Swallowing the Camel—Legalism

We all know the expression to ‘strain at a gnat and swallow a camel.’ Quick! What does it mean? What is Jesus talking about?

Religious Leaders

You may think it difficult to swallow a camel; you might gag if you tried. But there were people in Jesus’ day who did it all the time—figuratively of course. Jesus is talking about religious leaders, as he often does. In fact, this statement is part of the strongest barrage Jesus lets loose on them. Jesus tells the crowd not to copy the religious leaders because they do everything for the wrong reasons.

The religious leaders seem impressive to the common people, but they are even more impressive to themselves. By their prideful behavior, they say, ‘Whoa! Look how big my phylactery is!’ or ‘Whoa! I am so special I deserve to sit in the best seat in the house!’, or ‘Whoa! You can just call me Teacher!’


Seven Woes

In Matthew chapter 23, Jesus responds with his own list of list of ‘woes’, and this is one of them,

Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.

What is the issue here? It is legalism; they were observing the details of religion but were blind to the big picture. As an example, Jesus points to their meticulous attention to tithing—right down to their spices. Now there is nothing wrong with being meticulous in religious practices unless you hurt others or demand that they follow your example; but this is what the religious leaders did! This is one of Jesus’ accusations earlier in this passage,

They tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them.

Justice, Mercy and Faithfulness

While the religious leaders tried to impress others, set themselves as examples impossible for others to follow, and drew a distinction between themselves and the common people, they did not attend to the big picture of serving God: Justice — Mercy — Faithfulness. They were blind guides.

The Father has tremendous love and compassion for the common people. He understands their problems and pressures; their fears and concerns. This does not mean he loves religious leaders less, but many seem to be self-satisfied in their religious ‘acting’ (which is what hypocrisy means). When they come humbly to the Father, he receives them with joy. In the meantime, they are creating difficulty for the common people whom he loves.

What about Us? How Should We Live?

What the Father wants from those who act as religious leaders is justice, mercy, and faithfulness in regard to others. Notice that religious leaders are not just scribes—teachers of God’s word (pastors); they are also Pharisees—laymen who follow the teachers, and who demonstrate shallow service to God in public life, but look down on the common people.

Not all religious leaders fit the description of legalistic blind guides; some religious leaders ARE guided by justice, mercy, and faithfulness. Let us be like those leaders. If we are guided by legalism, we major in minors; we are penny wise and pound foolish; we strain out gnats and swallow camels.

Your observations and comments are welcome below.
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9 Responses to Swallowing the Camel—Legalism

  1. Excellent points Tim… When we focus on the ritual too much, in many cases we miss the message God intends for us.

    Thank you for sharing this!

    Have a Blessed Day!

    (One quick note, the passage you quoted was from Matthew 23, not 33… 🙂 )


    • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

      Thanks for your comments, Phil, and particularly for the heads-up on the typo. I am sure all biblical scholars would love to get hold of a copy of Matthew chapter 33! I proofed this page several times and never noticed the error. Thanks to you, it is corrected.


  2. Andy says:

    I always seem to find either of the extremes in churches today either too many rules or none at all. Maybe “Rules ” is the wrong term for me to use here. I once heard a religious radio talk show host talk about the old testament vs. Jesus in the new Testament and he talked about how the Rules are actually harder in the New testament. i.e. old testament – Do not commit adultery “physically” ….New testament – If you just see a woman and lust..you have committed adultery in your heart already. He gives other examples. I don’t think we should constantly focus on rules and sin but I do think that if we love Jesus and want to follow him that there will be a change in us and we will want to be pure and put away sin. I think we may still struggle with certain sins but once we decide to follow Jesus we will actually want to change our life. I do think that pastors should talk about sin though. I don’t think they should just focus on grace and God’s love for us but I don’t think pastors should be beating us over the head with a Bible.


    • Thanks for the feedback Andy. I agree with what you said: “If we love Jesus and want to follow him that there will be a change in us and we will want to be pure and put away sin.” I think proper behavior springs from the heart and involves considering the good of ourselves and other people. I would love to hear preachers talking about how to do that rather than condemning people for doing, or not doing, ‘things’ they do that really don’t matter.


  3. What is interesting is that both camels and gnats were unclean according to the law. In striving to conform to the smallest part of the law (not eating a gnat) they missed the larger points of the law (the camel). Exactly what you said. Thanks, David


  4. Pingback: Approaching the Father | Jesus Without Baggage

  5. Githaiganjoroge says:

    a good eye opener to the contemporary church..

    Liked by 1 person

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