The next two of the seven woes in Matthew 23 concern two common religious practices, tithing and ritual purity. Although Jesus specifically has Jewish practice in mind, it is not difficult to apply this teaching to Christian practice.
Tithing (23:23-24). The practice of tithing is common in the Old Testament (Lev 27:30-33; Deut 12:6-9; 14:22-29; 26:12-15). The general principle is that the first tenth of one’s produce should be set aside for the Lord. To not pay one’s tithe is like “robbing the Lord” (Malachi 3:6–12). There is some tension between the books of Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy with respect to the issue of the tithe. Deuteronomy requires a tithe on all produce every year except for the Sabbath year. This tithe, however, could be enjoyed by the family which produced it by selling it and spending the money in Jerusalem during a feast. In this way they gave a tenth by contributing to the economy of Jerusalem (Deut 14:22-27). Every third and sixth year the tithe was to go to the poor and needy.
The Law specifies tithes on some produce, generally food. But there was no tithe required for wild herbs (although this is debated in the Mishnah, see m. Ma’as. 4:5). The general principle seems to be, if you planted it, you tithe on it. To be sure the proper tithe was paid, a Pharisees would take each item that they produced, even these tiny seeds and herbs, and divide out the tenth to give to the temple.
m,Ma’as. 4:5 4:5 One who husks barley removes the husks [from the kernels] one by one, and eats [without tithing]. But if he husked [a few kernels] and placed [them] in his hand, he is required [to tithe]. One who husks parched kernels of wheat sifts [the kernels] from hand to hand, and eats [without tithing]. But if he sifted [the kernels] and placed [them] inside his shirt, he is required [to tithe]. Coriander which [the farmer] sowed [in order to harvest its] seed [for future sowing]—its leaves are exempt [from the removal of tithes if they are eaten]. [If he] sowed it [in order to harvest its] leaves [for use as an herb]—[both] the seeds and the leaves are subject to the law of tithes. R. Eliezer says, “Dill is subject to the law of tithes [in regard to its] seeds, leaves and pods.” But Sages say, “Nothing is subject to the law of tithes [in regard to both its] seeds and leaves save cress and field rocket alone.”
The real problem is that the Pharisees make sure they tithe properly, but overlook justice, mercy, and faithfulness (maybe alluding to Micah 6:8?). For Jesus, it does not matter if you pay all the tithes you owe if you do not take care of the poor, the widows, orphans and immigrants. Doing justice, mercy, and faithfulness are weightier commandments. This might use the language of the Pharisees when they determined which commandment was more important when there was a conflict of duty.
The Pharisees are “straining out a gnat but swallowing a camel” Jesus makes a humorous analogy to point out the absurdity of the Pharisees’ practice of tithing. This is usually explained as straining one’s soup to avoid eating a gnat. The κώνωψ word can refer to a mosquito, both are unclean food (Lev 11:41, m. Sabb. 20:2) but not even noticing an entire camel is floating in the same bowl! The Greek word διϋλίζω refers to straining wine, LXX Amos 6:6, but a bowl of soup works in a modern context since modern wine does not need to be strained.
Does the word gnat (κώνωψ) sound like camel (κάμηλος)? Not really, but in Aramaic gnat is qlm, camel is gml. Similar, enough to make this a playful, memorable phrase. The contrast is between a very tiny bug and a very large animal (cf., Matt 19:24, the camel through the eye of a needle). In the Sermon on the Mount, the hypocrite points out the speck in someone’s eye while missing the plank in their own (Matt 7:3-5).
What good is Pharisee purity about tithing if they neglect the things that God really desires (Micah 6:8)?
Purity Laws (23:25-26). Jesus dealt with the Pharisee’s purity traditions in Matthew 15:1-20. In that passage he also called the Pharisees hypocrites and declared only what comes out of a person makes them unclean. By the first century there was a complex system established for the cleaning of eating utensils, plates, bowls, etc. The Pharisee would not eat from plates that had not been properly cleaned, to do so would render them ceremonially unclean.
Ironically Jesus says the Pharisees are only cleaning the outside of the bowl and ignoring the inside. The outside looks clean, but the inside is still filthy, full of greed and self-indulgence. This is similar to the conclusion in Matthew 15:16-20, what comes out of a person defiles, not what goes in.
Commentaries usually object that the Pharisees were not known for their greed or self-indulgence. This is true of the Temple aristocracy who became rich and powerful by their service to the temple. Archaeology of priestly homes near the Temple Mount support this conclusion and there are similar condemnations of the Temple aristocracy in other early Jewish literature (the Dead Sea Scrolls especially). The Testament of Moses (also known as Ascension of Moses) has a similar condemnation, probably written by a Pharisee and directed at the Sadducees:
As. Mos. 7.6–10 But really they consume the goods of the (poor), saying their acts are according to justice, 7 (while in fact they are simply) exterminators, deceitfully seeking to conceal themselves so that they will not be known as completely godless because of their criminal deeds (committed) all the day long, 8 saying, ‘We shall have feasts, even luxurious winings and dinings. Indeed, we shall behave ourselves as princes.’ 9 They, with hand and mind, will touch impure things, yet their mouths will speak enormous things, and they will even say, 10 ‘Do not touch me, lest you pollute me in the position I occupy.
In the Testament of Levi 14:5-8, the chief priests abuse their office for personal gain:
Testament of Levi 14:5-8 You plunder the Lord’s offerings; from his share you steal choice parts, contemptuously eating them with whores. 6 You teach the Lord’s commands out of greed for gain; married women you profane; you have intercourse with whores and adulteresses. You take gentile women for your wives and your sexual relations will become like Sodom and Gomorrah. 7 You will be inflated with pride over your priesthood, exalting yourselves not merely by human standards but contrary to the commands of God. 8 With contempt and laughter you will deride the sacred things.
Although it is easy for a modern, Christian reader to read this section of Matthew 23 and smugly condemn first century Jewish religious practice as legalistic and hypocritical, that is not what Jesus intended nor why Matthew included this in his Christian gospel. Christians are just as hypocritical with respect to giving money to a Christian ministry working in Africa (for example), then hating the immigrant or doing nothing to help the poor in their local community.
What are other examples of how Jesus’s words could be applied in a modern church context?