48. Gnats and Camels

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.

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42. Camels and Needles

Analogies & Parables in Matthew: 42.  Camels and Needles

Mt 19:24   Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”

Context: a wealthy young man (Mt 19:22) has come to Jesus asking about receiving eternal life and at the end of his conversation he goes away mournful, either because he found Jesus’ instruction to sell up and give to the poor an impossible thing to do, or he went away struggling with the difficulty he knew he would face if he was to do this. As he goes away, Jesus said to his disciples, “I tell you the truth, it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.” (v.23) Now that is the basic teaching and the analogy that follows simply confirms or ratifies this teaching.

So why should it be so difficult for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God? Well, the basic requirement for entry is repentance and that may be in respect of specific sins but at the very least it is repentance in respect of the nature of the life we live. Repentance means a one hundred and eighty degree turn about, a turn from a self-centred godless life to a Christ-centred godly life. Previously we lived on the basis of self-will, what we determined was right and wrong and that was largely based on how good the thing left us feeling. Rich people live for enjoyment, for self-pleasure, able to spend what they have on self. They are able to determine what they do and when they do it. Coming to Christ recognizes the empty futility of such a life in reality, and surrenders up that lifestyle and submits to Jesus’ Lordship. Now that is an incredibly hard thing to do and that is why Jesus says what we have just read.

So now comes the analogy: “Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” (v.24) Now there are usually two interpretations given for what this means.

First, the obvious one, is the more simple. Perhaps where Jesus was teaching Camel Traders were passing by and so if you wanted an illustration of something living that was large, the camel was the obvious thing. Now the women in particular would be familiar with a needle used at home and husbands would have seen their use as well so we have a second thing that was familiar. Indeed the struggle to get thread through the eye of a needle is a familiar thing to any homemaker so it is like Jesus was saying, “You know what it is like, the struggle to thread a needle, well imagine what it would be like if I said you must push that camel over there through the eye of your needle.”

This produced a natural reaction: “When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astonished and asked, “Who then can be saved?” (v.25) Jesus gives a reply that goes to the heart of the problem: “Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.” (v.26) That is the truth of this analogy, that it is impossible for a rich man to come to God because of his reliance on his riches. But is that the end of the story, will that rich young man never come to God? Oh no, says Jesus, it may be humanly impossible but when God is on your case, nothing is impossible.

I think that sometimes it is not only riches that make it hard for people to come to Christ; it can also be culture or even politics. I have no doubt told this story in some previous study on this site but it bears repeating. Many years ago when I was much younger and worked in an office in the City of London, in the office was a much older man who was a cockney Labour councillor who saw my Christianity as a middle class thing utterly opposed to everything his culture believed in. We became good friends and he regularly made fun of my faith. He was, we might say, ‘as hard as nails’ when it comes to belief. He was absolutely, to use another expression, set in concrete, but one day we were at lunch together and he started sharing a personal problem he had at home, a spiritual problem. I started sharing but after a while I had to say, “My old friend, I would love to carry on talking but unfortunately in this building there is a Christian group that meets regularly to pray and read the Bible and it just so happens that today they have asked me to lead the Bible study and so I have to go and do that. You’d be very welcome to come if you want, but I have to go now.”

I didn’t think he would take up my offer and so I went off to take the Bible study in the second half-hour of our lunch hour. I joined the group and started the study which just so happened to be (previously set) an exposition of John Chapter 3 – all about being born again! To my total surprise, after about two minutes he slipped in at the back and listened attentively. At the end of the half hour this ‘hard-as-nails’ old friend was ‘born again’. If you had asked me a week before, I would have said he was the last person on earth who would accept Christ – but he did. The camel came through the eye. It was utterly a work of God, that which was humanly impossible became possible with God.

Now there is a second interpretation given of this analogy. In the city there would be the large main gate which was shut at dusk, but there was also a small arched gateway that was left open for pedestrians who arrived late in the city. This small gate, possibly because of its smallness, was referred to as ‘The Needle’s Eye’. Now it was only designed for people and so if you wanted to get your camel into the city through this little gate, you would have to take off all its load, and get it right down on its knees and only then might it be able to shuffle through. That analogy is equally instructive – that to come to Christ, you must shed all you have and come empty handed on bended knee in total humility. Now that analogy does not actually fit with Jesus words about the impossibility of the situation, but it does convey the truths about a person coming to Christ.

So, two things to conclude. First, don’t try and make it easy for a person to come to Christ – it isn’t. Whoever they are, repentance and total surrender are essentials. Second, never write off anyone as too hard for God. As my illustration above shows, God has an amazing way of working on the most hard of hearts. It (they) may appear impossible from your standpoint but God may think otherwise. Why doesn’t God convict every single person and bring them to Him? He respects our free will and as much as He may speak and bring pressure to bear, He will never force us into the kingdom. Perhaps another way of putting it, in the light of my old friend, is to say that He alone can see the cracks in the hardest of hearts and He alone knows just how little it may require to help that person on to a place of surrender. Keep praying for your unsaved loved ones, friends and neighbours, you never know who the Lord his going to approach as His next ‘camel’!!!