Ye blind guides, which strain at a gnat, and swallow a camel.
In the days of Jesus, the tiny flying insect known as a gnat was “unclean”–i.e., it was on the list of animals that the Jews were forbidden to eat, according to the Torah. Most people are aware that Jews will not eat pork; this is why. The pig was also on the list of unclean animals. Anyone who violated this law and ate something that was “unclean” was considered to be ceremonially defiled and was subject to the penalty of such an infraction of the Torah.
The Pharisees in the days of Jesus were extremely meticulous and ostentatious about observing even the tiniest matters of the Torah. Apparently, it was a common practice in those more primitive days to have a large pot of drinking water in a communal area. As we all know, flying insects such as gnats are attracted to open containers of water and many times will get trapped in the water and die, being unable to free themselves. The Pharisees apparently would make a great show of filtering these tiny winged insects out of the drinking water by pouring the water into their cups through a piece of white linen or something similar and showing all those around any of the offending creatures that they had been so diligent to “strain” out.
This is what Jesus meant when he spoke of those who would “strain at a gnat.” They were filtering out tiny specks and making a big deal over it so others would acknowledge their spiritual superiority.
However, Jesus observed another dietary practice common in their day, about which the Pharisees were completely oblivious. In geographical regions where there are not many trees, there is a resultant scarcity of firewood. In Palestine, the particular land where Jesus lived, it was customary to use dried camel dung as fuel for fires—not just fires for heat, but also cookfires.
Surely it comes as no surprise to learn that as fuel burns the smoke from the fire contains microscopic particles of the fuel’s molecular components. For example, when we eat something that is hickory smoked, the taste and flavor of the food we are consuming has been enhanced by the exhaust from a fire fueled at least in part by hickory wood. Technically, we are consuming microscopic particles that were released from the hickory fuel during combustion and which floated up and adhered to the surface of the food being cooked.
Now it becomes clear what Jesus meant when he said the Pharisees were swallowing camels whole! The camel, it should be noted, was also on the list of unclean animals which were prohibited from the diet of the Torah-observing Jews. No self-respecting Pharisee would ever think of consuming a camel steak or a camel burger!! However, something not even visible to the unaided eye was coating and permeating their “sanctified” foods as they were being cooked over fires fueled with dried camel dung. How abhorrent to consider that they were unwittingly contaminating their religiously prepared kosher food with the waste product of a ceremonially unclean beast!
In Matthew 23:24, Jesus was not telling the Pharisees not to strain out the gnats as much as he was saying they shouldn’t feel quite so smug about not ingesting unclean gnats when all along they were consuming foods defiled with the microscopic residue of the most unclean part of an unclean camel, a creature that just happens to be 260 million times larger than a gnat!
Notice the context of Matthew 23:24….
23 Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have omitted the weightier matters of the law, judgment, mercy, and faith: these ought ye to have done, and not to leave the other undone.
24 Ye blind guides, which strain at a gnat, and swallow a camel.
25 Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye make clean the outside of the cup and of the platter, but within they are full of extortion and excess.
No matter how careful we are to faithfully follow “the letter of the law,” Jesus is teaching us that it is possible to be unknowingly “spiritually contaminated” with and by things that are not visible to the carnal eye. It doesn’t really matter—in the final analysis—what we look like on the outside if our heart is black with the absence of justice, mercy and faith.
We know how to filter out the gnats.
May God help us to filter out the camels!
Rev. Tim D. Cormier
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