This is a fascinating teaching of Jesus, and one that raises several questions for me.
First, why would Jesus have to defend himself against the slanderous claim that he came to abolish Torah (what the NRSV calls “the law and the prophets”)? Could it be that his interpretation of Torah was that radical? I think it was.
The phrase “Torah and Prophets” in Jesus’ day is equivalent to “God and country” in our own day. Both phrases refer to the political and religious status quo. Jesus challenged people to question the status quo, and those who would defend it would naturally claim that he was seeking to overthrow it.
Rather than defend himself Jesus could have said something like, “OK, you’re right. If Torah and Prophets means what you say it means, then I am calling for their abolition.” But to do so would be to abdicate the basic memes of his civilization, something Jesus refused to do. He insisted on using the very Torah his opponents use, but interpreted it in new ways. This is why he says he has come to “fulfill” the Torah rather than abolish it. He has come to reveal its deeper meanings. In this Jesus is a classic Pharisee, for interpreting Scripture and finding new meanings in ancient text is at the heart of the Pharisaic experiment in Judaism.
This interpretation is bolstered by Jesus’ next sentence: For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished.
From similar phrases by other rabbis, we know that the letter Jesus refers to is the yod, the smallest letter of the Hebrew alphabet, and the stroke of a letter is the dagesh, the tiny dot placed in the center of certain letters to change their sound from soft to hard (the letter bet/b has the dot; drop it and you have the letter vet/v). Why mention these things? Because for the rabbis of his day (and ours) interpreting each letter and each stroke was one of the ways they found new meanings in the Torah. Jesus isn’t denying Torah, only offering new interpretations of Torah.
Then Jesus says something even more mysterious: Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.
What is so wild in this saying is that both the breakers of the commandments and their keepers get into the Kingdom of Heaven! While their places differ, neither is denied entry. How painfully ironic that Jesus, unlike so many who claim him as Lord and Savior, rejects no one when it comes to the Kingdom! And yet if this is so, what are we to make of the final teaching of our text: For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven?
The confusion is removed when we realize that there is no equation between keeping the ritual commandments and righteousness. One can be very mindful of ritual and totally thoughtless in one’s dealings with other people and living things. Jesus is saying that entry into the Kingdom of Heaven is based on acts of righteousness rather than ritual or creedal purity. Once you’re in, your place is then determined by how well you kept the commandments, but getting in has nothing to do with ritual and everything to do with ethics.
This again is totally in alignment with Pharisaic teaching. True, the Pharisees were rigorous in their keeping of the law, but it was just and compassionate dealings with one’s neighbor that mattered most. Where Jesus and the Pharisees split is over their definitions of "neighbor." The Pharisees were not ready to accept the leper, the tax collector, the Samaritan, the Roman, or women at their table. Jesus was. This was his greatness and his genius.
It is a terrible shame that Pharisee and Pharisaic has become pejorative terms. The Pharisees were the liberals of their day, doing with Torah and the Prophets exactly what Jesus did: remaking them in their own image, according to their own understanding of what is good and just. I believe Jesus, like Paul, was trained by Pharisees, though I suspect he was of the School of Hillel (liberal and focused on compassion), while Paul was of the competing School of Shammai (conservative and focused on rules). The fact that the Gospels show the Pharisees challenging Jesus only bolsters my argument: This is exactly what rabbis do with one another. Our entire system is based on argument, questioning, challenging, and dialogue. But we only do this with fellow Pharisees/Rabbis. When the Pharisees challenge Jesus there are acknowledging him as part of the Pharisaic community.
All Jews today adhere to or deviate from Pharisaic Judaism. Not that Judaism is unchanged since Jesus’ time. Pharisaic or what we now call rabbinic Judaism is a method of reading, interpreting, and recasting Scripture that filters the ancient text through the imagination of the sages to reflect the zeitgeist of their age. This is what rabbis have done for thousands of years, and why Judaism continues to be a living and therefore evolving religious civilization.
OK, I have gone on quite long. Now back to you.