“Don’t misunderstand why I have come. I did not come to abolish the law of Moses or the writings of the prophets. No, I came to accomplish their purpose.I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not even the smallest detail of God’s law will disappear until its purpose is achieved. So if you ignore the least commandment and teach others to do the same, you will be called the least in the Kingdom of Heaven. But anyone who obeys God’s laws and teaches them will be called great in the Kingdom of Heaven.“But I warn you—unless your righteousness is better than the righteousness of the teachers of religious law and the Pharisees, you will never enter the Kingdom of Heaven! [Matthew 5:17-20]
As we continue our meandering journey through the Sermon on the Mount we come to this: a passage that we Christians often struggle with. What, exactly, is he talking about when he says he hasn’t come to abolish the law, but to fulfill it?
The ancient Jews believed that when the Messiah came he would replace the law with another – but that it would in no way contradict the law given by Moses. So in order to understand what Jesus is saying we need to first grasp the importance of his claims. “Don’t misunderstand why I have come.” Jesus says. “I did not come to abolish the law of Moses or the writings of the prophets. No, I came to accomplish their purpose.”
Did you get that? Where he said,”I have come?” Or when he said, “I came…?” He is clearly stepping into this belief, positioning himself as that Messiah. And with it he claims to be bringing that ‘new law’ – that doesn’t contradict the teachings of Moses but rather brings out their true purpose (that the state of our heart matters most to God). He is also identifying himself as the Messiah as he places himself in the position of a mediator between God and man – accomplishing in his death and resurrection what the law had failed to do.
There’s something else Jesus does here that would have freaked-out the people hearing it. We miss it, because we’re not products of the same religious context. The Jews believed that when they were righteous the Messiah would come – and they believed that righteousness could only be achieved by following the law perfectly. Jesus says that someone who breaks the least part of the law will be the least in the Kingdom of Heaven, and the person who keeps and teaches the whole law will be great in the Kingdom of Heaven. His listeners fully expected to hear the second part of that statement. But the first part? His listeners would have been stunned to hear that one could fail to keep the law – even teach against it – and still be a part of the Kingdom of God.
That must have blown their minds.
To me, in our context, this suggests three things. The first is that God isn’t sitting around waiting for us to have the perfect church, or be perfect people before he works in and through us. The second is that God sees our lives as a whole. And that’s a good thing. We are all sinners, and we are all saints. And the third thing it suggests is that we’ll have different opinions, different theologies, different ‘truths’. And maybe God is big enough to handle that, even if we’re not. So, in all three cases, maybe we should just cut each other some slack. We may need to give ourselves some grace as well, but we definitely need to live and let live.
Finally, Jesus warns his listeners that their righteousness must be greater than the Pharisees if they’re to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. This would have really and truly left his audience breathless and stunned. How could this be? The Pharisees had given their entire life to following the law, without exception and without excuse. So great was their adherence to the law that they were known to tithe a tenth of the herbs they grew in their gardens. How could the righteousness of we, the common people exceed the Pharisees? It couldn’t – unless righteousness wasn’t about the outward behavior, and unless the kind of righteousness God rewarded was that of a loving heart. This was an entirely new way of thinking about ‘the law’, and an entirely new way of thinking about God and our relationship with Her.
“Don’t misunderstand why I have come…”