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Camels and Gnats

December 10, 2017 Click on the left end of the black bar to play/pause

December 10, 2017
Mark 1:1-8
Fr. George Smiga

John the Baptist appears to us in today’s gospel calling for repentance from sin. But what is the sin from which John would have us repent? To answer this question it might be helpful for us to pay attention to John’s attire. The text tells us that John was clothed in camel’s hair. Now, why would you dress yourself in camel’s skin? Some people suggest that John was imitating the dress of the prophet Elijah and thereby showing that he was following in Elijah’s footsteps. Others suggest that camel’s hair is coarse and ordinary, so John was calling his hearers to live lives of simplicity and poverty rather than luxury. These are all valid interpretations. But for us who read today’s gospel in light of the whole Bible, there is another possibility. This is because the word “camel” is a rare word in the New Testament. There are only three occurrences of the term. One is to describe John’s attire. But, there is a second occurrence that might explain John’s message.

The word “camel” appears in the 23rd chapter of Matthew’s gospel as part of a proverb that Jesus uses to criticize his contemporaries. Here is the proverb: “You strain out the gnat, but swallow the camel.” Again, “You strain out the gnat, but swallow the camel.” Now, to understand this proverb, you must understand two things about gnats. First, gnats, much like fruit flies of our own time, love wine. So in the ancient Near East, as you picked up a cup of wine, it was very possible that you would find a few dead gnats floating around in it. Because of this, the practice developed to strain the wine before drinking it to avoid swallowing any gnats. The second thing you should know about gnats is, again like fruit flies, they were very small, perhaps the smallest animal you could see. This makes gnats a striking contrast in the proverb to the camel, which was the largest animal of the ancient Near East.

By using this proverb, Jesus is pointing out how often we pay careful attention to very small things, like swallowing gnats, but we do not pay enough attention to things that have significance, such as swallowing a camel. Seen in this light, the attire of John the Baptist tells us to attend to the big things. John calls us to repent of the attention that we too often give to things of only relative importance while we ignoring what is essential.

This time of year we are all worried about germs. We cover our faces when we sneeze. We refuse to shake peoples’ hands, if we have a cold. Hygiene is important, but it is not the most important thing. The way we speak about others is more important. If we spread rumors or stories about others that demean them or mock them, we can harm their reputation. Physical germs are the gnats. Spiritual germs of slander and dishonesty are the camels.

Most of us pay close attention to the legislation that is pending in Washington or Columbus. We all have our own beliefs of what would be the best law to pass regarding taxes, environment, and national defense. But how much attention do we give to the quality of the people we send to Washington to represent us? Should it become normal to accept moral flaws, sexual improprieties, and mistreatment of others as long as it allows us to pass the laws we desire? Laws can be passed, and laws can be repealed. But the moral tone we set for our country will determine the quality of our nation’s soul.

We might have a spouse or a close friend who has qualities that irritate us—a certain kind of humor, not being on time, or a casual approach to spending money. These flaws can cause arguments and resentment. How often do we situate those flaws amid the larger blessings that people so often bring to our lives: years of faithfulness in a relationship, an attitude of generosity in service, the willingness to stand by us in our need. How foolish we would look if we pay careful attention to the gnats but forget the camel.

John the Baptist comes to us clothed in camel’s hair to draw our focus to the big things, to the things that matter. John understands that placing first things first is the only way to find happiness and the only way to see the kingdom of God. Now, this, of course, does not mean that we should ignore smaller matters. Nobody wants to swallow gnats. But, if you do, they will not kill you. Swallowing a camel? . . . Well, that’s a different animal.

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