It’s hard to imagine Jesus having a bad day but he sure was ticked with the religious leaders.
What bothered the Master most was their tendency to pray to God publicly and prey on others privately. Woe to you whose cunning is bedecked with a halo!
So the consummate teacher sketched a caricature to point out that while they were obsessed with religious ritual, they kept dropping the ball when it came to the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith.
According to their law, unclean food should not be eaten.
If you drank wine that had any microscopic gnats in it, then you would be breaking the law by eating an unclean animal even if it was microscopic.
So to keep the law, the Pharisees would pour their wine though a sort of cheesecloth to strain out any gnats. Think of them as the black flies of the Holy Land.
But Jesus created this sadly hilarious portrait of sanctimonious scribes, the exemplars of religiosity, swallowing the camel du jour and looking for the dental floss.
We still tend to get our knickers in a knot over gnats and ignore the ruminants. Goethe said that the things that matter most must never be at the mercy of the things that matter least.
Which should get more attention, the gnat in the wine or the camel in the craw?
A mom serves on all the right committees but her kids have to tuck themselves into bed night after night.
A dad makes sure that the offering gets on the church plate but is merciless with his employees.
It doesn’t take much for us to get bent out of shape over our public image but swallow injustice without batting an eye.
It’s too easy to fuss over form and protocol at the expense of spotting the proverbial elephant in the room.
Institutional Christianity is notorious for its brouhaha in the pursuit of trivia.
Is there excrement in heaven?
How does bread and wine transubstantiate into the flesh and blood of Jesus?
Who’s getting into heaven?
Who’s going to hell, for that matter?
In the meantime thousands of God’s little children die needlessly from malnutrition and related diseases.
Religious folks who profess their love for peace and God, kill one another in the name of that peace-loving God.
Innocents are blown up by suicide bombers. African genocide continues.
Is morality more about we do in the bedroom or the boardroom?
Is a righteous nation one that bans gay marriage or one that says no to nukes or whaling or the money sharks demanding their pound of flesh from poor Third World nations that are crippled with unjust debt burdens?
In the midst of environmental degradation and obscenely skewed wealth distribution, should our energy be focused on what music is used to worship God and which dead horses should be flogged?
First things first, right?
It’s time to stop picking away at gnats and time to start naming some camels.
Rev. Bob Ripley, author and syndicated columnist, is the senior minister of Metropolitan United Church in London Ontario. firstname.lastname@example.org