Hi I’m Curtis, and I am a recovering camel gulper.
No, you read that sentence right. I used to love to gulp down camels. Honestly, sometimes I still do. And in my spare time I would also love staring at and studying gnats. They are fascinating honestly. I would just stare at them for hours on end with a few quick camel gulps in between.
Okay, obviously I don’t actually gulp camels, nor do I strain at gnats, but I honestly did do the very thing that Jesus accuses people of when He talks about camel gulping to the pharisees. Sometimes I still do. Perhaps you do too, but before I explain what I mean, let’s just take a quick look at the passage I’m talking about.
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! You pay a tenth of mint, dill, and cumin, yet you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy, and faith. These things should have been done without neglecting the others. Blind guides! You strain out a gnat, yet gulp down a camel! (Matthew 23:23–24)
Here is an encounter between the Jesus and the religious leaders of the day, and you can see that Jesus has some harsh things to say (this is only a small portion of the correction He gives them). Basically here He tells them that they pay their tenth and give what they should be, but they neglect the more important matters, namely justice, mercy, and faith. This is a big accusation! Essentially Jesus says, “Yeah yeah, you give as you should and all but you aren’t paying attention to the really important things you should be doing. The more important parts of the law. You aren’t seeking out justice, and mercy, and faith!”
Jesus says they spend all their time straining out a gnat. They focus really hard on these small things, but they just go right ahead and gulp down something huge! The gnat is something tiny. Sure, take a look at it and deal with it, but don’t just run real quick past the camel to get to your gnat!
This is something that has been so true of me. Now I think we all might have some different gnats in our lives, but mine was theology. Thinking about God and understanding Him. Trying to understand hot-button theological issues like the nature of free will, the role women can play in the church, or what hell is really all about (exciting stuff, I know). The problem was that I would spend so much time straining at those things I would neglect what was important: justice, mercy, faith. I just gulped those down and moved right on. I wanted to get back to my intense focus on the small things. Honestly, this grieves me.
Also, I used to think that the Gospel was just all about me getting out of hell. I used to think that it was just focused on the debt sin personally gives us and how we get out of that mess. My primary focus was on me, my sin, and my salvation. Sure God might have been the first and foremost, but I think I was still neglecting what was truly important: justice, mercy, faith.
Now, that is not to say that those other things aren’t important, or that there isn’t much to be said about sin, it’s consequences, and the escape of those consequences, but just stay with me for a minute and entertain the idea that it goes beyond that. Think about the camel we should really be spending our time dealing with.
What if the gospel, and what we should be thinking about, doesn’t revolve around escaping hell and getting to heaven, but participating in God’s bringing of heaven here? What if we join Jesus in what he proclaims in Mark 1:14–15, “After John was arrested, Jesus went to Galilee, preaching the good news [or gospel] of God: ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe in the good news!’” This would change everything! The good news of the reign of God coming to earth in and through Jesus and our call to participate in that reign of God!
If this indeed is what the entire narrative of the bible is attempting to get at, it would make a lot of sense that Jesus describes the important matters of the law to be mercy, justice, and faith. However, how many of us seek out the bringing of God’s kingdom? How many of us have a picture of a Gospel that looks outside ourselves to the hurting created order, and seeks to participate in freeing it from it’s bondage to sin? (Romans 8:18–25)
I believe a lot of us are straining at gnats and gulping down camels. I feel as if we are content to do our personal bible reading and try not to be as jealous, or look at porn, or find contentment in alcohol, money, or success. Now those things are not bad! They are important, but we should be content to do those things and neglect other important matters. We are to be a people who pray that God’s kingdom would come and His will would be done on earth as it is in heaven (Matthew 6:9–13). We are to then live out our lives in accordance with that hope as people who have been transferred to His kingdom (Colossians 1:13). We should act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God (Micah 6:8).
Do not neglect these things as Christians. Don’t pass by and gulp the camel. When is the last time you thought a staple of the Christian life was to indeed focus on bringing about justice and showing mercy? Do you ever sit and fret over the oppressed, the orphans and the widows? Because that is the sort of religion that God really wants (James 1:7).
It’s not the real gospel vs a some sort of “social justice” gospel. The true gospel includes a desire to see social justice done. We are supposed to pay attention to that portion of the law. So I admonish us to begin to look outside of ourselves, to stop straining gnats, and participate in the great work God our Father is doing.
Do this by following Him and showing mercy. Isaiah 30:18 says, “Therefore the Lord is waiting to show you mercy, and is rising up to show you compassion, for the Lord is a just God. All who wait patiently for Him are happy.” What makes God just? The fact that He shows mercy. He restores people to what they should be by showing them mercy. Love changes a person, and love should be our distinguishing mark as a disciple (John 13:35). I am a recovering camel gulper. I am hoping you will be one too.