February 21, 2015

Spices, Gnats and Camels



In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus condemns the Pharisees for their hypocrisy of strictly obeying the minor aspects of the law, while completing ignoring the more significant parts, and failing to understand its true purpose. Jesus states, “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).

The Law of Moses commanded that a tithe, or ten percent of all goods, produce, flocks and cattle, be given to the Lord to sustain the Priests, Levites and the poor (see Leviticus 27:30-33, Numbers 18:21-28) [1]. The Pharisees, however, in their desire to be overly zealous in their obedience, seemed to take this law to an extreme by paying a tithe on even the smallest of personal belongings, that of spices.

The spices mint, dill, and cumin as mentioned by Jesus
The tithe was designed to help Israel look outwards by giving back to God, and giving to those who were in need. However, when you are more concerned about counting every grain, seed and spice, you will be wasting your time and efforts on something that really does not bless the lives of others. Jesus did not condemn them for paying tithing, he condemned them instead for focusing their efforts on pointless aspects, and then forgetting about more important things like 'justice and mercy and faithfulness.'

To further teach his point of focusing on the minute level of obedience, Jesus criticizes the Pharisees for their act of straining out gnats and other insects from their wine before drinking, while symbolically eating a camel instead [2]. The Law of Moses prescribed that most insects (besides locust, grasshoppers and crickets) were considered unclean, along with many other animals including pigs, lizards, frogs, and camels, to only name a few [3].

The Pharisees strained out gnats and other insects from wine before drinking
Jesus, in comparing these two unclean animals, gnats and camels, names the smallest and the largest of the unclean animals. In essence, Jesus was teaching that they were so worried about the small things, that they missed the bigger, more important things. It is also possible that Jesus was criticizing them for only obeying those parts of the law that would most likely be noticed, as straining the insects from your drink would be seen by others every time they ate, making their level of obedience very visible to others.

How do we obey the Laws of God? Do we see them just a long list of checkboxes and dos and don’ts? Do we only obey the commandments that others will see? Or do we seek to understand the true purpose of the law by looking to better understand how the law draws us towards God, and towards serving, helping, and loving others.

[1] What Does the Bible Say About the Tithe or Tithing? - Christian Bible Reference
[2] See Pulpit Commentary for Matthew 23:23
[3] Unclean animal - Wikipedia

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