “Blind guides, who strain out a gnat and swallow a camel!”
Both the gnat and the camel were unclean creatures and were forbidden as food for the Hebrews (Leviticus 11:4,20-23). The gnat would have been among the smallest of creatures on the taboo list, and the camel would have been among the largest.
If we allow our mind to see it, the imagery is vivid. The pious Pharisee would meticu- lously strain his drinking water through a cloth to make sure that he did not accidentally swal- low a gnat. Yet, he would—without thinking much about it—swallow a camel. Jesus is not condemning straining out the gnat, but He is condemning doing so while swallowing a camel.
These shocking words from Jesus are preceded by a classic example of exactly what He had in mind. He talked about those who tithed of common garden-variety herbs and ne- glected justice, mercy, and faith.
The rabbis would have argued that the law required the tith- ing of these herbs, which were of little value (Leviticus 27:30). You can almost see a Phari- see counting each small sprig; can’t you? One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine for me; one for God.
Again, it is not the tithing of these herbs that is condemned; it is the tithing of them at the expense of neglecting the greater things. Who can deny that justice, mercy, and faith are greater than mint, anise, and cummin? There are weightier matters, and they—above all— must never be neglected.
I wonder if we don’t often find ourselves doing the same things these Pharisees did. Are we such sticklers for details that we forget the really important things? Have we lost our sense of priorities in spiritual matters? Have we elevated being right over doing right? Do we give far more attention to externals than internals?
Have we stood for the letter of the law while ignoring the spirit of the law? Do we make ceremony more important than morality? Have we strained out liberalism and swallowed legalism?
And, what about this principle when it comes to political matters? Do we strain out the gnats of one party and swallow the camels of another? Have we abandoned civility, be- cause the other side is so wrong, so corrupt, and that makes it all right? Do we condone in one person or party what we condemn in another? Have we become so partisan that we can no longer be intellectually honest?
Jesus’ words deserve consideration. Watch out for the camels!