“You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.” Matthew 23:24 (NIV)
Growing up I heard the phrase: “When pigs fly!” on a number of occasions. It always referred to something that was NEVER going to happen. As the English language goes it is called an “adynaton” which is, according to Wikipedia, “a figure of speech in the form of hyperbole taken to such extreme lengths as to insinuate a complete impossibility.”
Lewis Carroll used the phrase in his book Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland when Alice is having a conversation with the Duchess:
“Thinking again?” the Duchess asked, with another dig of her sharp little chin.
“I’ve a right to think,” said Alice sharply, for she was beginning to feel a little worried.
“Just about as much right,” said the Duchess, “as pigs have to fly…” – Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Chapter 9.
We see this phrase used frequently in our language when people want to convey the complete impossibility of something. The use of hyperbole is nothing new as our scripture verse above indicates. Jesus used hyperbole throughout his ministry, and we have numerous examples of it. And when we interpret a hyperbolic passage, we want to make sure we don’t interpret it literally. If we did, we would become just like the blind guides straining the gnats out of their food or drink while attempting to swallow a camel…which is of course impossible and completely absurd. An ancient way to say: “When pigs fly.” It also would mean that we are nothing more than a false teacher who teaches what they believe and not what scripture is actually teaching.
In Matthew 23, where the above scripture passage can be found, we see Jesus, teaching seven woes and this is part of one of them. The entire sections says this:
“Woe to you teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices- mint, dill, and cumin. 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.”
As Christians, we are held accountable to the entirety of the gospel message and not just the parts we like. Just as we can’t teach what we want and leave out the passages that make us uncomfortable. Yes, we should tithe…giving a tenth of what we earn. We should also ensure we are doing acts of justice, mercy, and faithfulness or discipleship. But we choose to skip over the parts that are hard.
It is hard to do justice as it insists, we confront our leaders when they are doing what is not good for the people. We are the ones who hold our elected officials accountable to the jobs they have been elected to do. We are better at doing acts of mercy, but we still don’t do enough. Too many people are hurting, hungry, without a place to sleep, or access to medical care. Even our acts of faithfulness are half-hearted. We do not attend church each Sunday. We are not in a bible study or small group or life group that holds us accountable to the faith we proclaim. It is just easier to write a check or electronically deposit funds to the church. But scripture calls us to a richer, deeper faith. One that will give us more than we could ever ask for our hope. And yet, the question we need to ponder is: Do we honestly follow the teachings of Jesus. Are we truly Jesus’ disciples? Because honestly following Jesus, is where we will find that richer, deeper faith we desire.
I wonder if God ever thinks: “They will get it right? Maybe…when pigs fly.” I certainly hope not. I hope and pray that we wake up and get it right, as we remember that we need to live out the entire gospel message as we do justice, love mercy and walk humbly, and not just the passages we like, find easy, or agree with.