Saturday, September 17, 2011

Whoever therefore breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven

"Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill. For assuredly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle will by no means pass from the law till all is fulfilled. Whoever therefore breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I say to you, that unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven."

- Matthew 5:17-20

In yesterday's reading, we read the second part of the Beatitudes. We are going through the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew, chapters 5 - 7. The Beatitudes have taught us about the blessedness of life lived in the righteousness that Christ preaches. In the second part to the Beatitudes, He elaborated on the experience of persecution for righteousness' sake. He taught His disciples that they are the salt of the earth, and the light of the world. They must keep their savor of righteousness, it flavors life. They live out a covenant in the world that secures and preserves life for the world. They must allow the light they carry to shine and illumine what is around them, and not be afraid -- even in persecution because they are different from the world. See You are the salt of the earth - You are the light of the world.

"Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill." In the Beatitudes (see readings one and two), Jesus has taught a new covenant, a way of life. It is a blessedness that comes from a relationship with God, an internal transformation in that relationship and relatedness. But here He turns to the Old Covenant, and the Law and the Prophets which are its foundation. My study bible says, "Jesus fulfills the Law in His Person, words and actions by: (1) performing God's will in all its fullness; (2) transgressing none of the precepts of the Law; (3) declaring the perfect fulfillment of the Law, which He was about to deliver to them; (4) granting righteousness -- the goal of the Law -- to us. He fulfills the Prophets by carrying out fully what they had foretold about Him." It seems to me that Jesus' Covenant of Righteousness as taught here (if we can call it that) is the fulfillment of the Law, all that the Law and the Prophets have pointed toward. He is broadening, expanding, fleshing it out with new teaching and understanding.

"For assuredly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle will by no means pass from the law till all is fulfilled. Whoever therefore breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven." Jesus enforces here our understanding of the law and its place in Him. A jot is a small letter in both Greek and Hebrew alphabets; a tittle is a small stroke in forming certain Hebrew letters. "Thus," says my study bible, the whole of the law is the foundation of the new teaching. It is fulfilled by Christ and will not pass away till heaven and earth pass away." Assuredly here is literally "Amen." Christ is taking an oath to Himself about His fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets. He will not break the least of them. But it is also a teaching to us about the New Covenant, and the kind of righteousness that Jesus is preaching here. He will put the doing before the teaching, as my study bible puts it. He will fulfill all His teachings in His ministry. Nothing will be neglected -- and He expects His disciples to understand and do the same. He says something similar in Luke 16:10: "He who is faithful in what is least is faithful also in much; and he who is unjust in what is least is unjust also in much." We must take care for our lives and how we live them and practice His righteousness, down to the last jot or tittle. Our lives - as salt and light - are precious. As we do, so we also must teach, and thereby we give glory to God.

"For I say to you, that unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven." My study bible notes that "righteousness is more than proper behavior, such as the scribes and Pharisees were advocating, and holy thoughts. It centers upon our relationship with God." We don't do this alone. In the Beatitudes Jesus advocates a transforming reality through relationship. This New Covenant is one in which "the law is written on our hearts." It is a fulfillment of the Law and Prophets because it is a deepening understanding of the reality of faith and covenant. And through His work and teaching and example, Jesus will go on to express what this means.

Here, Jesus gives us a taste of what is to come: that His teachings are those of a deepening relatedness to God, in order to become more like God. Righteousness is more than following an outward rule, it is more than appearance. Jesus will go on to teach this throughout His life and ministry. The depth of relatedness to God becomes a standard by which we understand our faith, and the aim of righteousness. But He is clear here to teach us that in this New Covenant, nothing is neglected. We don't skip steps. His is the fulfillment of the Law and Prophets, not the abandonment of the faith of all that has come before. Therefore He builds and fleshes out the righteousness of the past with the righteousness of the new, and a depth of relatedness He brings to us. How do you fulfill that in your life? With what small things do you take today and fulfill as He asks the righteousness this blessed life? Let us remember the small, and its relationship to the greater things. What "little things" are you faithful in today?