Matthew 5:17-20 (CEV)
The Law of Moses
Don’t suppose that I came to do away with the Law and the Prophets. I did not come to do away with them, but to give them their full meaning. Heaven and earth may disappear. But I promise you that not even a jot or a tittle will ever disappear from the Law. Everything written in it must happen. If you reject even the least important command in the Law and teach others to do the same, you will be the least important person in the kingdom of heaven. But if you obey and teach others its commands, you will have an important place in the kingdom. You must obey God’s commands better than the Pharisees and the teachers of the Law obey them. If you don’t, I promise you that you will never get into the kingdom of heaven.
I used to do a thing sometimes with kids in school assemblies. When I was confident that they knew a biblical story and would switch off if I told it to them through sheer familiarity, I would sometimes totally change the ending to shock them back to life… for example:
The Parable of the Good Samaritan
As a man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, robbers attacked him and grabbed everything he had. They beat him up and ran off, leaving him half dead. A priest happened to be going down the same road. But when he saw the man, he walked by on the other side. Later a temple helper came to the same place. But when he saw the man who had been beaten up, he also went by on the other side. A man from Samaria then came traveling along that road. When he saw the man, he walked over, and seeing that he was still alive, gave him a good kicking and threw him over the hedge. “That’s how you should all be”, said Jesus.
That always wakes them up. It’s my one tactic with kids that I rely on everywhere I go – get things wrong and they LOVE to correct me! (If that doesn’t work I’m stuffed and I run away and leave it to the professionals!)
They protest – that’s not what happened and that doesn’t sound like Jesus.
They are right – it doesn’t sound like Jesus, does it?
We like to think we have a feel for what Jesus sounds like – the kind of thing Jesus would say and wouldn’t say. That’s entirely reasonable! After all, the Spirit lives within us reminding us all the time what Jesus is like, no?
So – if I say that at first glance this passage from Matthew’s Gospel doesn’t sound like Jesus, are you going to burn me as a bible-hating heretic?
Of course it is a very convenient argument to deploy if you stumble across something difficult simply to declare that it doesn’t sound like Jesus – and I know that these verses are meat and drink to a particular sub-set of Christians who gleefully point it out and this declare that women should stay at home and shut up, children should be birched and anyone with non hetero-normal experience of sexuality should be forced into celibacy and/or psychiatric treatment. (whilst admiring their own recently acquired tattoo of the cross, wearing mixed-fibre clothing and biting into their bacon roll…)
The four Gospels are clearly different – largely because they are written by different real people and for different audiences in different contexts. (If God simply dictated them – why would s/he dictate four and not just one authoritative account?) Matthew is a bit of a mystery – scholars still disagree about who he was and who he was writing for. Either way he seems to have a very complex relationship with “The Jews”. Some go as far as declaring that Matthew’s Gospel is anti-semitic and should be a banned text because of the damage it has done over the centuries in fostering anti-semitism across Europe and beyond. Yet in it are puzzling passages like this which sound very Pharisaic in nature
So – this passage doesn’t sound like Jesus. Either Jesus didn’t say this, OR, this isn’t saying what it seems to be saying at first glance! I’m happy with either of these approaches! Biblical literalists would be equally cross with either of them. “Look Phil – you’re just changing what the bible says to suit your own sensitivities! You can’t pick and choose!” That’s a serious point and not one to dismissed lightly. But in my defence I call none other than Martin Luther to the witness stand: “Therefore if the adversaries press scripture against Christ, we urge Christ against the scriptures.” I am not sure I have ever seen a more radical way of expressing distaste for legalistic interpretations of the Bible than this one!
Jesus regularly dismissed jots and tittles of the law and he was hounded and harried by Pharisees and legal scholars everytime he did it. Plucking corn on the Sabbath, healing people on the Sabbath… Jesus trampled on those soul-destroying jots and tittles and enjoyed trampling on them!
So – either way, I don’t really care – Jesus didn’t say this, OR the passage isn’t saying what it seems to be saying. The latter is probably the least controversial approach – and there are myriad fine examples, and that’s the approach that will be taken in many pulpits this coming weekend as this passage will be preached on. (One fine example is our Moderator Ruth Whitehead – here’s what she will be preaching: Sunday’s Coming! )
(Ruth writes a fine preaching blog most Sundays – if you want to follow it it is linked on my floating sidebar on the right over there – hover your mouse over it and “other blogs worth a look” appears by magic! Or you can just click on the “Sunday’s Coming” link above and subscribe from there.)
If Jesus didn’t say this – then Matthew edited and arranged material in such a way that it looks like Jesus is saying this! I know this sounds shocking – but that’s really what the Gospels are – four blokes arranging, editing and adapting material, some of it commonly available, some of it fresh material that they have gathered themselves, into a narrative designed to communicate the Gospel to a particular audience experiencing a particular set of issues in a particular place and time.
There – I’ve said it. I predict the sky won’t fall in and I won’t have to sit and write a blog that drives me through excessive mental contortions to contrive an explanation as to why Jesus is telling you that actually you DO have to obey every tiny jot and tittle of the Pharisaic law. You should be grateful! 🙂
By the way, obviously, “jot and tittle” is a much more fun way of saying “cross the t’s and dot the i’s”. In Hebrew, “jot” was the smallest letter and a “tittle” was a pen flourish on some letters. It looked like this: