“Straining at gnats,” is a figure of speech which denotes being overly picky and concerned about details. Most often, when people use the figure, they are wanting the other person to stop “straining at gnats,” and let the details slide. It’s an odd sort of phrase, with something of a Biblical origin, and we wonder how many people actually stop and think about what they are saying when they use the expression.
The origin of the phrase is found in Matthew 23:24, where Jesus, in the middle of a fierce and lengthy rebuke of the Pharisees and the Scribes, says, “Blind guides, who strain out a gnat and swallow a camel!”
Both gnats (small flies) and camels were unclean under the Law of Moses, and the Pharisees, in their desire to be pure under the Law, went to some lengths to make sure there were no flies in their food. Jesus, however, it should be pointed out, was not advocating eating flies.
Indeed, most of us are quite appreciative of those cooks that keep the flies out of our food. Can you imagine going to a restaurant and finding a bunch of dead flies in your soup? Can you imagine bringing this to the attention of the waiter and being told that you should be thankful that at least it wasn’t a dead camel? One suspects that most people, upon discovering a dining establishment which didn’t care how many dead bugs were in the food, would promptly vow never to eat there again.
Moreover, in the original context of Jesus’ quote, as we have already said, both camels and flies were equally unclean. It would have been a sin for a Jew to eat a camel; but it was equally sinful to eat flies. The size of the animal did not affect the moral obligation of the Jew to avoid eating that animal, under the law. God had given rules about both.
What Jesus was doing was using absurdity to illustrate a point about the hypocrisy of the Pharisees. It is absurd to imagine a person meticulous about the flies in their food, but then somehow missing the huge, dead camel on their dish. In the same way, the Pharisees, Jesus pointed out, were doing great work in tithing mint leaves, counting every leaf on their plants and giving to God His due, but, somehow, they had missed out on that obvious part of God’s law where He had told them, “love your neighbor.”
The full quote is thus: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. These you ought to have done, without leaving the others undone. Blind guides, who strain out a gnat and swallow a camel!” (Matthew 23:23-24; NKJV)
Notice that Jesus was not advocating ignoring the small details. Rather, He says of the details, “these you ought to have done.” It was good and right to pay attention to the “jots and tittles” of God’s Law (cf. Matthew 5:18), and concerning those little details, Jesus likewise taught, “Whoever therefore breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:19; NKJV)
Yet it makes no sense to spend all our time on the fine points of God’s Word, when we can’t even get the first principles correct. When there is a beam in one’s own eye, that beam must be removed before we can deal with the specks. We might point out, in like fashion to flies in the food, nobody enjoys small pieces of dirt in their eyes. Jesus was all in favor of lovingly removing specks out of your brother’s eye. But while specks are nice to get out, beams take priority. (cf. Matthew 7:2-5)
So what is our point?
First, you shouldn’t go around cheerfully swallowing flies. This is true, culinarily speaking, but it is also true theologically and morally. Every word of God is pure, and He gives us those fine details for a reason. (cf. Proverbs 30:5-6; 2 Timothy 3:15-17) Men should pay attention to them. It matters how we worship, how God established the church to be run, and whether or not we are striving to do our best to be obedient to God and Christ in all things (cf. Colossians 3:17)
At the same time, camel swallowing is equally foolish. Jesus pointed to Righteousness, Mercy, and Faith, as some of the weightier matters men should deal with first. If you are shacking up with your girlfriend (or boyfriend), stealing from your boss, constantly losing your temper with others, and focusing your life on getting ahead materially, then you have some obvious and immediate issues that need dealt with in your life, and until those things are dealt with, the rest is almost immaterial. Get the camel out of your soup, and then you will be able to see better whether there are any flies you should also deal with.
God wants us to have a holistic approach to our spiritual life, paying attention to matters small and great, not going either to the left, nor to the right of what He teaches us to do. If this is a need in your life, and you would like to learn more about God’s plan for your life, the church of Christ invites you to study and worship with us at 234 Chapel Drive, Gallipolis, Ohio. Likewise, if you have any questions, please share them with us through our website: chapelhillchurchofchrist.org
Jonathan McAnulty is minister of Chapel Hill Church of Christ.