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Today's Study

Matthew 5:17-20: Eternal Law?

Here is surely an uncompromising affirmation of the eternal validity of the law of Moses. Not the smallest part of it is to be abrogated--"not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen." The "jot" (KJV) is the smallest letter of the Hebrew alphabet; the "iota" (RSV) is the smallest letter of the Greek alphabet. The "tittle" (KJV) or "dot" (RSV) was a very small mark attached to a letter, perhaps to distinguish it from another which resembled it, as in our alphabet G is distinguished from C, or Q from O.

What is hard about this uncompromising affirmation? For some readers the hardness lies in the difficulty of recognizing in this speaker the Christ who, according to Paul, "is the end of the law, so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes" (Rom 10:4).

Others find no difficulty in supposing that Paul's conception of Jesus differed radically from the presentation of his character and teaching in the Gospels. The view has indeed been expressed (not so frequently nowadays as at an earlier time) that Paul is pointed to as the man who "breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same." This implies that the saying does not come from Jesus, but from a group in the early church that did not like Paul. Even where the reference to Paul would not be entertained, it is held by many that these words come from a group in the early church that wished to maintain the full authority of the law for Christians. The saying, according to Rudolf Bultmann, "records the attitude of the conservative Palestinian community in contrast to that of the Hellenists."

There were probably several selections of sayings of Jesus in circulation before the Gospels proper began to be produced, and one of these, which was preferred by stricter Jewish Christians, seems to have been used, along with others, by Matthew. Such a selection of sayings could be drawn up in accordance with the outlook of those who compiled it; sayings which in themselves appeared to support that outlook would be included, while others which appeared to go contrary to it would be omitted. The teaching of Jesus was much more diversified than any partisan selection of his sayings would indicate. By not confining himself to any one selection Matthew gives an all-around picture of the teaching. A saying such as has just been quoted had three successive life-settings: its life-setting in the historical ministry of Jesus, its setting in a restricted selection of Jesus' sayings, and its setting in the Gospel of Matthew. It is only its setting in the Gospel of Matthew that is immediately accessible to us. (In addition to these three settings, of course, it may have acquired subsequent life-settings in the history of the church and in the course of interpretation. The statement "I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them" has been used, for example, to present the gospel as the crown of fulfillment of Hinduism, but such a use of it is irrelevant to the intention of Jesus or of the Evangelist.)

To the remark that it is only in its setting in the Gospel of Matthew that the saying is immediately accessible to us there is a partial exception. Part of it occurs in a different context in the Gospel of Luke. In Luke 16:16-17 Jesus says, "The Law and the Prophets were proclaimed until John. Since that time, the good news of the kingdom of God is being preached, and everyone is forcing his way into it. It is easier for heaven and earth to disappear than for the least stroke of a pen to drop out of the Law." The second of these two sentences is parallel to (but not identical with) Matthew 5:18.

The selection of sayings which is supposed to have been drawn up in a more legally minded Christian circle, and which Matthew is widely considered to have used as one of his sources, is often labeled M (because it is represented in Matthew's Gospel only). Another, more comprehensive, selection on which both Matthew and Luke are widely considered to have drawn is commonly labeled Q. It may be, then, that the form of the "jot and tittle" saying found in Matthew 5:18 is the M form, while that found in Luke 16:17 is the Q form. T. W. Manson was one scholar who believed that this was so, and he invited his readers to bear two possibilities in mind. The first possibility was that Luke's form of the saying is closer to the original wording and that the form in Matthew "is a revision of it to bring it explicitly into line with Rabbinical doctrine." The other possibility, which follows on from this one, was "that the saying in its original form asserts not the perpetuity of the Law but the unbending conservatism of the scribes," that it is not intended to be "sound Rabbinical dogma but bitter irony." Jesus, that is to say, addresses the scribes and says, "The world will come to an end before you give up the tiniest part of your traditional interpretation of the law."

It is plain that Jesus did not accept the rabbinical interpretation of the law. Indeed, he charged the scribes, the acknowledged students and teachers of the law, with "break[ing] the command of God for the sake of your tradition" (so the wording runs in Mt 15:3, in a passage based on Mk 7:9). He said that by their application of the law "they tie up heavy loads and put them on men's shoulders" (Mt 23:4); by contrast, he issued the invitation "Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for . . . my yoke is easy, and my burden is light" (Mt 11:29-30).

But he did not relax the requirements of God's law as such, nor did he recommend a lower standard of righteousness than the "Pharisees and the teachers of the law" required. On the contrary, he insisted that admittance to the kingdom of heaven called for righteousness exceeding that of the scribes and Pharisees. This last statement, found in Matthew 5:20, serves as an introduction to the paragraphs which follow, in which Jesus' account of what obedience to the law involves is given in a succession of hard sayings, at which we shall look one by one. But at the moment we may mention two principles by which he interpreted and applied the law.

First, he maintained that the proper way to keep any commandment was to fulfill the purpose for which it was given. He did this with regard to the law of marriage; he did it also with regard to the sabbath law. On the sabbath day, said the fourth commandment, "you shall not do any work." In the eyes of some custodians of the law, this called for a careful definition of what constituted "work," so that people might know precisely what might or might not be done on that day. Circumstances could alter cases: an act of healing, for example, was permissible if it was a matter of life and death, but if the treatment could be put off to the following day without any danger or detriment to the patient, that would be better. It was precisely on this issue that Jesus collided repeatedly with the scribes and their associates. His criterion for the keeping of this law was to inquire for what purpose the sabbath was instituted. It was instituted, he held, to provide rest and relief for human beings: they were not made for the sake of the sabbath, but the sabbath was given for their sake. Therefore, any action which promoted their rest, relief and general well-being was permissible on the sabbath. It was not merely permissible on the sabbath: the sabbath was the most appropriate day for its performance, because its performance so signally promoted God's purpose in instituting the sabbath. Jesus appears to have cured people by preference on the sabbath day, because such an action honored the day.

He did not abrogate the fourth commandment; he interpreted it in a different way from the current interpretation. Did his principle of interpretation "surpass the righteousness of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law"? Perhaps it did. There are some people who find it easier to have a set of rules. When a practical problem arises, they can consult the rules and know what to do. But they have to decide which action best fulfills the purpose of the law. That involves thought, and thought of this kind, with the personal responsibility that accompanies it, is a difficult exercise for them.

Second, Jesus maintained that obedience or disobedience to the law began inwardly, in the human heart. It was not sufficient to conform one's outward actions and words to what the law required; the thought-life must be conformed to it first of all. One of the Old Testament psalmists voiced his feelings thus: "I desire to do your will, O my God; your law is within my heart" (Ps 40:8). This Psalm is not quoted by Jesus in the Gospels, but in another place in the New Testament its language is applied to him (Heb 10:7, 9). It does indeed express very well the attitude of Jesus himself and the attitude which he recommended to his hearers. Where the mind and will are set to do the will of God, the speaking and acting will not deviate from it.

Besides, where this is so, there will be an emphasis on the inward spiritual aspects of ethics and religion, rather than on outward and material aspects. The idea that a religious obligation could be given precedence over one's duty to one's parents was one with which Jesus had no sympathy (see Mk 7:10-13). This idea was approved by some exponents of the law in his day, but in general Jewish teaching has agreed with him here. Again, Jesus set very little store by details of ritual purification or food regulations, because these had no ethical content. Mark goes so far as to say that by his pronouncements on these last matters he "declared all foods `clean' " (Mk 7:19). If Matthew does not reproduce these words of Mark, he does reproduce the pronouncements of Jesus which Mark so interprets (Mt 15:17-20).

But did the ritual washings and food restrictions not belong to the jots and tittles of the law? Should they not be reckoned, at the lowest estimate, among "the least of these commandments"? Perhaps so, but in Jesus' eyes "justice, mercy and faithfulness" were of much greater importance (Mt 23:23). And what about the sacrificial ceremonies? They were included in the law, to be sure, but Jesus' attitude to such things is summed up in his quotation from a great Old Testament prophet: "I desire mercy, not sacrifice" (Hos 6:6). It is Matthew, and Matthew alone among the Evangelists, who records Jesus as quoting these words, and he records him as using them twice (Mt 9:13; 12:7). The law is fulfilled ethically rather than ceremonially. Jesus confirmed the insistence of the great prophets that punctiliousness in ceremonial observances is worse than useless where people neglect "to act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with . . . God" (Mic 6:8). It is human beings, and not inanimate things, that matter.

The law for Jesus was the expression of God's will. The will of God is eternal and unchangeable. Jesus did not come to modify the will of God; he fulfilled it. The standard of obedience to that will which he set, by his example and his teaching alike, is more exacting than the standard set by the written law. He insisted that the will of God should be done from the heart. But, in so insisting, he provided the means by which the doing of God's will from the heart should not be an unattainable ideal. If Paul may be brought in to interpret the teaching of Jesus here, the apostle who maintained that men and women are justified before God through faith in Jesus and not through keeping the law also maintained that those who have faith in Jesus receive his Spirit so that "the righteous requirements of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the sinful nature but according to the Spirit" (Rom 8:4). The gospel demands more than the law, but supplies the power to do it. Someone has put it in doggerel but telling lines:

To run and work the law commands,

Yet gives me neither feet nor hands;

But better news the gospel brings:

It bids me fly, and gives me wings.

See also comment on ROMANS 10:4.


Rudolf Bultmann, The History of the Synoptic Tradition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1963), p. 138.

For example, by J. N. Farquhar, The Crown of Hinduism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1913); compare E. J. Sharpe, Not to Destroy But to Fulfil (Lund: Gleerup, 1965).

T. W. Manson, The Sayings of Jesus (reprint; Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1979), p. 135.

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