Summary: Shows how the Pharisees did and sometimes we do miss the harder parts of God’s plan--justice, mercy, and faithfulness.
Straining Gnats and Swallowing Camels
MT 23:23 "Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices--mint, dill and cummin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law--justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former. 24 You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.
This passage is right in the midst of a larger context of Jesus condemning the Pharisees on seven counts. As we know, the Pharisees were very proud of their observance of the Law. Most of these condemnations start out with Jesus mentioning some drastic way in which the Pharisees keep the Law. And in this case, he talks about the extremes that they go to in order to make sure they pay the full tithe. About 10 years or so ago, I started noticing something in the stores called Chia Pets. These were clay animals that you would rub seeds across. Then you put water inside the clay, and the animal grows a nice plant all around it. After a few years, they came up with a new idea, called the Chia Herb Garden. Instead of buying dried herbs and spices, you could plant your own fresh herbs. Then when you wanted to season a dish, you just cut some off and use it. Now, let’s imagine that you bought one of those Chia Herb Gardens. When you have ten leaves, do you need bring one to God? When you’ve grown nine pots of herbs, do you have to bring the next pot to the church and toss it in the offering box? If I stood up here and told you that, you might think that I was crazy. At the least you would think that I was very strict. That would be a very strict interpretation of the Law of Tithing.
So did Jesus want to condemn the Pharisees for being too strict? Was his problem that they were too committed to tithing? Absolutely not! In fact, the Law of Moses did require them to tithe on ALL of their increase, including whatever they grew in their gardens. Sometimes we think of the Pharisees and how strict they were and then we see Jesus condemning them and we think that this is why. We can conclude that Jesus must not like people who are so zealous. I’ve heard too many people, even people who say they are Christians, use the old proverb, “everything in moderation,” and try to apply it to Christianity. They say that Christianity is a good part of your life, but it shouldn’t be the only focus of your life. But Jesus is no proponent of this kind of wishy-washy faith. Jesus was the exact opposite. He was a religious revolutionary. He called for extraordinary measures. He was the one who said, “Take up your cross and follow me.” He was the one who required “hatred” of your father and mother in order to follow him. He was the one who told some to sell all that they had and give it to the poor. Jesus is indeed looking for zealous followers. He is looking for people who are willing to sell all the small pearls they have to buy the pearl of great price. He is looking for people who are willing to give up their life, so that they may gain it.
So the problem with the Pharisees was not their zealousness. It wasn’t that they were too strict or observed the Law too closely. The complain Jesus has with the Pharisees is what I’d like to call their “selective zealousness.” In the end, he tells them that they should not have neglected their tithing. The solution was not to become less zealous in their tithing. But I believe that their strict observance of the Law was to hide the fact that they could not really keep the Law. Indeed, Jesus says here, “But you have neglected the more important matters of the law…” However, the word which is translated here as “more important” is the word “weightier.” And indeed, when we say something has more weight, we can be speaking of its importance. But weight also speaks of difficulty. Many times, Jesus referred to the Law, and especially the observances of the Pharisees as a heavy burden. And when we view the word “weightier” in this way, we get the idea that they have neglected the “harder” part of the Law to keep.
You see, anybody can give a tithe. All it requires is carrying something to the Church and giving it. Certainly, Jesus is not discounting the tithe here. Sometimes it takes great faith and trust to give the tithe. Sometimes when we have very little, it’s hard to give that 10% to God, because we don’t know how we’re going to survive without it. Nevertheless, it’s still something that anyone can do. Tithing doesn’t require a change of heart. One man can bring his tithe every week and curse God throughout the week. Another can bring his tithe and earn the very money he’s tithing on by dishonest means. Another can bring the tithe and hate his brother or sister. Another can carry his tithe and ignore the needs of those around him. You see bringing the tithe amounts to little more than a ritual, in and of itself. When we give the tithe as a demonstration of our gratitude to God for giving to us and of our faith that he will continue to provide, then it is a precious thing. But the ritual can be followed without any of the deeper meaning. And then the ritual is meaningless.