“Don’t suppose that I came to destroy the law and the prophets. I didn’t come to destroy them; I came to fulfill them! I’m telling you the truth: until heaven and earth disappear, not one stroke, not one dot, is going to disappear from the law, until it’s all come true. So anyone who relaxes a single one of these commandments, even the little ones, and teaches that to people, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven. But anyone who does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. Yes, let me tell you: unless your covenant behavior is far superior to that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never get in to the kingdom of heaven.” Matthew 5:17-20 (Translation compliments of N.T. Wright, Matthew for Everyone)
If there were any evidence that could possibly draw into question the claim that God cannot contradict God’s Self, then this would be it. On the one hand Jesus seems to be saying that strict adherence to the commandments in word and deed will make a person “great” in the kingdom of heaven; on the other, Jesus holds up a bar that not even the Pharisees in their rigorous application of the law can reach as criteria for entrance into God’s kingdom.
Which can leave us asking, “which is it, Jesus?” Weird indeed.
Unless what Jesus is doing here is introducing a totally new paradigm. A “revolution” as N.T. Wright puts it, in our whole mode of living and being in the world. An existence to which the commandments point, as trail markers of sorts on the way to a full revelation of God’s justice, but one which also requires a complete reversal of old habits of thinking and living.
Because we like the Pharisees, I suspect, can easily slip into patterns of relating to God that ultimately point back to us and our own efforts to measure up. To play by the rules. To live within a certain rubric of conventional goodness. So that if we’re not stealing or committing adultery, we can convince ourselves that we’ve got it together. That “we’ve arrived.” Or, in a similar stroke, if we are stealing or committing adultery, we can persuade ourselves that there is now no hope for us in the kingdom of heaven.
But notice that Jesus does not set up a paradigm by which one’s entrance into the kingdom of heaven depends on how well one keeps God’s laws. Sure, those of us who have been exceedingly “good” may find that we are “greater” in the kingdom, just as those of us who have been a bit more “naughty” may find that we are “less” there. But the ultimate paradigm shift is in the notion of how we find ourselves in the kingdom in the first place. Because what Jesus seems to be saying here is that we find ourselves in the kingdom not by making our goodness or lack thereof the focus, but rather by joining the revolution that Jesus has now begun in his life, death and resurrection. A revolution that begins with God’s remaking of our own hearts and ends when the heavens and earth pass away, and when God, with just a little help from us, has finished restoring the whole world to the way it was meant to be from the very beginning.
So there’s a sense in which Jesus is taking all that the Pharisees have come to understand about their world and reinterpreting it for them: he is validating their experience of God’s love and care in the prophets and the commandments, but also setting it out under the light and asking them to take another look at it, this time with a bigger, God-breathed perspective.
And the beauty and adventure of a relationship with Jesus are that we, too, have the opportunity to let God hold up the things that we, like the Pharisees, enshrine as necessary for entrance into God’s kingdom, that place where God’s justice and mercy kiss each other and where our hearts beat with God’s love. We have the chance to let God shine God’s light on these same things so that they appear as if for a first time to us. So that we, in the process, are “transformed by the renewing of our minds,” as the apostle Paul describes (Romans 12:2). In that moment, we can choose to exclaim with wonder and gratitude. Or, we can keep on lighting incense at the old shrines.