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.
The problem with Christianity is that people judge Christ based on the people who claim to be His followers. Christians are often called hypocrites because they say one thing and do the opposite. They know the right things to do, and they can and will tell you what they are, but they aren’t always strong enough to avoid making the mistakes themselves. Paul understood that. (Romans 7:21-25) He encouraged those to whom he ministered to live in a way that could not be criticized so that their ministry would not suffer because of their faults. (Titus 2:6-8, II Corinthians 6:3)
Daniel was a shining example of this kind of integrity. King Darius had appointed Daniel as one of the supervisors over the satraps—government officials—and the king was so pleased with his service that he intended to give Daniel authority over his entire kingdom. The satraps and other supervisors would have to answer to Daniel. (Daniel 6:1-3) For some reason, people who do well are not always respected for their abilities; often they are despised. That was the case with those who envied Daniel’s position, so they tried to find a way to discredit him. (Daniel 6:4) Since Daniel not only did not commit any crimes, but apparently also made no mistakes, the other officials had nothing that they could charge against him. They knew that the only thing that would work was to create a conflict between the laws of the land and the laws of God whom Daniel worshipped faithfully. (Daniel 6:5)
In later verses you will see that the supervisors and satraps deceived the king into making a law that would prohibit Daniel from worshipping God and which would land Daniel in the lions’ den. (Daniel 6:6-28) But God was with Daniel, and he was not harmed. In the end, Daniel was rewarded for his integrity, and he prospered during the reign of King Darius. Those who accused him ended up in the lions’ den instead.
Who is watching your every step to see if you live up to the beliefs you claim? You can be sure that someone is. What was true for Daniel is true for us too. If we do what is right in God’s eyes, we can trust Him to take care of everything else. (Matthew 6:33)
What does it mean to you when you give your word? When you tell someone—your spouse, your employer, a friend—that you will do something, do you do it? Faithfulness is about being reliable, trustworthy, and constant. It’s about being loyal, devoted, dedicated and true. It means that when you give your word you keep it. It means that you don’t betray another’s trust. You don’t go behind someone’s back to dishonor them or to gain your own advantage.
Proverbs 25:13 says that a faithful messenger is as refreshing to those who send him as the cold of snow is at harvest time. Be careful not to misinterpret this. This verse is not suggesting that there would be a blanket of snow on the ground at harvest time; this would only ruin the crops. But bringing in the crops in the Middle East at harvest time would have been hot, tiring labour. The cold of snow—in a drink of water, on a cold cloth for your forehead, or in a gentle breeze—would have been most welcome. In the same way, an employer who can trust in his messenger service, has no need to be concerned. That too would be refreshing.
One of the definitions of faithfulness is to be true to the original. There is no one more faithful than the Creator. Deuteronomy 7:7-9 assures us that God loves His people, not because of anything that we have done, but because He is faithful, and He loves us. He made a promise to the ancestors of Israel, and He was faithful to keep His promises. God has made promises to us too, and He is still faithful, for He is the same yesterday, today and forever. (Hebrews 13:8) Galatians 5:22-23 tells us that faithfulness is part of the fruit of the Spirit. We can strive to be faithful, that’s a good goal, but the more we have the Holy Spirit, the more God’s faithfulness will shine through us.