Matthew 23:23-24 (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.”
The teachers of the law and the Pharisees were very focused on keeping all of the fine points of the law. But in their focus, they missed many of God’s larger and overarching requirements.
For example, many of them really did spend long hours laboriously counting out small seeds of dill and cumin, and leaves of mint, ensuring that one out of every ten went to their tithe. They believed that God would bless them for their extra diligence, since the vast majority of people measured out their tithes by weight or measure, and might be off by several seeds or leaves.
But in the process, these men were overlooking the “more important matters of the law” such as justice, mercy, and faithfulness. It wasn’t that they didn’t believe in these things in their theology and speak about them in their lectures. But their eyes were so focused on the minutia of their religious observances that they really didn’t make time to apply them. It was like a man so captivated by what he is seeing through a microscope that he doesn’t notice that his house is burning down around him!
In their zeal for keeping every fine point of the law, these men ignored justice, fighting to make sure that the least was treated fairly. They overlooked mercy, instead dealing harshly with people who did not live up to their standards, even writing them out of God’s salvation! And they overlooked faithfulness to all of God’s commands to love others in His name. They were like those God spoke to through the prophet Isaiah about fasting and Sabbath keeping (Isaiah 58), who had the procedures right, but who were missing the why, the reflection of God’s own character that His people are supposed to exhibit.
Many of these men would literally pour their tea and wine through a piece of cloth before they drank it in order to strain out any gnats that might have gotten into it, because gnats were unclean. Jesus’ final statement shows the irony of this by His figure of man being meticulous about straining out gnats, but swallowing a camel, which was also an unclean animal. His point was that while these men focused on avoiding the minute details of sin, they ended up violating much larger commands by treating God’s people harshly, failing to show God’s love and mercy, and not receiving His Messiah.
Father, this is a trap that we can all fall into: focusing so much on specific right actions that we miss You and Your purposes in the midst. Jesus specifically taught here that the details are important, but reflecting Your character through justice, mercy, and faithfulness is even more important, and must never get lost in the details. Help me to keep my eyes focused on You as I go through my day today, so that I can live out a full-bodied faith, correct in the big picture as well as in the details. Amen.