“You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.” (Matthew 23:23-24)

“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cummin. 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.” (Matthew 23:23-24)

What does 'strain out a gnat but swallow a camel' mean?

The word "strain" is taken from the Greek word τυφλός (typhlos), which means to "filter through" or "pour through a filter" or "strain out."

For example, if some water contained a gnat, the gnat could be removed by pouring the water through a mesh cloth or other type of filter. That would also simply be called, "straining."

Meanwhile, "swallow" comes from the Greek word καταπίνω (katapinō), which means to "to drink down, swallow down."

Obviously, a gnat is much smaller than a camel. So what does the gnat represent and what does the camel represent?

The topic relates to tolerance. During Jesus' times, people would strain water or other drinkables through filters before they would drink it. This was done to remove out the bugs and other impurities. So Jesus is speaking of them filtering out a small thing while they were willing to "swallow" a big giant thing.

In other words, they were intolerant towards a small issue but didn't care about the bigger issue.

The gnat represents a tiny thing - a thing that is not very important. Jesus is speaking of the rituals they followed and the relative importance of following those rituals. These rituals were small in comparison to the bigger issue - compared to the camel - of loving and serving the Supreme Being - and holding fast to Him.

The issue of filtering or swallowing relates to focus. Straining the gnat means they were focused on the tiny things such as the rules and rituals - while ignoring the main thrust of Moses' teachings - loving and serving the Supreme Being and others.

While they were so focused upon enforcing (straining) their rules and rituals, they were missing (swallowing) the intent of Moses' teachings - love of God.

What are 'blind guides'?

The word "blind" comes from the Greek word τυφλός (typhlos), which can mean either physically blind or mentally blind. Jesus was not saying they were physically blind. Certainly, they weren't all without eyesight. He was saying that while they were supposedly teaching others and being an example to others, they were not seeing or teaching the Truth.

Jesus is saying that they were blind to the essential elements of devotion to God.

Jesus is criticizing the Pharisees and scribes because of their lack of compassion and mercy towards others, yet they demanded others strictly practice all the various rituals. He is describing the hypocrisy of their demands to rigidly follow rituals while missing the substance of the teachings of the Prophets.

The high priests and judges of the institutional temples followed many rituals, including tithing. Jesus is not condemning those rituals. Rather, he is stating that the focus should be on helping others to come to know and love the Supreme Being.

What is a 'tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cumin'?

This statement by Jesus means these institutional priests and Pharisees were giving tithings in the form of ten percent of their production of culinary herbs grown in their gardens.

An ancient practice, tithing is the donation of part of one's wealth towards the service of the Supreme Being. In the Old Testament this goes back as far as Abraham:
Then Melchizedek king of Salem brought out bread and wine. He was priest of God Most High, and he blessed Abram, saying, "Blessed be Abram by God Most High, Creator of heaven and earth. And praise be to God Most High, who delivered your enemies into your hand." Then Abram gave him a tenth of everything. (Genesis 14:18-20)
We see here that Abraham accepted Melchizedek as his spiritual teacher (he blessed Abram) and then gave him a tenth of his possessions.

Jesus understood the purpose behind such a practice. As taught by Abraham and then Moses, the goal of these practices is to please the Supreme Being and come to know, love, and serve Him. This was stated clearly by Moses:
"Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength." (Deut. 6:5)

"Love the LORD your God and keep His requirements, His decrees, His laws and His commands always." (Deut. 11:1)

"So if you faithfully obey the commands I am giving you today—to love the LORD your God and to serve Him with all your heart and with all your soul—" (Deut. 11:13)

"If you carefully observe all these commands I am giving you to follow—to love the LORD your God, to walk in obedience to Him and to hold fast to Him—" (Deut. 11:22)

"... because you carefully follow all these laws I command you today—to love the LORD your God and to walk always in obedience to Him—" (Deut. 19:9)

"For I command you today to love the LORD your God, to walk in obedience to him, and to keep His commands, decrees and laws; then..." (Deut. 30:16)

"... and that you may love the LORD your God, listen to His voice, and hold fast to Him. For the LORD is your life..." (Deut. 30:20)
These verses indicate that love of God was the foundation of Moses' instructions to his followers. Loving the Supreme Being - holding fast to Him - is the basis for following the other commandments Moses gave, some of which were being enforced by the institutional priests and Pharisees.

What are 'the more important matters of the law'?

Jesus is commenting on the foundation of "the law" - translated from the Greek word νόμος (nomos), which means "anything established, anything received by usage, a custom, a law, a command."

Love for God is the foundation of law, as indicated by the Greek word πίστις (pistis) - being translated here to "faithfulness." The word means, according to the lexicon, "conviction of the truth of anything." In the context of Jesus' statement, he is referring to Moses' underlying instructions to love and serve the Supreme Being and "hold fast to Him."

The other components - "justice" and "mercy" relate to how the priests treated the followers of the institutional temples. They did not treat them with fairness, nor with compassion - the basis for the Greek words κρίσις (krisis) and ἔλεος (eleos).

In other words, they were not fair or compassionate. They unfairly punished those who did not follow all the rituals.

What does 'the latter, without neglecting the former' mean?

We see here that Jesus was not condemning the giving of tithings. The phrase, "without neglecting the former" refers to the tithings, while "the latter" refers to being fair and compassionate to others, as well as holding fast to the Supreme Being.
"Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law of the Prophets ..." (Matthew 5:17-20)
In the same way, these institutional teachers were ignoring this central component of Moses' teachings, many of today's sectarian institutions and their teachers are missing the focus of Jesus' teachings. And consistent with the Pharisees and chief priests, they are also focusing on the prestige of their respective positions and their various ritualistic ceremonies.

In this way, the gnats continue to be strained as the camel continues to be swallowed.

And just as the teachings of Moses were clear, Jesus' teachings were also very clear:
"'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.' This is the first and greatest commandment." (Matthew 22:37-38)