“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.
Matthew 5:17-20 (emphasis added)
For me, this is the starting point for the whole assignment. For no other reason than the fact that these words occur in Jesus’ “inaugural speech”, they should be given special attention. But in addition to their context, the content is weighty too because it frames how we should see the Grace / Law Polarity. (notice I’m changing the terms from ‘versus” to “polarity”. The fact that we have often framed it as a “versus” relationship belies a misunderstanding from the outset. From the beginning of his ministry, Jesus framed it as a “fulfilling” relationship. However, my daily experience with Law does not create feelings of fulfillment, or at least rarely so. Therefore I find myself standing in the place of paradox between Jesus’ claim that Gospel life is the fulfillment of Torah (Law) life, and my experience that Law is burdensome and inadequate, yet vitally necessary, leaving me longing for Grace. So this creates what I will term a Polarity.)
The polarity seems to lie in the tension between the terms I emphasized above in the Matthew 5 passage. Look at them as two ends of the same magnet (polarity) but label them like this:
A cursory reading of Matthew 5 would seem to indicate that if there is a polarity in this teaching it lies between “Least” and “Greatest”. That makes sense. That polarity aligns with our daily experience in a Law oriented, binary, Newtonian world: Black vs. White, Hot vs. Cold, Least vs. Greatest. But on closer examination, we see that the Least and Greatest inside the Kingdom are packaged together and are being contrasted with those who never even enter.
This is not about the Least and Greatest. It’s about getting in the door in the first place.
A good metaphor might be the phrase “Re-arranging the deck chairs on the Titanic”. A phrase meant to absurdly illustrate attention being paid to a secondary issue while the primary issue goes unattended.
Remember that Jesus had a mixed audience to his Sermon on the Mount. Some who were listening to him were open, teachable and desperate for some promise of hope beyond the seemingly unattainable requirements of the Law. They knew that within their own lives at least, that the ship was going down, and they were looking for rescue. The other group saw no hope whatsoever beyond the Law and had placed their bets fully on their capacity to meet the requirements of that Law. They firmly believed that ship COULD NOT go down, and therefore, refused to consider alternatives.
Jesus is saying, “Yes, it’s true that once inside the Kingdom of heaven, those who understood, loved and respected the Law will be considered great. And those who did not, well…not so much. But while you are arguing about your seating arrangements, have you lost sight of the fact that none of you, even the ones who most strictly adhere to Torah, has even qualified for entrance to the Kingdom?”
I think they missed that point. And I think we do too.
I imagine the crowd surrounding Jesus in concentric semi-circles radiating out in front of him. Immediately at his feet sat the 12 and others who were earnestly teachable and open. Just beyond this group, standing at a respectable distance were the Pharisees and the Teachers of the Law.
I see Jesus raising his voice like Rabbis of the time were expected to do, and loudly proclaiming for the direct benefit of the the latter group (while making direct eye contact with them) verses 17 – 19:
“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.
I imagine them nodding in a mild, surprised approval: “Heeeeyyy. This kid’s not so bad…he gets it! That first part about “fulfilling” was a little weird, but we can interrogate him about that later…”
And then after a longish pause, he turns his gaze downward to those at his feet. His countenance changes from proclaimer to revealer, from demonstrative teacher to sober and loving shepherd, and he says, directly to THEM, but still loud enough for the others to hear verse 20:
For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.
I imagine an outburst at this point. In my mind, I think it was a minute or two of uproar before Jesus was even able to go on and illustrate what he was saying with the remainder of what is recorded in chapter 5. Jesus continues to underscore, with hammer-blows, the polarity of Law and Grace; how the inner-reality of a person, one’s very NATURE is held up for comparison to the Law. And with the words of verse 20 ringing in their ears, the honest listener must have begun to lose hope…and some of those listeners who may have walked away at that point became the first in human history to mis-frame Law vs. Grace.
But for those who stuck around…