Gnats and Camels

posted in: Teaching | 0

There are a number of biblical references that can be heard here and there but are not recognized as biblical. Similarly, there are statements that some assume are biblical which are not.

Sunday evening someone told me that she’d heard the phrase, “God helps those who help themselves” and had always assumed it was a scripture quote. She was surprised to learn that it is not.

From time to time someone will ask for a quick confirmation of a quote attributed to Jesus and to know the precise source and wording used in Scripture. One such request was from a caller who had heard the phrase “to strain out a gnat and swallow a camel”. The context of this biblical aphorism is that one may get focused on straining out or dismissing the seemingly smaller more numerous specific sins of the conduct of others that are viewed as annoying but represent little perceived threat to one’s health…..the minutiae (the “gnats”)… while ignoring and swallowing the larger more obvious choking risks being taken in through disregard for the bigger heart sin problem (the “camel”) without noticing or acknowledging it.

To me this is the more significant part of the context of this aphorism: you…have neglected the weightier matters of the law: judgment, mercy, and faithfulness.”

Jesus’ ridiculed the Pharisees for their emphasis on the LETTER OF THE LAW, at the expense of the SPIRIT OF THE LAW. Christ emphasized the spirit of the law, not that the letter of the law was not important, but that it was not sufficient for one’s attention in and of itself. (i.e. adultery/lust, murder/slander or gossip, eating grain in the field on Sabbath/ remembering the purpose of Sabbath for man not man for the Sabbath, etc.) The first in each couplet is a reference to the focus on the LETTER, the second in each couplet is a reference to the SPIRIT of the law. The spirit of the law reveals the broader, more common and problematic day to day values and conduct that should be considered and supported by the letter of the law. The Pharisees judged those who broke the letter of the law, but excused themselves for their own violations of the spirit of the law.

Matthew 23:23-25
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cummin, and have neglected the weightier provisions of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness; but these are the things you should have done without neglecting the others. You blind guides, who strain out a gnat and swallow a camel!”

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and of the dish, but inside they are full of robbery and self-indulgence.”


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