By Hoyt Houchen
Question: What does Jesus mean in Matthew 23.24? How does this apply to us today?
Reply: In Matthew 23, Jesus pronounced a series of woes upon the hypocritical scribes and Pharisees. He gave them a scathing rebuke because they would “say, and do not” (v. 3). They would bind heavy burdens upon others, but they themselves would “not move them with their finger” (v. 4). Their works were done to be seen of men (v. 5) and Jesus gave some examples. They loved preeminence, so Jesus proceeded to teach them a lesson on humility (vv. 8-12). Beginning with verse 13, Jesus pointed out their inconsistencies and saying they were blind guides in verse 16. Then in verse 23 and 24 Jesus said to them, “Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye tithe mint and anise and cummin, and have left undone the weightier matters of the law, justice and mercy, and faith: but these ye ought to have done, and not to have left the other undone. Ye blind guides, that strain out the gnat, and swallow the camel!”
Jesus was dealing with a group of men to whom religion had become merely a matter of outward observance. They were interested in many little rules of conduct, but were neglecting the chief things in the law (Matt. 23:23; Lk. 11:42). In doing this, they were straining out the gnat and swallowing the camel. The Greek word for “strain” (diulize) means “to filter through, strain thoroughly, pour through a filter” (Thayer, Greek-English Lexicon, p. 153). The expression used by Jesus was proverbial. It simply means that they were nice, scrupulous and zealous about the little things but unconcerned about the greater matters. They were stressing outward rites and ceremonies but neglecting a proper attitude af the heart. It is significant to note, that while they were meticulous in straining out a gnat (which was unclean, Lev. 11:42), they were gulping down a large animal, a camel (also unclean, Lev. 11:4). They did this by tithing mint, dill and cummin but ignoring justice, mercy and faith. Their time was utilized with what was less important, in contrast to the really important commands of God’s law. The Arabians have a similar proverb to the one Jesus used: “He swallowed an elephant, but was strangled by a flea.” The conduct of these scribes and Pharisees is well expressed by Lenski: “Could blindness go farther? To fail to pay the full tenth of tiny garden herbs a mortal crime! to disregard the heavenly virtues themselves – not a qualm, not even a thought” (The Interpretation of Matthew, p. 910). Jesus indeed used a very impressive image to illustrate how a set of men were so conscientious about small matters, and yet so careless about the more important.
Having interpreted the meaning of the passage, there are many examples of how some are doing what those rebuked by Jesus were doing. Many today are much more concerned about the material things of life rather than spiritual matters. This is true of the non-Christian, who is very scrupulous about making a living and providing physical needs for his family, yet neglects the soul (see Matt. 16:26). Too often brethren are more mindful of their businesses, pleasures and sports than they are in serving God. The things they are fervently zealous about are trivial when compared to the business of the Lord.
Brethren frequently become so absorbed in unrevealed matters that they spend more time speculating rather than giving attention to the salvation of their own soul and others. Much valuable time has been spent on arguing and speculating about Paul’s “thorn in the flesh” (2 Cor. 12:7) and other such passages, while giving little or no time to teaching the lost.
So many brethren are meticulous about how they dress, what they eat, what kind of house they live in and what kind of automobile they drive, but unmindful of their faithfulness to God. They will miss assembling with the saints for the most trivial excuses. Then there are others who would not think of missing any service, but they are penurious about their giving and they never think about talking to someone about his soul.
Too many of us are like Martha, who was “anxious and troubled about many things,” while neglecting the one thing that is needful (see Lk. 10:41,42). We become so absorbed with little things (those which are trivial) that we neglect our more important obligation – our duty to God. We misplace our priorities and become inconsistent like the scribes and Pharisees in this regard – we “strain out the gnat, and swallow the camel.” Many more examples could be given, but these are a few that illustrate how Matthew 23:24 applies to us today.
Guardian of Truth XXVIII: 2, p. 36
January 19, 1984