I’ve eaten grasshoppers.
And this is the first time I’ve started a conversation with that sentence.
If you were an ancient Hebrew person the Levitical law allowed you to eat hopping insects with jointed legs – like grasshoppers. I’m thinking they would barbecue well with a little hot sauce, but that’s just me.
On the other hand the Law could be very specific, which is to say that non-hopping insects (like gnats) were strictly forbidden.¹
The problem was that those nasty non-leg-jointed insects would hang out in water and leave larva behind. To ensure they remained ritually pure, the law-keepers would filter their drinking water through a piece of cloth to remove all the aforementioned bug leavings.
Many generations later the Israelites had accumulated a total of 613 laws that were still being strictly enforced. Naturally this was full-time work and required a fair amount of interpretation in order to manage all the legal loopholes.
Before we roll our eyes at how uptight those superstitious rubes were, let’s remember that the Law was there to keep innocent people safe in a culture that had no police force, no applied science, no social safety nets.
But still … 613 laws? Who could do that?
mmm … gnats
On the other hand, we christians have embraced quite a few odd beliefs and activities through our history. Yes odd: angels, demons, icons, miracles, holy places, speaking in tongues, marks of the beast, digesting body and blood.
Or we make it up as we go… A few months ago a tornado blew the roof off a church in the U.S. but didn’t disturb the bibles in the pews. This was seen by many christians as a sign – not of how God designed wind currents, but of the holiness of the Bible. However nobody seemed to notice any holy significance in the roof disappearing from their church building. Apparently the worshippers don’t look up much.
We have also been pretty opinionated about what sin and holy living look like. The difficulty is that our rules are subject to interpretation, depending on what kind of christian you happen to be. We used to laughingly share a crude observation: “I’d rather be Catholic because they can do more and still go to heaven.” It’s oddly true.
Christians like to put their own spin on what is immoral – gambling, dancing, mixed bathing, salty language have been common culprits. I was a lotta years old before I figured out that saying !#@?%# wasn’t a one way ticket to hell.
When I was a kid, we didn’t watch television on Sunday because it was a day of rest. I remember people in our tradition who adhered so fully to the ideal of moderation that they wore plain, black clothing and refused jewellery, neck ties, and the like. Most church people in my age group grew up assuming that smoking and drinking were wrong, even sinful.²
Whether you agree with those values or not, they were not about sin. Their usefulness was limited because they were nothing more than righteous feel-goods while weightier truths went largely unnoticed.
John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, is an interesting study and his writings are well worth our attention. He continues to be remembered as a major cog in the wheel of church history and his Methodist movement was the major force of spiritual revival in eighteenth century England.
His adherents are thought to have rescued a culture where everyone had a neighbour who made and abused alcohol. Socially, they stood against issues of slavery and child labour, and advocated for the equality of women.
But Wesley was complicated too.
Yes, Wesley disapproved of alcohol – a legacy that has lasted for generations of Methodists after him. But most of us weren’t told that ole Johnny W was fond of ale himself, a common drink in ye olde England. He preferred his on the malty side (he didn’t approve of adding hops) and it is believed he influenced Arthur Guinness (yes, that Guinness) to give large portions of his ale-making wealth to the needy.
Wesley was more uncertain about the morality of … tea. Boring preachers and calvinist christians could really get him fired up. He also expressed doubt about the benefit of revivals, and he was so uncomfortable with emotional responses to his preaching that he avoided contact with seekers whenever possible. Wesley was such a workaholic that few people, including his wife, could live up to (or around) his high energy and spiritual drivenness.
The good news is that there are wonderful examples in his life where he changed his views because he recognized the importance of the bigger picture.
spit out that camel
As you might expect, Jesus turned the tables on the busy rule-keepers of his day. Here is a piece of his diatribe against religious-obsessives in Matthew 23.
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier provisions of the Law: justice and mercy and faithfulness; but these are the things you should have done without neglecting the others. You blind guides, who strain out a gnat and swallow a camel!“ ² – Jesus
We strain gnats when we care about silly details, and we consume camels when we allow bigger issues like injustice, greed, anger, jealousy, fame, etc. Legalism and hypocrisy are other words for gnat-straining.
Jesus had an interesting approach – he rarely employed binary thinking of ‘do this’ or ‘don’t do that’. Instead of telling, he would ask questions that led to dialogue. He reinforced some ancient laws, bent some, repurposed others, and said nothing about most.
In Matthew 5 he famously referenced the Ten Commandments, then gave them a fresh perspective with the phrase, “You have heard that it was said … but I tell you …” (vss 21, 27,31, 33, 38, 43).
To Jesus’ way of thinking, a faith that rests on enforcing rules is not really faith.
name in vain?
But look, we all strain out gnats and consume camels in some way: it’s part of our brokenness, our need to control. Legitimate religious devotion almost always finds ways to devolve into suffocating self-righteousness.
We ‘strain gnats’ when we: fight over unimportant things; harp on addiction instead of helping the addicted; obsess about abortion but ignore the welfare of families; complain about persecution while condemning people’s lifestyles; insist on having church during a pandemic when our communities are sick; marvel at dry bibles at the same time that thousands are left homeless.
Number 3 of the Ten Commandments seems simple enough: “Do not take the name of the Lord your God in vain.” I grew up thinking that meant not saying the ‘S’ word or the ‘F’ word. As an adult I graduated to believing that it meant we shouldn’t use disrespectful phrases like, “Oh my God”.
I now believe it means something more profound and less visible – I think it means don’t strain gnats while you eat camels. Don’t use God as a way to judge others while benefitting yourself.
There are churches, pastors, ministries, colleges, doctrines, etc. that use God’s name as a way to accumulate power and wealth. Watch out for those who expand their own brand but have forgotten what God cares about in the first place.
For you and me, this as a gentle reminder for our spiritual journey: don’t preoccupy ourselves with rules and activities. Always be re-examining the things you do, who you listen to, what you believe, why you believe it.
In the end, God cares much more about how we live than he does about our impressive beliefs or inflated traditions.
Gnats and camels.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
¹ Lev 11:20-23
² To be clear, none of those things were burdens, and were probably good for me at some level.
³ Matt 23: 23-24, NASB