Dear Sisters and Brothers,
Since there is such an emphasis on God’s grace in the Gospels and the various letters that follow, you might think that Jesus would ease up on the requirements of the law, but that is not the case.
We often picture the scene as a courtroom where we are on trial for our lives. We know that our case looks pretty hopeless, because the law requires a level of perfection that is beyond us. In the end, we are found guilty, but we are welcomed into God’s kingdom because Jesus has paid our fine and served our sentence. We are not only forgiven, but we know that the debt has been paid and we will never be taken to court again.
With that image in mind, it would seem as though the court would relax the laws to the point where a trial wouldn’t even be necessary. But Jesus, speaking as the person upholds the law, does something very different.
[Jesus said] “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.
This passage comes to us right before Jesus makes the law even more strict. Not only will he sustain the law, he is going to make the law require even more from us. The law already put many constraints on believer’s lives, but Jesus is going to emphasize that everyone will fall short of the perfection that is required.
On the one hand, Jesus is setting before us a very high standard that will make us try even harder. There is an old belief (that has been stated in many cultures) that the best motivation is to try for perfection even while we know it is impossible. The expressions “shooting for the stars” or the line “a man’s reach should exceed his grasp” are about this kind of motivation.
We are not to give up on meeting the highest standard. We are “fallen people” who seldom rise to their potentials, but we always need to do better (if we are to meet God’s expectations).
Strangely, Jesus pushes the law so far towards perfection that it makes us more aware of our failures.
Our righteousness, Jesus says, must surpass that of the “Pharisees and the Scribes.” The most apparent problem with those old Jewish authorities was most of them thought that they were good enough to earn their way into heaven. They were pretty sure that they were superior to most of the common people and that they were “good enough.” It is at people like them that Jesus is trying to reach most in this passage.
We all know people who don’t feel good enough or lovable enough. There are times when a devout Christian feels so deficient in faith and good works that they worry that they might not enter God’s kingdom. This passage is not aimed at them as much as it is aimed at the people who feel good enough with their current level of righteousness.
By strengthening the power of the law, Jesus is forcing us to confront a basic truth: None of us are righteous enough to earn our way into heaven.
The original purpose of the law was not about individual salvation. The purpose of the law was to enable people to live in community. The law came long before people thought there was a chance of spending eternity with God. In the days of the first books of the Bible, and for many centuries after the children of Israel returned to the promised land, expectations were different. The main expectation was that you would die and sleep forever in the land of the dead (resting in peace, forever) but in a place neither like heaven nor hell. You would be dead and unaware of what happened anywhere. The rewards for a righteous life would be the blessings that came to your descendants, their community, and all the children of Israel.
So, the law was to control sinful people enough that they could trust one another enough to live in community and serve the common good. The rewards for a life well lived were the children (and their children) who lived on and remembered you.
So, if a person had some property and a few healthy children, they might assume that their righteousness was pleasing to God.
Originally, thoughts around the expected messiah were all about restoring the fortunes of Israel. The messiah would come and re-establish autonomy and power so future generations would prosper. Later, the expectations of the messiah also came to include pathway to individual salvation.
The Pharisees had beliefs on resurrection and entering God’s eternal kingdom. They believed that people like themselves could be righteous enough to earn this gift from God.
But Jesus goes back to the law and reaffirms it for the purpose of community and the common good, but he makes it clear that the requirement for earning salvation was perfection. We are still tasked with the law because it still serves its original purpose, but the law must be completely fulfilled to meet the requirements for entering eternal life.
The bad news is that none of us can use the law as a ladder to get to heaven. The good news is contained in what Jesus says in this passage: “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.”
Jesus is only person who fulfills the law because he is the one able to enter God’s everlasting kingdom on his own merits. Jesus is perfect because he is the incarnation of eternal perfection. Jesus is not only our attorney or the judge, he is the “word” and “wisdom” by which the law was written.
The love of God came through the law to make peaceful communities a possibility. The love of God comes to us through Jesus to carry us into heaven.
For those of us who don’t feel righteous enough to walk into heaven, we are correct. We are right to feel that perfection is beyond us. For the sake of community and each other, we still endeavor to be perfect, but we will never be good enough to buy a ticket to eternal life. But we do not need to fear or feel like failures. No one is perfectly righteous except Jesus Christ… because he is God.
Our righteousness should exceed that of the Scribes (teachers of the law) and Pharisees because we will never stop at some point and say “good enough.”
What we say and do matters because the law still enables and sustains peaceful coexistence.
But the law is not our way to heaven… Jesus is the way. And when we enter eternal life it will be because he imparts his righteousness to count as if it was ours. And we will never be able to walk into heaven on our own merits. We will be carried into heaven by his merits; in his arms.
Questions to Ponder: Are you aware of times when you fail to be perfect? Do you love anyone who isn’t perfect? Why wouldn’t God also be able to love imperfect people?