It’s called ‘majoring on minors’ or ‘making mountains out of mole hills,’ or being ‘picky’ about non-essentials. Jesus described it as ‘straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel.’ The Message says it is like, ‘writing a life story that’s wrong from start to finish and nitpicking over commas and semicolons.’
It can mess up relationships too. A neighbor nags her husband about the smallest things, yet seems to be oblivious to her the problems and the rift caused by her nagging. A teen complains that his parents control every aspect of his life, but seems unaware of his responsibilities.
It shows up in ordinary life too. Just looking around, I can see paper piles on my desk and instead of filing them I’d rather spend hours color-coding my folders.
Jesus had more to say about this focus on the minutia and ignoring the more important things of life. He illustrated it with the gnat/camel thing, but called it blindness and hypocrisy. Blindness refers to being oblivious to the real issues. Hypocrisy refers to the cover up; those real issues are hidden, glossed over, or moved out of the spotlight by trivia.
This is what Jesus said to the religious people of His day . . . “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others. You blind guides, straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel! Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. You blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and the plate, that the outside also may be clean.” (Matthew 23:23–26)
Their problem was not about what they did do, but what they didn’t do. They were ignoring their more important inner character and trying to look better than others by majoring on minors, by prioritizing visible stuff that was less important and using their meticulous performance of sweating the small stuff to draw attention away from their real needs.
Instead of admitting those inner problems and bringing them to God for forgiveness and cleansing, they were intent on straining unclean gnats out of the soup, washing the visible parts of the dishes, keeping those little rules. This hid the real issue of selfishness and greed, being unjust, harsh, and faithless. But Jesus saw through it.
He sees through me too. Perhaps I pick those smaller things because they can be done without a huge change of heart or without God’s help. My excuse sees the small stuff as having value; the tithe was not to be neglected, husbands need to be reminded about small things, and teens need their say in family decisions. Certainly my files need to be orderly. But does pretty replace practical?
One Bible version says, “Observe your meticulous rules if you like, but don’t therefore neglect the things that really matter.” I can relate, even in non-religious areas. For instance, every day I look at my to-do list and try to prioritize the items by importance. But sometimes those most important things are difficult or ‘no fun at all’ and I would rather do a crossword puzzle or polish my taps. When I waste time and effort on trivia, I’m later mad at myself for not accomplishing anything that really matters.
Jesus points out that neglecting the vital things is not just about being sidetracked or wanting pleasure rather than challenges. He rightly says the problems can be far deeper and issues of a messed up inner life, heart issues.
I know there is nothing wrong with wanting things pretty or polished. I can do those things if there is time, but there is something wrong with fear of failure, laziness, procrastination, excuse-making, and unfaithfulness. As Jesus indicates, I can do the little things, but not neglect those things that really matter, things that require faith and obedience.
If I’m cleaning up my house to avoid cleaning up my heart, then woe to me for I have fallen into spiritual danger, and am blind and a hypocrite.