Jesus’ diatribe against the “teachers of the law and Pharisees” in Matthew 23 seems especially pertinent these days.
“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices – mint, dill, and cumin. But you have neglected the weightier 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.”
Jesus is addressing the problem of missing the forest for the trees. He’s condemning a religious legalism that focuses down on the smallest minutiae while missing bigger, overarching issues. More importantly, he’s calling out religious insiders and the supposedly most pious and knowledgeable among his own people for concerning themselves with private or more trivial issues while leaving widespread injustice and human suffering in place.
According to New Testament scholar Craig S. Keener, Pharisees were known for teaching scrupulous tithing of agrarian produce – so committed to it, in fact, that there was a debate in Jesus’ day about which spices should be included. Few would have included all three spices mentioned by Jesus (dill/anise, cumin and mint), but through this bit of hyperbole, Jesus points out that it wouldn’t matter if one includes every single spice if you don’t actively work for things like “justice” and “mercy.”
The part about straining out a gnat is probably a reference to the Levitical prohibition against drinking from a vessel in which something died (Lev. 11:32-35), but no one would have realistically worried about a gnat. Again, hyperbole is used to call attention to the spiritual distance between concerns of the “faithful” and what really bothers God.
Surely, after studying and following Jesus for 2000 years, we know better, right?
“We might want to leave the gnats alone, if that’s what it takes to get our eyes focused on the ‘weightier matters.’”
On the contrary, I have been surprised by just how common it is to strain out a gnat while swallowing a camel. Just within the last year I’ve observed many things from Christians – or things happening in the U.S. with the complicity or apathy of Christians – that cannot be described any other way than straining out a gnat while swallowing a camel, and neglecting the “weightier matters of the law.”
Earlier this year, with survivors of the recent school shooting looking on, the Florida House of Representatives passed a resolution declaring pornography a “public health risk” while refusing to debate or consider guns and gun violence, or even hold a hearing on preventing this kind of tragedy from happening. Don’t get me wrong. Pornography is not a good thing, but I think we missed the camel of justice and mercy while straining out the gnat of sexual vice.
Last year the Council of Biblical Manhood & Womanhood released what was called “The Nashville Statement,” a short document reaffirming the traditional Christian view of marriage and opposition to same-sex relationships, transgender identity, etc. On that same day in August, Hurricane Harvey had not yet dissipated and people were still actively dying and being rescued from as much as five feet of rain. In a similar vein, we’ve seen a lot of Christian outrage about which public restroom transgender people use while not having much to say about the widespread abuse and harassment of women. Though it’s nothing new, I continue to wonder why this segment of Christianity is so obsessed with the gnat of “bedroom morality” in the face of so much camel-sized human suffering.
Jesus used hyperbole “to call attention to the spiritual distance between concerns of the ‘faithful’ and what really bothers God.”
Outrage over football players kneeling during the national anthem or other forms of perceived disrespect for the American flag (inexplicably conflated with disrespect for the military) continues, but in the midst of this, I don’t hear much concern about the ongoing racism that’s being protested, or the uptick in hate crimes that we’re experiencing, or – if we’re supposedly concerned about proper respect for the military – the deportation of some foreign born military veterans who put their lives on the line for our country only to be sent somewhere else. Concerning the internal culture of the NFL, sportscaster Dale Hansen recently pointed out that Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones will kick players off the team for kneeling for the anthem but not for beating up their significant other or repeated felony drug charges.
As a Baptist minister, I’m particularly disturbed by the use of the term “religious freedom/liberty” to defend discrimination in the business sector. It has been going on for years, so many of us knew what was really going on when Jeff Sessions announced the creation of a new “religious liberty task force.” Religious freedom is a foundational and essential principle in American life, but instead of its original purpose of protecting religious minorities from government oppression, it is now being brandished as a whip by Christian business owners to remove from within the reach of their tentacles anything or anyone offending their religious sensibilities. While straining out the gnat of a baker being asked to bake a cake for a gay wedding or a clerk having to sign a marriage license, we’re swallowing the camel of real religious persecution suffered by people of all faiths worldwide, and by Muslims, Sikhs and others in the U.S.
Unfortunately, the list could go on and on. In fact, it sure does seem like the gnats we strain out are things that irk white Christian majorities, but the camels we leave in place are large-scale injustices or suffering among minority races, religions and sexualities, the likes of which many white evangelicals could not fathom. We might want to leave the gnats alone, if that’s what it takes to get our eyes focused on the “weightier matters.”