Straining a Gnat, Swallowing a Camel

In the Gospel of Matthew, the author shows Jesus having occasionally heated exchanges with representatives from the religious group called the Pharisees. He has some powerful and often difficult things to say to them. It is clear in the text that there is animosity between members of this group and some of those who follow Jesus. The author of Matthew appears to have a rather specific ax to grind with them. Therefore, when we come to texts such as these, we must be careful. There have been times in the history of Christianity when texts like these have been used as a hammer against entire groups of people. In fact, some of these texts in Matthew have been and are sometimes still used to endorse anti-Semitic thoughts and even violence from those within the church.

While the author of Matthew clearly has some pent up anger against members of the Pharisees, the reader must remember that the author himself was Jewish, and his views represented a division of thought and practice within Judaism itself. Matthew's words, or any other words in the Bible, are no excuse for anti-Semitism (or any "ism" for that matter).

I was reminded of this today when I read Matthew's words in chapter 23 (take a moment to read the entire chapter here). These are some powerful, finger pointing words. When reading them, I find it easy to get lost in thinking something like, "Tell them Matthew! I know some people who are just like these Pharisees you are talking about! They deserve all of this and even more."

Be honest. When reading words like these, we all conjure up certain "types of people" in our mind's eye that take the place of the Pharisees. And we work hard to convince ourselves that passages like this apply directly to them. Don't they?

This is nothing more than our own pride and hypocrisy speaking. We need to remember that it is we who are often guilty of straining out a gnat but swallowing a camel (Matthew 23:24). It is we who too often impose our own pet lists of rules and regulations upon the shoulders of others in order for them to prove themselves faithful. It is our own pride and hypocrisy which create a "shibboleth" of sorts to test the "real" faith of all the rest. It is us to whom Matthew is speaking.

Tim Beach-Verhey writes of this passage, "It is so easy to confuse our interests with God's purposes, our power with God's sovereignty, our standing with God's glory. Whether we are referring to our individual or collective lives, human beings have a strong tendency to create false and sinful hierarchies that displace God's authority; we have a proclivity to ignore or rebel against God's kingdom in order to protect our minor fiefdoms. This is a particularly distasteful (and I would add dangerous), yet common, inclination among religious people and their leaders. Constant reference to God and God's purposes can easily lend our own aims, desires, and identities a semblance of holiness that is sanctimonious and hypocritical. Pious words and orthodox convictions alone do not make a person faithful" (Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 4).

Allen Hilton writes, "Lacking confidence in the divine 'yes,' we hypocrites make masks or broadcast our piety in order to win a human 'yes.' The antidote for hypocrisy is grace...Jesus keeps loving and loving, despite failings and blemishes. So into the midst of our mask makers' exhaustion comes one who just really loves our face" (ibid).

It takes courage to live the kind of life of faith that builds bridges and not walls. It takes courage to allow space for others to "work out their salvation with fear and trembling" (Philippians 2:12). It takes courage to let go of our own pious claims and vitriolic rhetoric and see others as people who are loved by "one who just really loves their face" not our homemade hypocritical masks.

Let us walk faithfully together with open hearts and open lives allowing the God of grace to love us all with divine, dangerous, boundless love. And when we err, may we err on the side of grace.


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