Of Gnats and Camels
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"Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. These you ought to have done, without leaving the others undone. Blind guides, who strain out a gnat and swallow a camel!" (Matt. 23:23-24)
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According to the Law of Moses, most insects were considered unclean and not to be eaten. Gnats are insects. It is possible for gnats to fall into drinking vessels. Therefore, concluded the Pharisees, all beverages must be strained before drinking to remove any possibility of eating a gnat. Non-strainers were obviously careless about their relationship with a holy God.
According to the Law of Moses, contacting anything (or anybody) that was unclean defiled a person. In the normal affairs of daily life, it is likely that some unclean object or person will be inadvertently touched. Eating food after contacting such an unclean source then makes the food unclean. Therefore, concluded the Pharisees, the hands must be washed before eating, lest one’s food be ceremonially defiled. (According to Alfred Edersheim, the Pharisees carried this reasoning even further: After washing, the hands had to be held up for drying, so that the water, which was now unclean, would drip off at the wrists; otherwise, it would flow back on the fingers and defile them again.) This was not a matter of mere hygiene; one's eternal destiny could be at risk if this was not done properly.
The Pharisees developed a mountain of complex rules like these from the Law of Moses, using this same kind of extended reasoning. Yet the same men who were so fastidious about straining gnats, also swallowed camels. Their obsession with getting the details just right blinded them to "the weighter matters of the law": justice, mercy, and faithfulness (v. 23). They would go to great pains to tithe the tiniest herbs in their garden, yet defraud an aged widow (v. 14), or deny their aged parents support (15:1-9)--and never notice the contradiction.
When we fail to recognize a hierarchy of importance in God's law, the result is always this kind of unbalanced religion. His Law turns into a theological jungle in which we can lose our way--and our souls.
Our first duty is to love God and love our fellow man (22:36-40). If we keep that priority paramount in our hearts, gnats and camels will each be given their proper due without impinging on the other.