Analogies & Parables in Matthew: 48. Gnats and Camels
Mt 23:24 You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.
The further we go through this last week of Jesus’ ministry in Jerusalem before his death, the more intense and more pointed his challenges become. So much of the time we will speak graciously and seeking to avoid offence, but Jesus has little time left to speak into the heart of this nation. The way he brings these challenges is designed to raise the spiritual temperature so that the truth thrown in their faces will raise the ire of the authorities so that eventually, and within a very short time, they will come to boiling point and act against him and arrest him and falsely try him and have him crucified, and thus the Lamb of God will be sacrificed.
Jesus now speaks to the gathered crowd – and it would have grown bigger and bigger hearing that he was there – and speaks quite openly about the teachers of the Law and the Pharisees who maintained they were the guardians of the Law. Observe: “Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples: “The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. So you must obey them and do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach. They tie up heavy loads and put them on men’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them.” (23:1-4) Obey the teaching, is what he says, but not them themselves, for they don’t do what they say and they just make life more difficult for you and do nothing to help you. Could that be an indictment of us? I hope not.
He goes on to speak against the way they act and culminates in using the language and teaching he has conveyed in the recent parables and analogies: “The greatest among you will be your servant. For whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.” (v.11,12) but then he turns on these teachers of the law and we have a sevenfold series of ‘Woe’s (v.13,15,16,23,25,27,27) against them, interspersed with such denunciations as, “You hypocrites” (v.13,15,23,25,27,29), “You blind fools” (v.17), “You blind men” (v.19), “You blind guides” (v.24), “Blind Pharisees” (v.26), and finally, “You snakes! You brood of vipers!” (v.33) It is devastating!
So, it is in the context of all of this that we find our strange little analogy: “You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.” (v.24) The Message version, as always trying to put it in understandable but picturesque language, has it, “Do you have any idea how silly you look, writing a life story that’s wrong from start to finish, nitpicking over commas and semicolons?” We might put it, “In all your efforts to rationalise and apply the Law you end up taking out all the minor unclean issues and yet still accept the bigger unclean issues.” The strict Pharisee would carefully strain his drinking water through a cloth to be sure he did not swallow a gnat, for instance, the smallest of unclean animals but, without realizing it, was accepting or tolerating much bigger unclean creatures. ‘Creatures’ in this case meaning unacceptable behaviour.
Jesus has in fact just explained this pithy little analogy: “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.” (v.23) There they were being so careful to even separate off and give a tenth of the herbs they used (was God really concerned with that????) to ensure they tithed on everything, but in the meanwhile they cared little for justice, mercy and faithfulness.
Mark records it more blatantly in an earlier incident: “And he said to them: “You have a fine way of setting aside the commands of God in order to observe your own traditions! For Moses said, `Honor your father and your mother,’ and, `Anyone who curses his father or mother must be put to death.’ But you say that if a man says to his father or mother: `Whatever help you might otherwise have received from me is Corban’ (that is, a gift devoted to God), then you no longer let him do anything for his father or mother.” (Mk 7:9-12) Appearing spiritual by giving to God meant they no longer were faithful and caring towards their parents.
Now I believe the application of this can be devastating for the Christian community as I have watched it for over forty years. For instance, there are young people who, coming to Christ, in their newfound zeal to serve the Lord, opt out of all family activities and responsibilities and without realizing it portray a terrible witness to their unbelieving parents. On the other hand, I have known ‘good Christian’ parents whose lives are so filled with ‘meetings’ that they were rarely there for their families (this is especially true of leaders) and so their apparent spirituality was being used as an excuse for poor parenting. Good parenting should go far beyond setting rules, it should include being there for the children when they need a sense of care and security.
A balance needs to be made. In many ways we inadvertently abuse the Spirit of Christ by trying to be spiritual, by trying to be zealous – just like the Pharisees – while missing major issues in our lives. I believe the priority order for our lives (and this includes for leaders) is God – family – church/work, i.e. our relationship directly with the Lord is all important and that should then be followed by the way we express Christ in our families and then, and only then, how we express him in both church and in work.
If we fail to put God first, we are godless. If we fail to minister to our families second, we convey the message to them that they are not important and young people then become vulnerable to the attacks of the enemy and fall away from the Lord. Yes, church is important, yes work is important, but if we sacrifice our relationship with the Lord or our relationships within our family because of either of those two things I identified in the paragraphs above, we will be going astray and are likely to make ourselves and our families especially vulnerable to the deception, the temptations and the outright attacks of the enemy.
This little sentence, “You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel,” can sound so minor but it can have serious negative effects in our lives and the lives of our family or of our church, and may even affect our work. The Pharisees were being challenged so strongly by Jesus because they had lost all sense of perspective. May that not be applicable to us.