After my last two posts on hyperbole, one of my regular readers asked me to do one more. Matthew 23:24. Jesus is talking to the Pharisees, and He points out that they avoid swallowing a gnat, but they gulp down a camel. Yes, the verb swallow is a tame rendering of the word used in the original language. Jesus painted quite a dramatic picture of them carefully straining out the smallest creature and carelessly, perhaps even enthusiastically, chugging down the largest. It was not uncommon for a camel to be used metaphorically because of its size, but in this case it was also a bit of a word play, since in Aramaic the word for gnat (galma) and the word for camel (gamla) were so similar. Both were considered to be unclean animals under the law, so the Pharisees would not want to take either into their bodies. They truly did strain their wine through a cloth to avoid swallowing the gnats that would be attracted to it.
Of course, they didn’t really swallow a camel. Obviously, this is hyperbole, but what does it mean? Let’s take a look at the context. Earlier in the conversation (Matthew 22:34-40), the Pharisees asked Jesus which was the greatest commandment. You are probably aware that the Pharisees were pretty attentive to the commandments, making sure that everyone followed them diligently, so they had probably often discussed among themselves which was the most important. Now they were testing Jesus with the question. Jesus answered them by telling them to love God and to love their neighbour. Then He took a turn asking the questions. (Matthew 22:41-46)
Jesus, unlike the crowd, could see that the Pharisees were only religious on the surface, and He tells the people that the Pharisees are hypocrites. (Matthew 23:1-12) By the time we get to Matthew 23:24, He has called them blind guides a couple of times. You see, they were the teachers of the law. They were the example for all the people to follow. It wasn’t just themselves that they were leading down the wrong path. If a blind person is leading a blind person, chances are that they won’t end up at their desired destination. Matthew 15:14 says that they will both fall into a pit. This is so much more important when the destination is your eternal home.
Jesus tells the Pharisees where they have gone wrong. (Matthew 23:13-32) This section is known as The Seven Woes. The gnat and the camel come in at the fourth woe. (Matthew 23:23-24) Jesus points out that the Pharisees very strictly obey the law of tithing, to the point of tithing even the smallest herbs. And Jesus doesn’t have anything against that. After all, the Levites depended on the tithe for their livelihood. Jesus doesn’t have a problem with straining out the gnats, but He also wants them to strain out the camel. He wants them to go beyond the external, visible rule-following. He wants them to get the bigger picture, and work on the internal components too. He desires the same for us. Yes, it is good to give financially to our churches; the ministries depend on our giving to keep them going. But God wants more than that from us. In Micah 6:6-7, the prophet asks, as a worshipper might, what the Lord would like as a sacrifice. The answer is found in Micah 6:8. He wants us to promote justice, to be faithful, and to live obediently before our God. Many translations say to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with our God. In Matthew 23:23, that is also what Jesus says is the most important. Justice, mercy and faithfulness. Love God. Love your neighbour.