Poison in Religion, Straining Our Morality

Matthew 23:23-24, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier provisions of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness; but these are the things you should have done without neglecting the others. You blind guides, who strain out a gnat and swallow a camel.”

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It is disturbing how religion can poison those who are dogmatic in their rituals and creeds. While this may seem offensive to some, it is important that we recognize that religion can be poison for those seeking a life of fullness and hope– even to those in the Church. Certainly there are those who are unbelievers that think religion is poison. That does not bother me so much as what I read about in Jesus’ response to those of His time who were the most religious: the Pharisees and the scribes.

Jesus was ruthless in his attacks against the writers of the law and the lawyers of his time. But this was with good reason. The problem was not their rituals and creeds. Rather, the problem was that in observing the rituals and creeds they neglected the very path that such rituals and creeds pointed to: justice, mercy and faithfulness. To be more clear, Jesus was not against rituals and creeds. He said, “these [tithing mint, cumin and dill] are the things you should have done without neglecting the others.”

Throughout his ministry, especially at the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus brought great clarity in distinguishing the purpose of the Law, Torah. The Law was not a bad thing. In essence, it was the gracious gift of God pointing out the pathway that his people are to be on. However, at times the Pharisees and scribes used the Law in ways that ultimately denied justice, mercy and faithfulness. This is when it became poison. This is what Jesus was after!

He said to the Pharisees and scribes, “You blind guides, who strain out a gnat and swallow a camel.” Not only is this a hilarious play on words in the original language, but this is an outright assault on their religion. A gnat is one of the tiniest creatures, yet eating one would be considered ceremonially unclean (apart from it just being gross). So to avoid this, the most religious would strain their wine, vinegar, and other potables through linen or gauze, lest they should drink down some little unclean insect and break the Law.

On the other hand, the camel was one of the largest creatures in their culture that was considered ceremonially unclean. (It has split hooves.) Jesus says that these people so devoted to their religion, strained a gnat and yet swallowed a camel. The imagery is hysterical! Both because it is so funny, and yet it is so offensively true. Earlier in this scene, Jesus had pointed out some specific areas where the devoted religious leaders had even used the Law as a means to deny justice and mercy, the very thing that it points to. The Pharisees were poisoned by their religion. They strained/ sifted their morality and only paid attention to the easiest parts of the Law.

It is humbling to see Jesus’ frustration and passion, or at least it should be. The worst thing that could be done by any person who is the least bit partial to religion, or faith, or a “relationship with Jesus” (it doesn’t matter what you call it) is to look at the Pharisees and simply agree with Jesus. This warning demands more than agreeing with Jesus and dismissing it as another one of those things that those blind religious nut Pharisees did way back when, and shame on them!

This warning should bother you and and it should bother me. I am compelled to look at my life and ask, “Where am I straining my morality? What are the spices I am giving?” Am I being poisoned by my religion? When do I use my creeds and rituals as an opportunity to deny justice, mercy and faithfulness to others? Do I give of my resources (whether time, money, etc.) to the Church and then say I do not have time or money to help those closest to me (family members who do not act like I want them to) or the orphan and widow of my day? Do I not provide for the homeless man because he is crazy or because he will use my money to buy booze? Do I withhold helping an individual because his lifestyle disagrees with my doctrine? God help me to “do these things without neglecting the others.”

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