Strain at a gnat and swallow a camel

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Matthew 23:13-26

“There was an old lady who swallowed a cow, to catch the dog, to catch the cat, to catch the bird, to catch the spider, that wriggled and wiggled and tickled inside her.  She swallowed the spider to catch the fly.  I don’t know why she swallowed the fly – Perhaps she’ll die!”  (Traditional Nursery Rhyme)

Children love this daft imagery and sing along with glee.  No-one thinks that there is a class of “old lady” who are being “got at” with the nursery rhyme.  No-one could be as stupid as this “old lady”, surely!

Yet the picture Jesus paints is equally absurd.   Jesus thinks that there are people who fit the mould.  What’s even more shocking is that they are the most straight-laced, respectable people in society.  But Jesus describes them as plain ridiculous.

So what does He do?  He ridicules them.  Relentlessly.  That is the whole point of Matthew 23.

The mind has been compared more closely to a portrait gallery than a debating chamber.  Certainly Jesus is a master of the striking image.  He paints evocative verbal pictures that linger long in the imagination. Just consider how He exposes the hypocrisy of the Pharisees in this chapter:

“Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye devour widows’ houses, and for a pretence make long prayer: therefore ye shall receive the greater damnation.  Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye compass sea and land to make one proselyte, and when he is made, ye make him twofold more the child of hell than yourselves.  Woe unto you, ye blind guides, which say, Whosoever shall swear by the temple, it is nothing; but whosoever shall swear by the gold of the temple, he is a debtor!  Ye fools and blind: for whether is greater, the gold, or the temple that sanctifieth the gold?  And, Whosoever shall swear by the altar, it is nothing; but whosoever sweareth by the gift that is upon it, he is guilty.  Ye fools and blind: for whether is greater, the gift, or the altar that sanctifieth the gift?  Whoso therefore shall swear by the altar, sweareth by it, and by all things thereon.  And whoso shall swear by the temple, sweareth by it, and by him that dwelleth therein.  And he that shall swear by heaven, sweareth by the throne of God, and by him that sitteth thereon.  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.”  (Matthew 23:14-23)

This catalogue of double-standards is shocking:

By day they defraud widows of their property, by night they lead prayer meetings.

They debate the minutiae of temple oaths while spreading the kingdom of Satan.

They take pride in tithing from their window box yet care nothing about the beating heart of the law:  justice, mercy and faith.

That’s the evidence which stands against them.  So how will Jesus, the Prosecutor, sum up?  Will He accuse them of committing some logical fallacy, using impressive Latin labels?  Will He produce a report with strongly worded findings?  No, He makes fun of them:

“Ye blind guides, which strain at a gnat, and swallow a camel.” (Matthew 23:14)

We have already discussed the absurdity of the blind leading the blind.  In the same breath Jesus comes up with another even more absurd mental picture.  He asks us to imagine a fastidious diner fussing over the tiniest insect, all the while oblivious to the hulking great dromedary he’s gulping down.

If there is a “Waiter, Waiter” joke as ridiculous as this one, I haven’t heard it.

Waiter, waiter, there’s a fly in my soup.

Allow me to fish that out for you sir.  You wouldn’t want to spoil your appetite for the hippo.

This phrase is more than an absurd verbal picture.  It’s also a play on words.  In Aramaic, Jesus’ mother tongue, gnat is gamla and camel is gamal. So essentially these Pharisees can’t sort out their gamlas from their gamals. And the results are disastrous.

The religious leaders show an appalling lack of proportion.  They’re like Emergency Room doctors who refuse to treat a dying patient because of a technicality.  Peripheral matters blind them to the bleeding obvious.  How did they become so ridiculous?

Answer:  By doing exactly what we’re tempted to do every day.  More on that tomorrow …

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