17 “Don’t even begin to think that I have come to do away with the Law and the Prophets. I haven’t come to do away with them but to fulfill them. 18 I say to you very seriously that as long as heaven and earth exist, neither the smallest letter nor even the smallest stroke of a pen will be erased from the Law until everything there becomes a reality. 19 Therefore, whoever ignores one of the least of these commands and teaches others to do the same will be called the lowest in the kingdom of heaven. But whoever keeps these commands and teaches people to keep them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20 I say to you that unless your righteousness is greater than the righteousness of the legal experts and the Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.
Do Jesus’ words here surprise you? They may—many Christians think Jesus came to do away with the law. Scholar William Barclay noted, “Again and again Jesus broke what the Jews called the Law…. yet here he seems to speak of the Law with a veneration and a reverence that no Rabbi or Pharisee could exceed.”* The passages that follow will show us that what Jesus challenged and refused to obey was a misunderstanding and misuse of “law” that had taken a deep hold among his day’s religious leaders.
Eternal God, you were with King David when he wrote “you want truth in the most hidden places” (Psalm 51:6). You taught that as you preached the Sermon on the Mount. Now plant your truth deep inside me. Amen.
* William Barclay, Daily Study Bible Series: The Gospel of Matthew—Volume 1, Chapters 1–10 (Revised Edition). Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1976, pp. 126-127.
** Wright, N. T. Matthew for Everyone, Part 1: Chapters 1-15 (The New Testament for Everyone) (p. 41). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.
Earlier this month I spent almost two weeks helping care for our four month old granddaughter. I did the typical things you do when you care for a baby; I fed her her bottle, changed diapers, put her down for her nap, went for neighborhood walks and kept her entertained. As babies do, Clara has a pretty set routine and already has opinions about what she does and doesn't want to do. But despite reorganizing my schedule around hers and the intensity of caring for a baby I did everything I could to be sure she was happy and safe and was thrilled to be rewarded with a smile, laugh or squeal. I'm sure on a basic level Clara appreciated having a full tummy and clean diaper, but beyond having her basic needs met she sensed the love behind each of the actions and responded with joy.
I think God wants to have the same kind of relationship with me. He lovingly provides guidance through the Bible about how I can have a relationship with him. But going through the actions isn't enough to build connection and deepen faith. I am good about setting up routines and following plans to have quiet time, worship online or take part in other spiritual practices. But if I'm rushing through any of these activities, doing them just so I can check them off my list, or passively viewing and moving on to the next thing without taking time for contemplation I'm doing the same thing the Pharisees did. Going through the motions might outwardly look good and proper, but it doesn't lead to a life changing kind of relationship with God that brings comfort and peace.
Jesus calls out the hypocrisy of the pharisees in outwardly following the law in order to win admiration. But to those who are trying to live lives of hope Jesus affirms the importance of following the law as a way to love and honor God. He goes on to say he is the fulfillment of the law, meaning that through Jesus we are granted grace for all our sins.
I know I am going to sin and fall short, no matter how closely I try to do the things I know I should do. But I depend on the words of Jesus that he is continually at work in me, changing me from the inside and leading me on to perfection, as John Wesley would say, although I know I have a very long way to go.
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