Several posts around the bloggernacle recently have quoted from the KJV of Matthew 23:24, in which Jesus rebukes the scribes and Pharisees, calling them “blind guides, which strain at a gnat, and swallow a camel.”
This is one of the KJV’s more famous errors.
Apparently a misprinting that was eventually corrected, the text should read “blind guides who strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.” The Greek word diulidzo means to strain out, to filter, not to make strenuous effort towards. Every Bible translation other than the KJV gets it right. (There are other examples of what limiting yourself to the KJV can mislead you on, but that’s another post.)
The point here and in the preceeding verse is in the contrast between the two types. While the scribes and pharisees made great efforts to keep the law in the smallest point (straining out gnats, the eating of which would violate the Jewish dietry laws of kashrut, and paying tithing even on the spices they grew), they grossly violated the “weightier matters” of the law (symbolized by swallowing a camel, also against the laws of kashrut, and failing to exercise justice, faith and mercy.)
Straining at a gnat (what would that mean, anyway?) is thus not negative in and of itself, but it should not stand alone in our interpretation. Rather, it is hypocritical to strain out gnats while also swallowing camels, to proudly wear a white shirt to all our meetings, but fail to be merciful and faithful. Those we should do, and not leave the other undone.
Edit: Added the following.
Elder Faust has an excellent General Conference talk on “The Weightier Matters of the Law” November 1997.
Draper, Richard D. “”Scribes, Pharisees, Hypocrites”; a Study in HypÃ³krisis.” In The Disciple as Scholar: Essays on Scripture and the Ancient World in Honor of Richard Lloyd Anderson, edited by Stephen D. Ricks, Donald W. Parry and Andrew H. Hedges, 385-427. Provo, UT: FARMS, 2000. Text here. (He also has it in .pdf)
Royal Skousen points out several other places the KJV fails to fully convey the right thought. “Through a Glass Darkly: Trying to Understand the Scriptures” BYUS 26:4 (Fall 1986). (Free download.)