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Kendrick asks, "What is the meaning of the phrase straining at a gnat?"

Good question! The phrase comes from the words of Jesus, as recorded in the Gospel of Matthew. In Matthew 23, Jesus launches into what could best be described as a tirade against the religious leaders of his day. He doesn't hold back in his indictment of them, and calls them names like "hypocrite," "family of snakes" (technically, he calls them a "brood of vipers," but that's the meaning), and "whitewashed sepulchers."

In verse 23, he says: "Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have omitted the weightier matters of the law, judgment, mercy, and faith: these ought ye to have done, and not to leave the other undone."

What does he mean by this? He's saying that they've picked out the smallest and least commandments to focus on, and take pride in doing those, while completely ignoring the most important matters, like justice.

He follows this up in verse 24 with the phrase you asked about: "Ye blind guides, which strain at a gnat, and swallow a camel."

Jesus is indulging in a bit of hyperbole here. He's imagining someone who is about to take a drink of water from a cup, notices that there's a small bug in it, strains the bug out, and then drinks the water, never noticing that there was a camel floating in the cup.

Silly? Sure, but it gets the point across. Jesus' claim was that the religious leaders were focusing on the lesser matters, while completely ignoring the more important ones.

A similar idiom would be "penny-wise and pound-foolish." Someone who is penny-wise is someone who is very careful about how they spend small amounts of money. Someone who is pound-foolish is someone who throws about large amounts of money indiscriminately.

So someone who is both penny-wise and pound-foolish is straining at a gnat (focusing on small things) while swallowing a camel (ignoring larger things).

Would you like a modern day example of straining at a gnat and swallowing a camel?

As a teacher, if I gave a student a detention because he was slouching in his chair, but did nothing when he punched a classmate in the face, then I'm straining at gnats while swallowing camels.

By the way, if you have the time, you should take a few minutes to read Jesus' entire tirade against the religious leaders. Because we tend to think of Jesus as "meek and mild," this chapter can be quite astonishing to a lot of people: Matthew 23.

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