"Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven."
– Matthew 5:19-20
(Ok, here's where I need to take a deep breath)
I've said sometimes when teaching, "if the words of Jesus don't scare you, you're not really reading." This statement of Christ is a great example of what I'm talking about. It scares me.
And it confuses me a bit as well. When Jesus refers to the "least of these commandments", what is he referring to?
In the previous few statements in chapter 5 of Matthew, Jesus has affirmed the law and the prophets, and has claimed in himself to be the fulfillment of them. He reiterates that he has not come to abolish the law, but rather to fulfill it.
In reading ahead to the end of the chapter, we see that Christ launches into a series of "you have heard it said / but I say to you" statements, where he reinterprets six commands from the Old Testament and moves their "center" from the skin-depth of our external actions to the depths of our hearts. For example, “You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brotherwill be liable to judgment" (vv. 21-22a).
It is important to notice that Jesus doesn't make the law easier here. He makes it harder.
Some have argued that the purpose of the law is only to show us our need for Christ, and our inability to please God on our own. While this view has some attraction for me (I don't need to take these commands seriously? Cool!) I don't believe it is correct.
My friend Jared summarizes nicely my discomfort:
The Law is indeed a mirror (as James' epistle elucidates), it does indeed confront us in its very existence with our failure to measure up, with the complete imperfection within us. No, by the law will no one be justified. Yes, the law's declaration demonstrates our own alienation from God's holiness. But this notion that this negative declaration is only why it exists, to show us we can't do it, is just . . . weird. I just can't read the Sermon on the Mount, for instance, in which Jesus makes the Law harder by making it about our hearts and not just our behavior, and think it's just some bizarre logic puzzle meant to mean the opposite of what it says.
When Jesus says "Love your enemies," yes it is implicit that we can't do that perfectly, that it is not in our own power to do that or even want to do that. But it is still a command. It is still something to do. And with the Spirit's transforming power, in the new life in Jesus, it is something we can and must do.
I like what Dallas Willard says about this stuff: The life of faith is not opposed to effort, it is opposed to earning. There is a huuuuge difference. And I think many of those who get hung up on the Law as mirror — setting one "use" of the Law against another — fall off the horse on the other side.
So what's Jesus doing here? I believe that Jesus meant what he said; this is how we are to live. This is what the Kingdom of God looks like: it's a Kingdom populated by followers of Jesus who live not just in accordance with the letter of the law, but who accord with the spirit of the law as well. Kingdom people are people who understand that anger in their heart does lead to murder, that lust in their heart does lead to adultery, that the person standing next to us is not a fool to be despised, but is rather a creature fearfully and wonderfully created in the image of God. Kingdom people are people who understand that we don't live for ourselves, for our dignity, or to get "what's coming to us".
In the following verses and chapters, Jesus is going to describe his Kingdom, populated by the blessed meek, the blessed poor in spirit, the pure in heart that he described at the beginning of his sermon.
If you're like me, the description of the Kingdom in the sermon on the mount is both very good news and very bad news. It's good news when I think of how wonderful it would be to live in that kind of society; a society of Jesus-followers living from the heart and living out the love of Christ to each other. But because I'm crooked deep inside, it becomes bad news when I start imagining myself conforming to this law of the Spirit, because it seems impossible.
But I've learned that what seems impossible to me is often not impossible for God. And this is the gospel, the good news, that a dead man like me can be made alive in Christ and can actually do the good works which the Lord, who's workmanship I am, has prepared for me to do.
When we live in accordance to the law of Christ, which is the law of the Spirit, not just the letter, our righteousness will surpass the righteousness of the scribes and the Pharisees, who knew the letter backwards and forwards but who had lost the purpose of the law, and who had become dead to the things of God even as they memorized and lived out the externals of his commands.
And we are to live in accordance with Christ's law. Not to earn salvation, because Christ has already earned it. This life of obedience in the Spirit is natural; a result and a reflection of Jesus.
The law of Christ, which is the fullest expression and completion of the law and the prophets in the Old Testament, is joy. As is being a citizen of the Kingdom of God, lit up by that same law, a shining city on a hill.
[Note: this was cross-posted on the HNW Gap Singles site]