STRAINING GNATS & SWALLOWING CAMELS
Written by Doug Ponder on July 18, 2015
Faithfulness and Failure in Response to Public Sins
The past several weeks have been a whirlwind of events filled with tragedy, confusion, and public disgraces of all kinds: A white supremacist gunned down nine black men and women after they graciously welcomed him into their place of worship. A debate arose about the appropriateness of flying a flag with a deeply checkered past. The Supreme Court ignored common sense, natural law, and the consensus wisdom of all cultures for thousands of years when they redefined marriage to include same-sex couples. And this week a sting operation revealed the horrors of Planned Parenthood are even worse than we knew. Not only do they murder millions each year, they sell the wanted body parts of unwanted babies in order to keep funding their sacrifices to Molech.
These events give Christians the opportunity for faithfulness, and for serious failure. The Scriptures, full of wisdom from God for every age, have a great deal to say about all this, and a key lesson Christians must learn—if we hope to respond appropriately to these events—is one that Jesus taught the religious leaders of his day: the problem of straining gnats and swallowing camels.
Straining Gnats and Swallowing Camels
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others. You blind guides, straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel!” (Matthew 23:23-24, ESV)
To let Jesus’ words sink in, here they are are again in a slightly differing translation:
“How terrible it will be for you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your mint, dill, and cumin, but have neglected the more important matters of the Law: justice, mercy, and faithfulness. These are the things you should have practiced, without neglecting the others. You blind guides! You filter out a gnat, yet swallow a camel!” (Matthew 23:23-24, ISV)
Straining gnats and swallowing camels is some of Jesus’ hyperbolic comedy at its finest. Sometimes our sin is so obvious that God’s response is mocking laughter meant to lead us to repentance (Prov. 1:22-27; Ps. 2:4). “He mocks proud mockers, but gives grace to the humble” (Prov. 3:34).
The point of Jesus’ teaching is not that the gnats don’t matter; they do. We don’t want to swallow gnats or camels. That’s why Jesus says, “These you ought to have done without neglecting the others” (Mt. 23:23). Both gnats and camels matter. Both are talking about things God requires of us, which is to say that both are clear commands from God. But Jesus can still say, “You have neglected the more important matters of the law,” because camels are bigger problems than gnats.
In other words, Jesus is establishing a principle of emphasis based on significance. Two things equally true and equally commanded become distorted in practice when they are emphasized in the wrong way. And that has happened a lot in response to recent events.
Confederate Flags, Abortion, and Gay Marriage
Consider the Confederate flag debate. People from varied backgrounds were calling for South Carolina to #takeitdown in the wake of the racist murders in Charleston. In response to this movement, many people began to choke on camels. Those who said the flag itself didn’t commit the murders were straining gnats and swallowing camels. Those who pointed out how the flag technically represents states rights were overlooking the historical fact of what those states rights were being used to protect (slavery). Yes, the protection of states rights is very important to discuss and debate, but we ought to represent that idea with a flag that never symbolized a state’s rights to own slaves—otherwise we’re straining gnats and swallowing camels.
And those who tweeted #takeitdown or posted about the racism of the Confederate flag, but refused to criticize abortion in the wake of the Planned Parenthood video, were swallowing an even bigger camel than the Neo-Confederates. For slavery was an evil that affected the lives of 600,000 blacks, but abortion is an evil that has taken the lives of 13 million blacks since 1973 and is still ongoing today. It’s straining gnats and swallowing camels to talk about the racism underneath a flag while ignoring the massive government-funded program of abortion, with its racist roots in eugenics and its disproportionate killing of minority children.
In a similar vein, those who criticized the makers of the Planned Parenthood video for their tactics, but who overlooked the grisly ease with which Deborah Nucatola could talk about chopping up little babies—like Denethor feasting while he sends his son to die—were straining gnats and gulping down massive camels. And it’s no use pointing out the legality of selling “human tissue” while overlooking how that “tissue” was obtained. That’s like saying it was okay for masters to beat their slaves since it was legal at the time. In the same way, it’s straining the gnat and swallowing the camel to appeal to the legality of abortion and the selling “human tissue” in defense of Planned Parenthood while overlooking the reality that we’re murdering babies and chopping up them for sale.
Finally, there was a very real danger in straining gnats and swallowing camels when it came to the constitution-shredding, logic-evading nonsense of the Supreme Court’s decision on same-sex marriage. It is right to be outraged at the death of common sense and moral reasoning derived from natural law. Their decision really was a big misstep, and our nation will pay dearly for it. But overturning those laws is not in our hands, and no amount of Facebook posts will change the situation. We are straining gnats and swallowing camels—we are screwing up the emphasis of how we should be spending our time—if we think that Facebook posts will have a greater impact than real time spent with people who have real needs. (Surely some of you will say to me, “Physician, heal thyself.” But I think Jesus would say something about a prophet and his hometown, and also about straining the gnat and swallowing a camel.)
The Only Hope We’ve Got
Above the din of our confusion another sound rises. It’s the voice of One who drank the foaming wine full of gnats and camels of our own making, and he drank it down the dregs so that he could offer us a cup that is free from every defilement. But we cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons too (1 Cor. 10:21). To receive the cup of Christ, we must repent of both the gnats and the camels as we cling to the good news of his grace (Mark 1:15). Jesus is the only hope we’ve got, and a failure to give up our gnat-straining and camel-swallowing will only harden our hearts to the grace that could have been ours (Jonah 2:8).
Doug Ponder is one of the founding pastors of Remnant Church in Richmond, VA, where he serves in many of the church’s teaching ministries. He has contributed to several published works and is the author of Rethink Marriage & Family. His interests include the intersection of theology, ethics, and the Christian life. Follow him on Twitter @dougponder.