How terrible for you, teachers of the Law and Pharisees! You hypocrites! You give to God one tenth even of the seasoning herbs, such as mint, dill, and cumin, but you neglect to obey the really important teachings of the Law, such as justice and mercy and honesty. These you should practice, without neglecting the others. Blind guides! You strain a fly out of your drink, but swallow a camel!
[Throughout Chapter 23 Jesus delivers a long and detailed critique of the religious institution and practices of Jesus’ day. In this section I look at my own very subjective perceptions of today’s Christian practices and see how I think they measure up according to the words of Jesus.]
On Day 157 I talked about how the Temple was financed. Unlike today, most of the tithes given to the Temple in Jesus’ day were not monetary in nature. They were mostly agricultural – one-tenth of the harvest of a crop. According to the Law of Moses the tithes were given to support the Levites, who were responsible for taking care of the Temple night and day so they didn’t have time to grow their own crops. They were like the Temple’s paid staff, and the tithes were their salary.
So here in this scripture we have a picture of those silly, legalistic Pharisees with their rulers and scales, making sure that they measured off exactly 1/10 of every last little sprig of every herb grown in their gardens. They believed that this kind of nit-picky, meticulous attention to detail would make them virtuous in the eyes of God. They believed in a materialistic God who was concerned about getting his cut of everything. In reality, those herbs were going to the Levites, not God, and all this weighing and measuring was a poor substitute for a spiritual life.
Jesus accuses the Pharisees of being obsessed with strict obedience to the details of the Law regarding material objects to the exclusion of the important things – justice, mercy, and honesty. He accuses them of pettiness. The thing that jumps out at me once again is that while the Pharisees were concerned with material aspects of the Law, Jesus was concerned with the relational aspects of the Law. Herbs are necessary for a tasty stew, but justice, mercy, and honesty are necessary for a healthy communities. These are the things that make a community safe so that people don’t have to be afraid of each other. And remember, Jesus said that loving God and loving one another was the most important thing. Apparently the Pharisees weren’t very relational. Jesus kept trying to point that out to them, to no avail.
How do today’s churches fare in terms of pettiness? I don’t think you can make any generalizations about this, except that all churches have people who are petty and materialistic, and all churches have people who are not. One thing that I have seen is that it’s the petty people who tend to volunteer for church administrative positions, and they are often welcomed because they are perceived as being “competent.” That’s OK as long as the leadership team includes a group of spiritually-minded people to keep things on a healthy track. And if church members are allowed to pick on each other about their theology, clothing, sexual practices, weaknesses, inadequacies, financial commitment, participation, etc., then church will find itself in deep trouble. Regardless of whatever good works it may be doing. Jesus would not be pleased. He would see people fooling around with herbs while people’s hearts and spirits were being wounded.
This scripture underscores that we always need to be on guard against petty distractions. We have to make sure that in the process of trying to keep things going, we don’t miss the forest for the trees. It’s always good remind each other that the spiritual and relational aspects of the church are far more important than the legalistic and material aspects. Jesus says that those are the important things.
To emphasize this concept, Jesus offers a little of his distinctive, visceral humor as depicted in this clever drawing. Here we have our Pharisee with his strainer full of little flies that he has carefully strained out of his drink, while he is happily preparing to swallow a camel. The flies represent sins regarding petty things like the tithing of herbs. The camel represents the big sins like injustice, meanness, and dishonesty. So the Pharisees are offended by the little flies but they don’t mind swallowing the giant camel. Pretty comical. Well, the illustration is comical. The concept is important. The Pharisees think that God will find them blameless because of their meticulous measuring of herbs, when in reality they are ignoring all kinds of important laws, like the command to love one another. And more important, they are leading people astray with both their teachings and their example. They are missing the whole point. They don’t know what’s important. They are steeped in sins of omission because they aren’t tuned in. People are getting hurt all around them, and they aren’t paying any attention. They aren’t listening to God like Jesus is. They are blinded by their fixation with rules and materialism.
What does this scripture say to you?