NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
by Dr. Robert R. Seyda
GOSPEL OF MATTHEW
Verse 24: “You are delusional! You strain a gnat out of your drink, then turn around and swallow a camel!”
Here again, Jesus opens another four-fold series of indictments against the Pharisees and scribes on their dichotomous interpretation of verbal law, and God’s law. He starts with their punctilious payment of tithes, right down to the spices given to them. He matches three spices with three virtues. There is no reason to draw any inference as to how they match up either in essentials or use. However, there is a subliminal touché that Jesus accomplishes against the Pharisees’ pride.
According to the Jewish Mishnah: “Rue weed, wild asparagus, pigweed, mountain coriander, water parsley, and meadow berries, are exempt from tithes because tithes are only taken from owned produce; the aforementioned are generally abandoned and are considered ownerless property and are not subject to tithes.”1 In other words, such spices were not subject to tithing, yet they did it anyway just for show. But we can also see that the three spices were designed to make them feel good when mixed with their soups and salads, while the three virtues are designed to make others feel good when mixed with compassion.
Here we have the same principle at work in the prophet Samuel’s question: “Which pleases the LORD more: burnt offerings and sacrifices or obeying His commands? It is better to obey the Lord than to offer sacrifices to Him. It is better to listen to Him than to offer the fat from rams.”2 And Proverbs echoes the same sentiment, “Do what is right and fair. The LORD loves that more than sacrifices.”3
This was also the prophet Hosea’s message to the people, “This is because I want faithful love, not sacrifice. I want people to know God, not to bring burnt offerings.”4 One Jewish Rabbi comments on this verse: “We see that the burnt offering is the most beloved of sacrifices, for the burnt offering is entirely consumed by the flames. But the study of Torah is more beloved by God than burnt offerings. For if a man studies Torah he comes to know the will of God.”5 In other words, to know the will of God one must study the word of God. Hosea goes on to mention the acts of loving-kindness God expected, because “From the very first the world was created only with mercy.6”7
When Jesus mentions the weightier or more important issues in keeping the law, no doubt the Pharisees and scribes knew that He was making a reference to the teachings in the Mishnah, where Rabbis were discussing what proselytes should be taught. If he can prove his desire to be a proselyte, then the Rabbi says, “…he is accepted straightaway, and is given instruction in some of the minor and some of the major commandments,”8 among which was the “Poor Man’s Tithe.”9 So in effect, Jesus was putting these scribes and Pharisees on the level of proselytes in their knowledge and understanding of the law. The Jews had a law, which forbids them the eating of any creeping thing, and of this they were strict observant.10
With regard to straining out a gnat, we discover that this Greek word kōnōps is used only here in the New Testament. We are told that it refers to a wine gnat or midge that is bred in fermenting and evaporating wine. Straining was to prevent ingestion and thereby becoming impure. For instance, in the Jewish Talmud, we find: “If one eats a flea or a gnat he is an apostate. Now such a thing could only be done to provoke, and yet we are taught that he is merely an apostate! — Even in that case, he may just be trying to see what a forbidden thing tastes like.”11
And, a highly respected Rabbi states: “One who eats an entire fly or an entire mosquito [gnat] whether alive or dead is worthy of lashes for partaking of a flying teeming animal.”12 Jesus is using this as an illustration of their inconsistency and hypocrisy. In other words, while they are trying to avoid being called an apostate, they are in fact showing themselves to be renegades. It was simply using one of the smallest of creatures in comparison with one of the largest to illustrate how they were so picky in pointing out the smallest of misdeed in others while ignoring the biggest mistake in their own lives.
One Jewish polemic writer sees Jesus teaching here in a different light. He says: “He meant, ‘I am the camel.’ Now, those prophets who are as significant as gnats you leave alone and tell nothing; indeed, you even accept their prophecies. But as for me who am as important as a camel and who came to suffer tribulations for your sake – just as a camel bears the burden willingly, so did I descend willingly to suffer tribulations and so redeem the world – you swallow me up; i.e., it is your intention to kill me.”13 In all my studies and reading I’ve not found any other scholar who accepts this interpretation. But it does show the faulty mentality that our Lord encountered.
Verse 25: Then comes the next warning. “It will be bad for you teachers of the law and you Pharisees! You are hypocrites! You wash clean the outside of your cups and dishes. But inside they are full of what you got by cheating others and pleasing yourselves.”
Rabban Gamaliel offered a similar comparison between what was on the outside not corresponding to what was on the inside. He proclaimed: “No disciple whose character does not correspond to his exterior may enter the Beth ha-Midrash.”14 We must make note at this point, what Jesus is saying here is still tied to His admonition about the inconsistency of the Jews who swore on the gold as being more valid that swearing on the Temple. And, swearing on the offering gave more certainly to the vow than swearing on the altar.
Early church bishop Apollinaris gives his explanation: “The law of Moses taught through the use of symbols how to maintain purity throughout life’s activities. It was the custom of the Jews, passed on to them from their ancient traditions, to wash carefully their cups and the dish that contained their food. They observed these practices to maintain their purity and to avoid contact with “sinful people.” Their aim was that they might flee from fellowship with sinners.… How much more through such practices were they preparing themselves to flee from sin itself. And yet those who were carefully observing these practices were themselves acting like robbers and violently making a profit, becoming loathsome by doing so. Therefore Jesus says this: ‘Flee unrighteousness, O blind Pharisee. For you fail to perceive how you are acting. For what is in the cup and dish are clean if they are not gained in an unrighteous manner. Righteousness cleanses the vessel much better than water.’”15
Then early church theologian Origen has this to say: “If it is proper to regard everything in the gospel according to the moral sense … we can say that it is a sort of spiritual food and spiritual drink that we receive when we read the law and the prophets in Scripture. Indeed, the language through which we take our spiritual drink and the biblical narratives on which we are nourished are the plates and cups for our food and drink. This is why we are warned not to take as much care for their outside as we do for their inside so that our hearts might be filled with pure understanding, not merely adorned with fine rhetoric and grammar. For ‘the Kingdom of God does not consist in words but in power.’16 Whoever strives harder to dress his speech in elegant composition than to fill it with saving doctrine has cleaned only the outside, but the inside remains stained with vanity.…We can also say that the very words of the law and the prophets are the cups of spiritual drink for souls and that the plates or bowls of nourishing food for the faithful are their wise authors. The scribes and Pharisees work diligently at discerning only the external, literal meaning of these prophetic cups and plates and bowls, eager to demonstrate that the vessels themselves are pure and holy. The disciples of Christ … hasten to purify and sanctify the interior, spiritual meaning by means of knowledge and credible explanations, so that they might eat and drink the law and the prophets whose inside has been purified, desiring as they do to hear and understand the interior, mystical meaning and to go beyond the literal sense of the words.”17
Verse 26: “Pharisees, you are blind! First, make the inside of the cup clean and good. Then the outside of the cup will also be clean.”
There is no evidence that Jesus found the Pharisees and scribes in the same condition that Isaiah did: “But now those leaders are drunk. The priests and prophets are all drunk with wine and beer. They stumble and fall down. The prophets are drunk when they see their dreams. The judges are drunk when they make their decisions. Every table is covered with vomit. There is not a clean place anywhere”18 However, what our Lord saw was just as despicable and disgusting. This was a very important part of a strict Jewish family’s life.
As a matter of fact, in the Jewish Mishnah there is a whole tractate giving rules about the places where they washed, the things to be washed, and the manner of washing them; about which they were very nice, pretending to have achieved outward cleanness but had no regard for inward purity.19 For instance, in Chapter 1, they discuss what constitutes pure water, its source, etc. Then in Chapter 2, they talk about how much its depth constitutes immersion.
As John Gill points out, “Christ’s sense is, that they took much pain, and were very careful, that the cup they drank out of, and the platter, or dish they ate off of, should be very clean; when at the same time, the food and drink that were within them, were acquired by oppression and plundering; by devouring widows’ houses, by making undue claims upon, and extorting unjust sums from the fatherless, the poor, and the needy; and were abused by them, to enjoy luxury and intemperance. In like manner, the Jews themselves say of hypocrites.”20 Then, our Lord transitions to another form of impurity which the Pharisees and scribes have attempted to camouflage.
1 Ibid., First Division: Zeraim, Tractate Shevi’it, Ch. 9:1
2 I Samuel 15:22
3 Proverbs 21:3
4 Hosea 6:6, (See Micah 6:7-8)
5 The Fathers According to Rabbi Nathan, Ch. 4, loc. cit., p. 32
6 Psalm 89:2
7 The Fathers, ibid., p. 34
8 Mishnah, op. cit. Third Division: Nashim, Tractate Yebamoth, folio 47a
9 The poor man’s tithe is based Levitical Laws, and can be called “the tithe for the poor.” See Rashi’s Commentary on the Pentateuch, Deuteronomy 26:12
10 Leviticus 11:41
11 Babylonian Talmud, op. cit. Seder Nezikin, Masekhet Avodah Zarah, folio 26b
12 Moses Maimonides, Mishnah Torah, op. cit. Sefer Kedushah, Tractate Ma’achalot Assurot, Ch. 2, Halacha 22
13 Naẓẓaḥon Vetus, loc. cit., p. 222
14 Babylonian Talmud, Seder Zera’im, Masekhet Berachoth, folio 28a; a Beth ha’Midrash refers to a Jewish study hall located inside the synagogue.
15 Apollinaris: Commentary fragment 117
16 1 Corinthians 4:20
17 Origen: Commentary on Matthew 22-23
18 Isaiah 28:7-8
19 Mishnah, op. cit. Fifth Division: Tohorot, Tractate Mikva’ot
20 John Gill, Exposition of the Bible Commentary, loc. cit.