strain a gnat and swallow a camel; strain at a gnat and swallow a camel

to be troubled over small problems but accept or overlook big ones
—My mother doesn’t eat candy because she says it’s unhealthy, but she smokes a pack of cigarettes every day. I guess she’s willing to strain at a gnat and swallow a camel.

Jesus often spoke of the hypocritical actions of the Jewish teachers and Pharisees as examples of what not to do. This was the case when he condemned their following small details of God’s law (such as giving to God a tenth of their spices) but ignoring the more important issues, on which the law was built. He said, 

Woe to you, experts in the law and you Pharisees, hypocrites! You give a tenth of mint, dill, and cumin, yet you neglect what is more important in the law—justice, mercy, and faithfulness! You should have done these things without neglecting the others (Matthew 23:23)

Included in God’s Old Testament laws is a list of animals that should not be eaten. Jesus referred to two of these animals when he said, 

Blind guides! You strain out a gnat yet swallow a camel [strain at a gnat, and swallow a camel]! (Matthew 23:24)

The phrase strain at, from the King James Bible, is in an older form of English and means “strain out.” But what does it mean to “strain out” a gnat? A very careful Jew would drink his wine through a cloth, in order to catch any tiny insects that might have fallen into his cup, keeping him from swallowing them. But Jesus said that attention to details such as that meant nothing if the same person didn’t stop committing bigger sins.

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