Matthew 23:23-28 New International Version (NIV)
“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cumin. 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. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.
“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean.”
This chapter is the start of the judgment discourse. Jesus was in the Temple when speaking this. While he spoke about the Pharisees, they were not in his audience during this speech.
First, who were the Pharisees? Recall there were two groups – Pharisees and Sadducees. The Pharisees were the teachers of the Law, they were middle class individuals and had great influence on the people. This was much different than the Sadducees who were from wealthy families and had more of a political role.
The Pharisees where who the people looked to as role-models on how to live righteous lives.
There are actually 7 “woes” that Jesus condemns, but I was drawn to these two specifically. In vs 23 Jesus ridicules the Pharisees on their behavior. Tithing, or giving a tenth of your income/harvest etc was a practice of the time, though there was some dispute on if this applied to herbs. The Pharisees thought so, and by deliberately going above what may have been required, it made them look good. However, there are more important things, Jesus says, like justice, mercy and faithfulness. These three things he describes as weighty, or barus in Greek, which means oppressive or heavy. They are both important, he says, but the Pharisees are missing the point.
The next illustration explains this. There was an actual Rabbinic teaching of the time that required liquor to be strained for gnats, because even accidentally swallowing one was a sin. The problem wasn’t that they were missing gnats, but missing the camel. It’s good to note that a gnat was the smallest known creature of the time, and a camel, the largest animal in Palestine. The Greek word for swallow is katapino which is a devouring, or gulping down motion… a greedy swallow. In their haste to follow the law exactly, Jesus implies by ignoring justice, mercy and faithfulness, they actually are committing greater sins, for there was no doubt that the camel was forbidden animal to eat.
The next woe addressed is really the heart of the matter. The reason Jesus is so hard on this group is that their motives are wrong. They look good on the outside. On the inside, however, as the Greek implies, you find they acquired things selfishly or harpage meaning through plundering or robbery, or acquired things with akrasia or lack of self control.
Ironic. The one thing the Pharisee’s prided themselves on would have been self control. Their ability to follow the law to such exacting measures shouts self-control, and yet Jesus says it’s an illusion and doesn’t matter because it’s based on selfish motives.
What’s the take home message then? It’s all about motives. How do we try to show our righteousness today? It may be by being overly concerned with the do’s and don’t of religion, but it may be more subtle. Perhaps getting involved in projects to look good? What camel’s are we blindly gulping down, all the while so focused on some petty gnat?