As to the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered together to him, we beg you, brothers and sisters, not to be quickly shaken in mind or alarmed, either by spirit or by word or by letter, as though from us, to the effect that the day, the Lord is already here. Let no one deceive you in any way; for that day will not come unless the rebellion comes first and the lawless one is revealed, the one destined for destruction.
For this purpose he called you through our proclamation of the good news, so that you may obtain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ. So then, brothers and sisters, stand firm and hold fast to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by our letter.
Now may our Lord Jesus Christ himself and God our Father, who loved us and through grace gave us eternal comfort and good hope, comfort your hearts and strengthen them in every good work and word.
Jesus said to his disciples, "Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have practiced without neglecting the others. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel!
"Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and of the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. You blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup, so that the outside also may become clean."
Paul often combines attitudes that at first may seem contradictory. Though strong and independent in personality, he can be “gentle as any nursing mother.” In no way did he plan his actions merely to please others, yet he was anxious to share the lives of his people. He values practical decision-making in everyday matters, even while convinced that the second coming of the Lord Jesus was not far off.
Another seeming contrast is found in the preaching of Jesus, when he reverses what Scribes and Pharisees consider essential and what they judge of lesser value. His attitude to the Law is that it all depends on the spirit with which it is kept . This could of course become very subjective, so that people's behaviour would be prompted more by their feelings than by their principles.
Because religion is a mixture of interactive charity and of obedience to God, of external laws and inner spirit, of ancient traditions and future hopes, it will always face significant inner tensions. Unless there is trust in God and in each other, no principles will be enough. The Scribes and Pharisees have grown so nearsighted by selfishness and vainglory as to neglect the weightier matters of the Law, justice and mercy and good faith. Despite their zeal to make others clean on the outside, they are unwilling to cleanse what is inside themselves. One may try to sidestep God's demand for a sincere, integral by focusing attention on small matters, straining out the gnats . Another form of evasion, as Paul explains, is to be absorbed in awaiting our Lord's second coming while not doing anything to solve the immediate needs of life.
St Paul offers many practical norms to keep religion free from weird excesses and in tune with the highest ideals. His Christians show courage in the face of opposition; seek to please God rather than impressing others; avoid greed under any pretext. He instances his own behaviour: gentle as a nursing mother; “sharing with you not only the Good News but our very lives too, so dear had you become to us.” His brand of Christianity has no place for idleness or total passivity.
Perhaps we don't always think of Jesus as having a sense of humour. Yet, the image he uses in today's gospel displays a sense of humour. He accuses the Pharisees of straining our gnats and swallowing camels. A gnat or flee is almost invisible; a camel is big and imposing. The picture of someone straining out a gnat so as not to swallow it while happily swallowing a whole camel is humorous in a zany kind of way. Jesus uses that image to poke fun at those who make a big deal about what is not important while happily ignoring what is important, being scrupulous about paying tithes on herbs while ignoring justice, mercy and faith. Jesus is talking about getting our priorities right, keeping things in proportion. We can all be prone to getting overly excited about minor matters while not attending sufficiently to what really important. On this occasion, Jesus lists what is important as justice, mercy and faith. Justice and mercy concern our relationship with our neighbour; faith concerns our relationship with God. Jesus is saying, what really matters is getting those two relationships right; everything else is secondary. St Paul says something very similar in one of his letter, 'the only thing that matters is faith expressing itself in love.' We pray that this would always be our priority. [MH]