Straining Gnats and Swallowing Camels

“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!” — Matthew 23:23–24 ESV

From our enlightened twenty-first century vantage point we can look back on the period of history that Jesus lived and cheerfully take our pick of horrors and injustices perpetrated by a host of groups starting with the Romans, Herodeons, Zealots, unjust tax collectors, and numerous other rapscallions and scalawags. They were known for murdering innocents, enslaving the helpless, brutalizing women, and worse yet — they mistreated defenseless animals! Now one would think, with God walking among us, daily exposed to this repressive and brutish world, we would at the very least, expect stern indignation expressed toward these hellish outrages.

But Jesus never overtly deplored slavery, never publicly decried the plight of women, and much to our surprise, never expressed support for animal rights. Instead, here in Matthew 23, we find Jesus spewing woe’s with literal anger over the Pharisees. Pharisees? OK maybe they did mistreat animals and offered nothing toward improving the life of first century women, but even so… when you compare them to Romans they seem like sweethearts. We have to wonder, “Is Jesus managing his crowd appeal and the local media with any kind of strategy at all?” The disciples, I’m sure, were wondering the same thing. In fact, the kind of speech that Jesus makes in Matthew 23 is just the sort of thing that can get you killed. And for what? Over tithing of spices, or obsessive ceremonial washing, or even the over-decorating of tombstones? Really? Is Jesus being a little self-indulgent? Does he have an axe to grind with these Pharisees? With such scarcity of resource and so many other wrongs and evils to choose from, were Pharisees really so bad?

In fact, any way I read Matthew 23 (and I’ve tried several) I come to the conclusion that for Jesus, what really got his goat about the Pharisees was this:

“They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger. They do all their deeds to be seen by others. For they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long, and they love the place of honor at feasts and the best seats in the synagogues and greetings in the marketplaces and being called rabbi by others.” — Matthew 23:4–7 ESV

As I mentioned, there was no shortage of evil in the world Jesus lived in. Like me, you might be a little troubled that Jesus seemed almost unaware of it. Instead, if Jesus took aim at anything, it was pride and legalism which was championed and epitomized by the Pharisees. Why? The truth is that God doesn’t see things like we do.

For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
     neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord.
For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
     so are my ways higher than your ways
     and my thoughts than your thoughts. — Isaiah 55:8–9 ESV

The kind of evil the Romans practiced was hard to mistake. It was an up-front and in-your-face kind of evil. The kind that burns people alive for entertainment. The Pharisees on the other hand disguised their evil as a form of godliness. They performed public acts of this “godliness”, praying long public prayers (Matthew 6:5) and overt public fasting (Matthew 6:16). I believe there’s something innate within all of us that wants to earn our way to heaven. That’s why legalism is so dangerous. It creates order, provides pat answers to sticky questions, and it gives us a formula for judging our neighbor. Legalism gives us a sense of spirituality while we blithefully ignore Christ’s commands.

The “gnats the Pharisees strained” (v 24) was legalism, and it consisted of a complex system of rules intended to act as a hedge around God’s law. Instead, their rules obscured the meaning of the law and, except outwardly, were impossible to follow. The “camels they swallowed” (v 24) was the hypocrisy that ultimately made them enforcers of rules they themselves made only a public attempt to follow. They became “unmarked graves” (Luke 11:44) that men stumble into, or at the very least, defile them without being aware of it. Jesus was forgiving to prostitutes, kind to Roman soldiers, and both gracious and accepting of people who fell outside of first century Jewish acceptance, which was a fairly large group. Spiritually, Pharisees were far more dangerous than the Romans.

“You people of this day have no faith and you are going the wrong way. How long must I be with you? How long must I put up with you?” — Matthew 17:17 NLT

To me this sounds fairly parental. Perhaps showing a little bit of exasperation. I think Jesus was a tolerant, loving parent for us. His desire is that we grow and mature. Like any child we will make mistakes, attempt absurd solutions to simple problems, and like his disciples, test the limits of Jesus’ patience.

To remain good and loving parents ourselves we must practice tolerance. Our children will in fact demand it of us. It’s fairly easy to imagine malevolent intent to such children as their behavior seems expertly designed to test the limits of our tolerance. But I wonder… Is this really what’s happening? Children will explore their world according to the logic and impulsiveness of their developing minds. Within that realm, experiments will be attempted, mistakes will be made, and the limits of our endurance will be discovered. Developing minds require this freedom. In childish ways they ask the questions; what is good, what is true, what is real? The problem is that they ask those questions in ways that adults usually find irritating.

However, like parents, there are things to which Jesus expressed intolerance. I have to believe that those things are the equivalent of our children running out into the street or taking candy from strangers. As a good and caring parent, he expresses an uncharacteristic intolerance to the legalism and pride of the Pharisees. Like cars and strangers, pride will make you blind, and legalism, it seems, will get you killed. We are moths that can find ourselves happily circling the candle flame of pride and legalism as our wings catch fire.

The Pharisees lived and breathed pride. They loved the status their position gave them. They correctly saw that Jesus’ willingness to embrace sinners was a threat to them. It implied that those they deemed as lost could in fact be accepted by God. It implied that their rules were unhelpful for pleasing God, and it implied that their position as God’s priests had become an impediment to finding God. They understood what was at stake and articulated what was truly worrying them about Jesus.

So the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered the council and said, “What are we to do? For this man performs many signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and take away both our place and our nation.” — John 11:47–48 ESV

Jesus made them feel very insecure indeed.

OK, it’s an easy thing to criticize Pharisees. But what about us? We live in a culture that’s turned pride into a virtue and self-esteem into justification for sin. We are so far down that road that I think it’s difficult for us to even recognize pride in our lives. Just like the Pharisees, we are tempted to make our lives an outward display of godliness and abandon any real effort to please God. Ultimately, pride will harden our hearts and turn us into judges of our neighbors.

So, what’s the answer to pride in our lives? The simple answer would be humility. But I think that’s not quite right. The answer is to truly understand what God has done for us, and who we’ve become in God’s eyes. Our value is great solely because we were bought at such a great price. (1 Corinthians 6:19-20). It’s not who we are or what we do that makes us valuable. It’s what Christ did for us. Our status is that of God’s adopted children (Romans 8:14-17) and our position is that of an ambassador of God himself (2 Corinthians 5:18-20). Any status we seek beyond that is simply us trying to please men rather than God.

I recognize the need to tread carefully here. Tolerance is now the mantra of our age. In many respects I think that tolerance just has to be good. There are groups of folks that have been abused over dubious and unjust social norms who are not as abused today, thanks to a new emphasis on tolerance. Much evil has been perpetrated in efforts to enforce racial, sexual and other social norms. However, as G.K. Chesterton noted, “Tolerance is the virtue of the man without convictions.”

Tolerance, I believe, can be legalism wrapped in a coat of acceptance. Ultimately it only accepts what it agrees with. To disagree with the presuppositions of legalism is to be judged intolerant, and to be judged intolerant is to be found hateful. I would say that the modern movement toward tolerance is a new form of legalism. It prescribes what is acceptable to believe and espouse. Disagreement is met with rancor. As a society we want to wash our hands and in despair ask, “what is truth” as we accept anything and everything as truth. With the exception of course, of those who might claim there is such a thing as truth.

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