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Matthew 23:23-24

Gnats and Camels

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.


Tithing is an important part of the law of God. It is the way in which we support the work of those who are in full time ministry and pay the expenses of other church functions. In His fifth woe against the Pharisees, Jesus did not intend to undermine the importance of tithing. Instead, His purpose was to show the scribes and Pharisees that there was more to living a righteous lifestyle than the ridiculous manner in which they tried to follow God's laws.

Leviticus 27:30 says, "And all the tithe of the land, whether of the seed of the land, or of the fruit of the tree, is the LORD's: it is holy to the LORD." The Pharisees had taken this law to such extremes that they required the people to tithe even the smallest of the herbs that they grew. The three herbs mentioned by Jesus had almost no value. They were mostly small seeds used for flavor in cooking.

Jesus did not condemn them for being overly zealous for the details of the law, but pointed out that they should have been attentive to more important matters. He picked up the theme of some of the OT prophets, mentioning judgement, mercy and faith.

"Learn to do well; seek judgment, relieve the oppressed, judge the fatherless, plead for the widow." (Isa 1:17) Justice has always been God's concern. His love for His people demands that every one of them be treated fairly and with justice. As we have seen, however, the Pharisees took advantage of poor widows and lined their own pockets at every opportunity without regard for others.

Justice also demands mercy. Thayer's Greek Lexicon defines this word as "kindness or good will towards the miserable and the afflicted, joined with a desire to help them." In Judea many of the sick, such as lepers, the crippled, and the woman with the issue of blood were looked upon as being unclean or under punishment for their sins and were societal outcasts. These people surely were more important than whether the seeds of nearly worthless spices had been included in a person's tithe.

Jesus also pointed out the matter of being faithful to God in all things. It was not wrong to tithe their herbs and spices, but there were other things in which they were not faithful. To illustrate their unfaithfulness to God, He used what was probably an old Aramaic saying. "Ye blind guides, which strain at a gnat, and swallow a camel."

Matthew Henry wrote on this topic, saying, "In their doctrine they strained at gnats, warned people against even the least violation of the tradition of the elders. In their practice they strained at gnats, heaved at them, with a seeming dread, as if they had a great abhorrence of sin, and were afraid of it in the least instance; but they made no difficulty of those sins which, in comparison with them, were as a camel to a gnat; when they devoured widows’ houses, they did indeed swallow a camel; when they gave Judas the price of innocent blood, and yet scrupled to put the returned money into the treasury (ch. 27:6); when they would not go into the judgment-hall, for fear of being defiled, and yet would stand at the door, and cry out against the holy Jesus (Jn. 18:28); when they quarrelled with the disciples for eating with unwashen hands, and yet, for the filling of the Corban, taught people to break the fifth commandment, they strained at gnats, or lesser things, and yet swallowed camels. It is not the scrupling of a little sin that Christ here reproves; if it be a sin, though but a gnat, it must be strained at, but the doing of that, and then swallowing a camel. In the smaller matters of the law to be superstitious, and to be profane in the greater, is the hypocrisy here condemned."

It is very easy for us to be like the Pharisees. For example, I have seen churches be such good stewards of Gods gifts that they failed to use them as He would want. One church built a beautiful family life center with a large basketball court, but locked the doors to everyone in the community except their own youth group. The building sits vacant most of the time, while neighborhood youths wander the streets with nothing to do and no one to teach them about Jesus.

We can become so obsessed with miniscule perfections that we actually end up invalidating the very precepts we claim to preach. We strain at gnats but swallow many camels without even realizing it.

"He hath shewed thee, O man, what is good; and what doth the LORD require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?" (Mi 6:8)

Before The Throne:

Pray for justice, mercy and faith to become strong characteristics of your own walk with God. Ask for an eye that sees the needs of others and a heart that wants to help. Pray that God will help you maintain equity in your devotion to Him, so that nothing that He desires of you should ever be neglected.

For Further Study:

(v.23)
** the weightier. Matt 9:13; Matt 12:7; Matt 22:37-40; 1Sam 15:22; Prov 21:3; Jer 22:15-16; Hos 6:6; Mic 6:8; Gal 5:22-23; ** these. Matt 5:19-20;

(v.24) Matt 7:4; Matt 15:2-6; Matt 19:24; Matt 27:6-8; Luke 6:7-10; John 18:28, 40;

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