His hour is drawing nearer. The cross is approaching. Jesus is in Jerusalem. He has entered the temple. A last cleansing and a last confrontation.
In this corner, Jesus the Messiah. Standing opposed to Him, the chief priests, the elders, the scribes, and the Pharisees. And this morning in Matthew 23 I’ve read the first four of seven woes Jesus declares upon these blind guides and hypocrites (23:13-24).
If not for their blindness and the hardness of their hearts, how chilling would it have been to have heard the Creator of all things look upon you and declare publicly, “Woe to you! You are guilty! Punishment will come unto you!” There is no other court of appeal. If the Son sets you free you are free indeed (John 8:36), but what if the Son says, “Woe to you?” Then you are done indeed.
And Jesus calls them out for shutting the door to the kingdom of heaven in the faces of those they entice to follow them (v. 13-14). He condemns them for replicating themselves in those they convert to their dead ways, making them “twice as much a child of hell as yourselves” (v.15). He denounces them as blind guides leading others with blind understanding as to what adds weight to oaths made before God — focusing on how to make oaths rather than to Whom the oath is made (v.16-22). But it’s Jesus fourth condemnation that grabbed my attention this morning.
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! 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. You blind guides, straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel!” ~ Jesus
(Matthew 23:23-24 ESV)
They majored on minors. They paid attention to the finest detail, yet ignored the weightier matters. That which they could do in their own power they elevated, while that which would require humility, wisdom, and enablement from above, they relegated to the back burner.
According to the law they would give the tenth of all their crops, even their herb gardens. But they ignored the intent of the law, the matters of justice, mercy, and faithfulness. Because they excelled in the one, they deceived themselves and believed they could ignore the other. They ought to have done both.
And then Jesus speaks an interesting proverb. They strained out the gnat all the while swallowing a camel.
A gnat and a camel. One, the smallest of creatures, the other among the largest. But both declared unclean under Levitical law (Lev. 11:4, 20). And as a show of their piety these religious leaders would have their wine strained through a fine sieve so that there would be no chance of a small, imperceptible bug passing through their lips. But while they strained at the gnat, Jesus said they were content to swallow a camel.
They majored on the letter of the law, they ignored the spirit of the law. The checked off all the to do’s, and few more they had manufactured for good measure, but had lost sight of the why and the Who. They were to be holy, as God is holy. And God was a God of justice, mercy, and faithfulness. But they focused on gnats. And so, they ate the camel.
So how do you swallow a camel? One bite at a time without even recognizing you’re chewing on it. By being religious without wanting a relationship. By doing just enough for God to satisfy the conscience while ignoring His call to pursue Him and the way of His kingdom. By measuring spirituality on a sliding scale based on good works and relative merit rather than conceding a bankrupt nature apart from divine regeneration.
There’s a warning here. A warning against living by the letter of the law and forgetting the spirit of the law. A warning about picking, choosing, and self-manufacturing what commands to obey while ignoring the greater call to “be holy, for I am holy” (1Pet. 1:15-16). Not that we can do it on our own– but that’s the point. In Christ, and by the power of His Spirit, we can aspire to live more and more in accord with the righteousness credited to our account through a spotless Savior.
Seek first the kingdom of God (Matt. 6:33). Determine to abide in the True Vine (John 15:1-5). And the gnats and camels look after themselves.
By His grace . . . for His glory.