Jesus calls the Pharisees to account for their hypocrisy using the analogy of straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel. What is interesting in this teaching is what he is referring to, for he is speaking of the comparison between tithing in the minutest amounts, in relation to justice, mercy and faith.
The Jews would have been aware of the significance of gnats and camels. Under the Law of Moses there were clean and unclean foods. Virtually all insects were considered unclean and should not be eaten with only a few exceptions, such as locusts. As for meats, only animals that had hooves that were parted and chewed the cud could be eaten. A camel chews the cud but it does not have hooves and so it was not a clean meat.
If a gnat fell into someone’s drink they would normally flick it out and continue drinking. If a larger insect, say a fly or bee fell in; they would usually throw out the drink and make another. If a camel fell in it would crush the cup and the person drinking it as they weigh up to 700kg or 1,500 lbs, and stand about two metres tall (six to seven feet). The Jews would have considered it disgusting to even think about the idea of swallowing a camel because of their food laws.
Now when Jesus used this analogy he was making a comparison. He was saying that the Pharisees were tithing the smallest amounts of produce, herbs such as mint, dill and cumin, but were neglecting the things that were really important under the law, justice, mercy and faith. The tithing was a show of works of law. The comparison was that tithing was so miniscule, so unimportant in comparison to the other matters that it was like a gnat compared to a camel. God is not looking for us to do works of law such as they were doing. He is not interested in such high degrees of legalism that a person should tithe the herbs they might grow on their window shelf. God wants man to be just and merciful and faithful to him. He wants man to treat others with respect and dignity; to do unto others as they would do unto themselves.
But the Pharisees wanted to be seen by men. They wanted the glory of man and so they carried out works of the law to the most ridiculous lengths. They were under the law and so it was right that they should tithe. Tithing was required under the Jewish law. But not at the expense of what the law really represented, which was the nature of God. The law was meant to teach man right from wrong so they would learn to be just, merciful and faithful. By failing to follow these truths of the law, they may as well have swallowed a camel for they have missed the point of the law.
However under the New Covenant we have been freed from the Old Covenant laws through Jesus Christ. Tithing is not part of the New Covenant, and in fact it is quite damaging to the New Covenant. Space does not permit me to go into this in depth here, but if you are interested in an in-depth study of tithing and the problems it causes to the New Covenant Christian, I recommend my free eBook on this matter, which you can find here.
In the Old Covenant Jesus was showing that in the total scheme of things, although tithing was important, it was not nearly as important as those things he called the weightier matter of the law. The Pharisees though had this twisted and were putting the greater emphasis on tithing. They were wrong.
Today we see a great many churches with a heavy emphasis on tithing. They are wrong too. Tithing is not part of the New Covenant and in fact it prevents a church from finding the truth. Tithing is a bondage, but the truth of the New Covenant is about freedom, not bondage. By accepting just one law, the law of the tithe, a person has bound themselves to all of the laws. Paul wrote in Galatians 5:3 that, “I testify again to every man who receives circumcision that he is bound to keep the whole law” James also wrote that, “For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become guilty of all of it.” (James 2:10) So accepting any one of the Old Covenant laws such as the law of the tithe causes a person to be bound to the whole law. And if they are under the law they caught up again in the bondage that Jesus has set them free from when he died.
We must learn the wisdom of the law but not be bound under it. We must learn about truth, justice, mercy and faith but without being caught under the law. We can achieve this only when we accept the gift Jesus gave us when he died on Calvary. His gift was to set us free from sin and to release us from the bondage of the law.