‘Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfil. 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. 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.
“Not one letter, not one stroke of a letter.” We used to say “not a jot or a tittle.” The ‘jot’ refers to the smallest letter in the Hebrew alphabet, yod, which looks just like a comma. A ‘tittle’ is part of a letter, like the dot on our letters i and j. To say ‘not a jot or a tittle will pass from the Law’ was to say how unchangeable the Law was. A scholar relates the claim made by some rabbis that when Sarai's name was changed to Sarah (Genesis 17:15), the yod removed from her name cried out from generation to generation, protesting its removal from Scripture; until finally, when Moses changed Hoshea's name to Joshua (Numbers 13:16), the yod was returned to Scripture. Jesus repeated the saying that not a jot or tittle would disappear from the Law. Why then was he unhappy with the Pharisees, who made it their life’s task to observe the Law to the very letter?
Jesus continued, “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgement.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgement; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool’, you will be liable to the hell of fire....You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” In these phrases Jesus appears even more legalistic than the Pharisees.
Yet he said on another occasion, “My yoke is easy and my burden light” (Mt 11:30). What he just said seem heavier, not lighter, than the Pharisees’ doctrine. How are we to understand this?
He said he had not come to abolish the law but to fulfil it (Mt 5:17). A law is not necessarily ‘fulfilled’ when it is being observed to the letter; it is fulfilled when it is serving the end for which it was made. If he had said “Away with jots and tittles!” he would have looked like a reckless liberal to many, but notice that he would still be talking about the letter of the law! He would be in the same box as the scribes and Pharisees, though in a different corner of it.
Jesus stands outside the box. He looks deeper than external observance, to the heart. He sees that the act of murder, for example, grows from a murderous thought; adultery grows from a lustful look. These inner states are the seed ground of human activity, the overt acts are just the development of them. He draws attention away from the letter of the law and to the origin of things, the heart of the matter, where all the jots and tittles in the world make no difference at all.
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