The Lord Jesus often had to endure scorn from the people of his day that he overlooked certain precise matters of the law, often Sabbath observances. But those who rebuked him for this were guilty of far greater violations. For example,
1. [Jesus] went into the synagogue, and a man with a shriveled hand was there. Some of them were looking for a reason to accuse Jesus, so they watched him closely to see if he would heal him on the Sabbath. Jesus said to the man with the shriveled hand, “Stand up in front of everyone.” Then Jesus asked them, “Which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill?” But they remained silent. He looked around at them in anger and, deeply distressed at their stubborn hearts, said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and his hand was completely restored. Then the Pharisees went out and began to plot with the Herodians how they might kill Jesus (Mk 3:1-6)
2. Woe to you Pharisees, because you give God a tenth of your mint, rue and all other kinds of garden herbs, but you neglect justice and the love of God. You should have practiced the latter without leaving the former undone. (Luke 11:42)
3. Indignant because Jesus had healed on the Sabbath, the synagogue ruler said to the people, “There are six days for work. So come and be healed on those days, not on the Sabbath.” The Lord answered him, “You hypocrites! Doesn’t each of you on the Sabbath untie his ox or donkey from the stall and lead it out to give it water? Then should not this woman, a daughter of Abraham, whom Satan has kept bound for eighteen long years, be set free on the Sabbath day from what bound her?” (Lk 13:14-16)
4. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel. Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean. (Matt 23:24-25).
Yes, straining gnats and swallowing camels, a kind of maximizing the minimum and minimizing the maximum. Note that in the first example, they are actually planning to kill Jesus for healing on the Sabbath!
But perhaps my favorite, all time illustration of this awful human tendency is in the Gospel of John:
Then the Jews led Jesus from Caiaphas to the palace of the Roman governor. By now it was early morning, and to avoid ceremonial uncleanness the Jews did not enter the palace; they wanted to be able to eat the Passover. So Pilate came out… (John 18:28-29)
Notice, they are plotting to kill a just an innocent man, indeed, they are plotting to kill God, they are acting in wickedness, envy, jealousy, hatred and murderous anger, but their main concern is to avoid ritual uncleanness! Yes, straining gnats and swallowing camels.
Now we who are pious and observant need to be careful with this tendency. For it sometimes happens that, congratulating ourselves over lesser matters, we can either offend or neglect in weightier ones. Perhaps I get to Mass each Sunday (which is a grave obligation), perhaps I pray the rosary (a highly commendable practice), perhaps I tithe, also commendable. And these are things that ought to be done (one is commanded, one is commended, and one is a precept). But what if, at the same time I am hateful toward certain people at work, unforgiving to a family member, and insensitive to the poor?
But the danger could be that, in effect, I let my observance of certain things all me to, in effect “check off the God box” and figure, “I’ve got the righteousness thing down” since I went to Mass, gave an offering and even prayed the rosary this week. Now these are good things, and should not be neglected, but they are not the only thing. And too often, very significant and serious things like love, mercy, forgiveness and charity can be set aside or neglected as I go on congratulating myself over other, sometimes lesser things.
This can happen in the other direct too wherein someone may congratulate themselves that they have advocated for the poor, spent the day working at a soup kitchen etc., and thus think they have no need to look at the fact that they are living say, unchastely, all shacked up, or not getting to Mass.
But we cannot buy God off like this, doing certain things (usually things we like) in way that seeks to paper over other things we’d rather not observe or look at. In the end, the whole counsel of God is important.
We must avoid the sinful tendency to a sort of substitutionalism, or swapping, maybe even a trading on the holy, thinking we can observe a few things and overlook others.
Culturally too we see a lot of strange examples of this. We obsess nationally over whether or not people smoke because it might be bad for their health and then ignore the national health consequences of promiscuous behavior which spreads AIDS, and countless venereal diseases and leads to abortion. We save the baby seals and shred the baby humans by the millions. We deplore (rightfully) the death of several thousand each year by gun murder, and call the murder of over fifty million babies a constitutional right. The school nurse requires permission to dispense aspirin but none to deploy the dangerous abortifacient morning after pill. We talk about the dignity of women and yet pornography flourishes. We worry endlessly about our weight and physical appearance of our bodies that will die, and care little for our souls that will live. We decry carbon footprints and fly on jets to the global warming conference at the sprawling luxury convention center complex. We use compact bulbs to help save the planet, but fill them with poisonous mercury. etc….
Straining gnats and swallowing camels. To be sure, as the Lord says above, we ought not neglect smaller things wholly. But simply observing lesser things doesn’t give us the right to ignore greater things.
Salus animarum suprema lex (The salvation of souls is the highest Law). And thus, while little things mean a lot, we must always remember not to allow them to wholly eclipse greater things.
The ideal for which to aim is an integrated state where in the lesser serves the greater and is subsumed into it. St. Augustine rightly observed:
Quod Minimum, minimum est, Sed in minimo fidelem esse, magnum est.
St. Augustine – De Doctrina Christiana, IV,35
(What is a little thing, is (just) a little thing. But to be faithful in a little thing is a great thing).
Thus, notice, the lesser things are in service of the greater thing, in this case fidelity. And thus we rightly ask who some of the lesser things we do are really in service of the greater things like, just, love, mercy, fidelity, kindness, generosity and such. Otherwise we run the risk of straining gnats and swallowing camels.
Enjoy this video which illustrates how the one rule (silence in the library) is observed but to the total neglect of every other virtue.