The Gnat and the Camel
by Jacob Hudgins
“You blind guides, straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel!”(Matt 23:24).
The image is preposterous. Concerned about defiling himself, the Pharisee works hard to strain a gnat out of his drink. While expending all this effort, he inadvertently swallows a camel—the largest unclean animal!
Jesus is criticizing the misplaced emphasis of the Pharisees’ spiritual lives in this section. “For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others”(Matt 23:23). They tithe to a precise degree—down to the specifics of one-tenth of each of these tiny herbs (mint, dill, and cumin). Yet they have missed what God really cares about. They have strained out a gnat, yet swallowed a camel.
Details matter. Jesus is not saying that he doesn’t care about how they tithe, nor is he dismissing the diligence their habits demonstrate. Speaking of the weightier matters, he says, “These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others”(Matt 23:23). Jesus applauds their willingness to follow the law to an exact degree and says that this should never be neglected. Details matter.
God’s priorities matter more. The issue is that fixation on details can lead us to neglect things that are more important. Jesus says that there are “weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness”(Matt 23:23). “Weightier” here means “more important.” Justice and mercy and faithfulness are the principles by which God wants us to live everyday life. They encompass hundreds of everyday situations in which we choose to honor or disown God. All the tithing in the world will not make up for neglecting these priorities. Missing this is swallowing the camel.
We duplicate the Pharisees’ mistake when we focus on the details over God’s priorities. We duplicate it when we can outline the appropriate ways a local church can spend its money, but give no attention to the lifestyle, faith, and teaching it promotes. We duplicate it when we can defend weekly observance of the Lord’s Supper while distractedly observing it weekly. We duplicate it when we can muster five arguments against instrumental music, but express no true gratitude in our a cappella singing. Do not misunderstand: all of these specifics matter (“without leaving the others undone”). But it is easy for us miss the point of it all—to strain out the gnat and swallow the camel.
May God bless us to keep the emphasis of our spiritual lives where he wants it!