The three-year Lectionary that many Catholics and Protestants hear in public worship gives us a great variety of Holy Scripture.
Yet, it doesn’t tell the whole story.
My series Forbidden Bible Verses — ones the Lectionary editors and their clergy omit — examines the passages we do not hear in church. These missing verses are also Essential Bible Verses, ones we should study with care and attention. Often, we find that they carry difficult messages and warnings.
23 “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. 24 You blind guides, straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel!
This is the fourth of seven woes — judgements — that Jesus pronounces on the scribes and Pharisees.
The fourth woe concerns their being more interested in the minutiae of observing the tithes of herbs and seeds rather than God’s greater laws of justice, mercy and faithfulness (verse 23). Jesus rebukes them for not observing both.
The parallel verse is Luke 11:42:
“But woe to you Pharisees! For you tithe mint and rue and every herb, and neglect justice and the love of God. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others.
Jesus also related the Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector, involving a Pharisee who boasted of tithing all that he possessed (Luke 18:9-14).
The command to give tithes of herbs and seeds to God is stated in Deuteronomy 14:22:
“You shall tithe all the yield of your seed that comes from the field year by year.
It was easier for the Pharisees to enhance their reputations by placing great weight on crop and seed tithes rather than exhort themselves and the faithful to love their neighbour. The same is true today of some churches where legalism takes priority over mercy and compassion.
Another aspect, as Matthew Henry surmises, is that the Pharisees got some sort of self-enhancement by exacting tithes:
it is probable that they had ends of their own to serve, and would find their own account in it for the priests and Levites, to whom the tithes were paid …
John MacArthur tells us that tithes continue in Judaism, although they are no longer of the same nature as in the Old Testament.
However, where the Church is concerned, tithing is not obligatory (emphases mine):
… the tithe is mentioned six times in the New Testament. Three times in the gospels and each time it is mention in the text condemning the abuse of it by the scribes and the Pharisees. Three times in the book of Hebrews when it simply reaches back and describes its historical reality in the history of Israel. At no time is it ever mentioned in the New Testament as binding on the church. It had to do with taxation of the national government of Israel.
That cannot be emphasised enough. Churchgoers do not have to tithe. Nor should they be required to do so.
Verse 24 is one I have wondered about all my life. Before explaining its meaning, it is worth pointing out that Jesus once more called the scribes and Pharisees ‘blind guides’ — spiritually blind leaders of the faithful. They were false teachers actively leading their people to perdition, hence the seven woes.
Previously, Jesus made a previous reference to them as ‘blind guides’ in verse 16, as ‘blind fools’ in verse 17 and as ‘blind men’ in verse 19.
What was Jesus speaking of when He rebuked them for ‘straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel’?
As we know, Mosaic law, which observant Jews still abide by today, forbids the consumption of certain creatures. The gnat is the least of these and the camel the greatest. This goes some way towards explaining the meaning behind the verse.
In some versions, such as the King James, the verse says ‘straining at a gnat’, which causes confusion for modern readers and listeners. MacArthur tells us:
“You blind guides, you strain out,” it should be, “you strain out a gnat and swallow a camel.” You say what in the world is this? Well, you have to understand something about this. The word strain means to filter, diulizo, filter.
In Jesus’s time, the Jewish leaders were careful to remove any gnats that might have flown into their wine. MacArthur explains:
They make wine and as they’re making, crushing the grapes, a little gnat is flying around, he lands in the grapes, he gets gobbled up in the grapes, winds up in the wine or maybe he just flies in the wine and lands there. So the fastidious Pharisee drank his wine like this. Then he picked the gnat off his teeth …
That made them look pious to each other and to onlookers.
What all were ignoring were the greater violations of God’s law: the business (which it was) of the faithful making oaths to free themselves from observing one or more of the Ten Commandments in favour of ‘tradition’. One of these was the Corban which released one from honouring one’s father and mother (Mark 7:9-13), which I discussed in 2010. Here are the verses (emphases mine):
9And he said to them, “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to establish your tradition! 10For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother’; and, ‘Whoever reviles father or mother must surely die.’ 11But you say, ‘If a man tells his father or his mother, “Whatever you would have gained from me is Corban”‘ (that is, given to God)— 12then you no longer permit him to do anything for his father or mother, 13thus making void the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down. And many such things you do.”
This is the explanation of how the Corban worked:
Jesus points out to them that they distorted the commandment of honouring one’s father and one’s mother. According to the Pharisees, if a child did not wish to obey that commandment, he had a get-out clause (verses 9-10). The child could swear by the gold of the temple and the gift upon the altar — the Corban — that he washed his hands of his parents (verse 11). Should his parents ask anything of him, all he had to do is say that he made his oath (verses 12 and 13).
This is what He rebuked in Matthew 23:16-19.
The Corban and similar evasions of the Commandments were what Jesus referred to as ‘swallowing a camel’. It was a figurative way of saying that their tradition was a huge sin and violation of God’s supreme law in favour of insistence on fine minutiae that brought them prestige. It was as bad as if they had swallowed a camel.
MacArthur gives us this interpretation of Jesus’s message:
In other words, you are all confused. You’re whole priority system is inverted. You’re just fooling around with stuff that doesn’t matter. And blind to the enormous evil that you’re consuming. You’re afraid to eat the tenth mint leaf and then you’re allowing into your life hypocrisy, dishonesty, cruelty, greed, self-worship; incredible.
We can better understand this verse now that it has a context.
In closing, Matthew Henry reminds us of the importance of observing God’s greater laws and Jesus’s rebuke of the scribes and Pharisees, who cared nothing for the ordinary or destitute Jew:
Judgment and mercy toward men, and faith toward God, are the weightier matters of the law, the good things which the Lord our God requires (Micah 6:8) to do justly, and love mercy, and humble ourselves by faith to walk with God. This is the obedience which is better than sacrifice or tithe judgment is preferred before sacrifice, Isaiah 1:11. To be just to the priests in their tithe, and yet to cheat and defraud every body else, is but to mock God, and deceive ourselves. Mercy also is preferred before sacrifice, Hosea 6:6. To feed those who made themselves fat with the offering of the Lord, and at the same time to shut up the bowels of compassion from a brother or a sister that is naked, and destitute of daily food, to pay tithe-mint to the priest, and to deny a crumb to Lazarus, is to lie open to that judgment without mercy, which is awarded to those who pretended to judgment, and showed no mercy nor will judgment and mercy serve without faith in divine revelation for God will be honoured in his truths as well as in his laws.
John MacArthur concludes:
It’s amazing how fastidious religious people can be and so far from the reality of what God seeks. So many false spiritual leaders reverse divine priorities, substitute insignificant forms and outward acts of religion for essential realities of the heart. You see, that’s the point. So the false spiritual leaders are condemned for exclusion, perversion, subversion, inversion, how about extortion for a fifth; extortion.
This is why true Christians condemn legalism. It has no basis in Scripture. God will judge it harshly.
Next time: Matthew 23:25-26