by Wye Huxford
Anyone familiar with Matthew 23 knows that when you read that chapter you are entering Jesus' most intense and direct criticism of the religious world into which He was sent as Redeemer. It all seems to revolve around the primary concern on the part of Jesus that the religious teachers were teaching one thing and doing something else. "Do whatever they teach you and follow it," Jesus says, "but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach" (23:3).
Jesus then proceeds to announce a series of seven woes, each of them denouncing the emptiness of religious ritual that isn't acted out in the daily living of those who lead. In six of the seven statements of woe, Jesus uses the word hypocrite as the indictment of their approach to serving God. In one of the statements (beginning in verse 16) the indicting phrase is "blind fools."
For me, the most telling of this series of indicting comments on how faith sometimes gets practiced is the one found in verses 23 and 24. There Jesus acknowledges their attention to detail - they "tithe mint, dill, and cumin." That's pretty intense. They are determined, apparently, to tithe everything - even the tiny little value produced by the herb garden in their backyards.
But in doing that, they have ignored "the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith." In my mind, I can see them walking by a man like Lazarus in Luke's story of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19ff) while rushing to get to the Temple with a teaspoon of dill as the tithe from this year's crop. Jesus doesn't suggest that they should not have tithed - but that it is so easy for religious people to let trivial things trump the gospel.
This little statement ends with the absurdity of straining out the gnats while choking on a camel. Both gnats and camels were "unclean" according to the Law, but how odd that they would make sure the tiny little gnats were strained out as they attempted to swallow a camel whole.
My guess is that these ancient Jewish teachers aren't the last people to choke to death on camel stew! The truth is that we often allow trivial things to get in the way of what is essential to being just, merciful, and faithful. William Willimon talks about this reality in his book Calling and Character . In a chapter talking about the sacrifices that those called to ministry must face, he says, "The cross teaches us to have no qualms about suffering in service to the gospel. What is immoral is not one's suffering in service to the gospel, but rather one's suffering in service to triviality" (page 113).
Leave it to Jesus not to give us the simple answer we so desperately want. We live in an age where we are drawn to "simple and easy" and yet Jesus seems so unimpressed by "simple and easy." So He doesn't tell me in this text just to ignore what, in comparison to justice, mercy, and faith, seem so trivial. Rather He tells me don't let the fact that I do those trivial things convince me that I can ignore the more weighty things. Allowing the weightier things to have a place in my life is what gives the trivial things real meaning.
Jesus doesn't seem to be "anti-ritual" here as much as He seems to want ritual to have meaning. That happens only to the extent that we allow gospel to trump trivialities. Even if I end up suffering for the gospel, I should not be reluctant; have no qualms about it.
Sometime around mid-November we believers in the U.S. start thinking about Thanksgiving. Despite more and more commercial encroachment every year, it still seems to me to be the most untarnished of our holidays. Perhaps this year's season of thanksgiving can be a time to look carefully at our own lives in the context of gospel versus triviality. We can thank God for those times when gospel trumps trivialities and ask for His help in getting better at justice, mercy, and faith rather than merely tithing the herb garden!
Choking to death on camel stew seems a painful way to go!