23“What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! For you are careful to tithe even the tiniest income from your herb gardens, the mint, the dill, and the cumin, but you ignore the more important aspects of the law—justice, mercy, and faith. You should tithe, yes, but do not neglect the more important things. 24Blind guides! You strain your water so you won’t accidentally swallow a gnat, but you swallow a camel! Matthew 23:23-24
This passage is known as “The Seven Woes” pulls no punches. Jesus is calling the religious leaders on their legalism. Their goal of appearing righteous has prevented them from living rightly and they are leading others in the wrong direction right along with them. The bottom line is that they are missing the point! They can brag about tithing mint while completely ignoring the ministry's needs all around them. They can notice the nat in their drink while completely missing the need in front of them. Leviticus 11:4,23 makes it clear that eating gnats and camels is forbidden but what’s worse? Accidentally swallowing a bug won’t kill you, but swallowing a camel sure will. Jesus is using hyperbole to reveal the absurdity. What if a teacher gave student detention because he was slouching in his chair, but did nothing when he punched a classmate in the face? That’s some mixed up priorities right? Both are wrong, but the latter is far more devastating in its consequences than the former.
It seems that the natural inclination of a long-time Christian is to make a common practice out of swallowing camels. We’ve become professionals at fixating on the small detail at the cost of the big picture and in the process we’ve lost our witness. It’s November so the Starbucks Christmas cups are out. Remember the “Red Cup” controversy of 2015? In response to the minimalist cup of that year, conservative Christian internet evangelist Joshua Feuerstein launched a counter-war on Starbucks, striking back at what he perceived to be their cup-based “war on Christmas.” In a video titled “Starbucks REMOVED CHRISTMAS from their cups because they hate Jesus ... SO I PRANKED THEM ... and they HATE IT!!!!,” he outlined his complaint. “Do you realize that Starbucks wanted to take Christ and Christmas off of their brand new cups? That’s why they’re just plain red. Do you realize that Starbucks isn’t allowed to say ‘Merry Christmas’ to customers?” (The prank was that he told a barista his name was “Merry Christmas” so that they’d have to write it on the cup.) Then some politicians and other Christians voices jumped on the bandwagon. Could it be we were swallowing some camels along with our egg nog lattes? Could it be that people need to see Jesus love through our actions rather than our activism? Could it be that we would be much more effective in being the symbol of why Jesus came than fighting to have secular companies put Christian symbols on their cups? One of the most heartbreaking examples of swallowing camels happened while I pastored in Seattle. I had built a relationship with a local DJ during a wedding I performed and I had invited him and his family to attend. On Sunday they finally came a woman from a conservative Baptist background approached him before I could intercept and asked him to take his hat off in church. She let him know how disrespectful and rude it was to come to church dressed like that. I didn’t see him or his family back at church for a long time. Is it true that it’s respectful to take your hat off in church? Of course. But, in the process of defending the surface appearance she had disrespected the work of the Spirit in this man’s soul. If we aren’t careful we will do the enemy's job for him. We will run off any of the seekers in the church whenever we operate out of self-righteousness rather than Christ’s righteousness.
Lord, forgive us for washing the outside of the cup while leaving the inside filthy. Help us to see the big picture again. You were able to look past the sin of the prostitute and call out her purpose. You were able to look past the diseased skin of the leper and see the leader. You were able to call out the Pharisee in me and break my heart for those who don’t know You! I’m so thankful I don’t have to be the judge. That’s Your job. You just call me to love big and to love people right where they’re at, unmarked red cups and all.