The Expository Files

Straining Out Gnats and Swallowing Camels

Matthew 23:23,24

"Woe to you teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices -- mint, dill and cummin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law -- justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but 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 trap. The Pharisees, on the other hand, seemed to have a more ambitious appetite. Even though they painstakingly avoided swallowing a tiny gnat, they did seem to enjoy stuffing huge, gangly camels into their mouths.

Actually the Pharisees did well to avoid eating gnats as they were unclean (albeit the most minute of the unclean animals). The Pharisees would obey the law to the extent of literally straining their wine or 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, not thinking anything about it. And this disorderly activity Jesus likens to the eating of a camel.

The ungodliness of the Pharisees is also illustrated in reference to their tithing. One tenth of the harvest was to be given to God (usually going to the priests and Levites - Nu 18:20-24; Dt 14:24-29). The Pharisees would go so far as to pay tithes on a mint, dill, and cummin (three tiny garden herbs grown for seasoning and flavoring their food). To pay tithes on these crops was to be scrupulously obedient. For the tithe was scarcely worth the trouble of removing it from the garden. Jesus did not condemn this tithing, but he did condemn leaving undone the more important matters; an omission of which the Pharisees were guilty.

The Pharisees dismissed as needing no attention at all the more important spiritual parts 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 faithfulness (manifesting belief in our lives).

Could it be that we too are guilty of the same legalistic attitude which prompted such a stern Messianic rebuke? Is it possible that in our enlightened spiritual environment we could be replacing more important matters of the Lord's work with the 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, we are judging the worth of others based upon the details of clothing, financial status and social position rather than on the eternal value of their soul? Are we more concerned about community gossip and the standards of other religious groups in judging people than we are of the standard of God? Are we reflecting the justice of God when we become upset over the orderliness of worship but not upset over the lost souls of those who may be disorderly?

When it comes to mercy, we must follow the example of Jesus who often attended to physical needs such as hunger and sickness, but was primarily concerned with man's spiritual needs. To show mercy by helping a needy person with a handout is certainly commendable, but to assist that same person in obtaining a saving knowledge of the Word of God is even more important.

As far as faithfulness is concerned, we all realize the importance of attending worship services and avoiding any public display of ungodliness. But what about when our actions are hidden from the public? How do we treat our spouse and our children in the privacy of our home? What about our thoughts, our true desires? Are we as spiritual inwardly as we appear to be?

The message of Jesus in Matthew 23:23,24 is not that we neglect the details of obedience, but that we also remember the more important matters. Giving perfectionistic attention to the details while neglecting true service to God and our fellow man will only result in our condemnation as one who strains out the gnats and swallows the camel.

By Ed Barnes
From Expository Files 6.11; November 1999