Sermon delivered July 15, 2007.
Have you ever heard someone say, "It doesn't make one iota of difference."? What does a person mean when they say that? It means, no matter what you do, it will not make the smallest difference in the outcome. This saying, like many other famous quotes, is rooted in the Sacred Scripture and this one comes from today's Gospel reading (Mt.5:14-19). Sometimes translated in verse 18 as jot (NKJV) or smallest letter (NIV), the word is correctly translated as "iota" (RSV). Jesus says, "Truly I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the law until all is accomplished."
Jesus goes on to say in verse 19, "Whoever then relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but he who does them and teaches them shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven." It appears that Jesus is teaching the exact opposite of the well-known saying for He implies that how we practice and teach the smallest part of the law does make a difference in our standing in the Kingdom of Heaven.
When Jesus says "Law", He is referring to the Torah or Mosaic Law, the commandments of God given to Moses (on tablets of stone [Exodus 24:12-18, 31:18, 32:15; Deuteronomy 9:9-11] and orally through His divine Word [Dueteronomy.31:19]; as recorded in Exodus 20-40; Leviticus 1-27; Numbers 1-9; Deuteronomy 1-34). Was Jesus saying that the letter of the Law must be observed without fail? If so, why did the Jerusalem Council as recorded in Acts 15 essentially make most of the law non-binding for Gentile Christian converts?
Answers may be found earlier in today's Gospel passage. In verse 17, Jesus says, "Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfill them." Every Divine Liturgy, the priest essentially repeats Christ's words before the Prothesis (table of Oblation in the altar). While the people sing, "Blessed is the Name of the Lord ... ", the priest says, "Christ our God, You are the fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets; You have fulfilled the divine plan of the Father; fill our hearts with joy and gladness, always, now and forever and to the ages of ages."
So Jesus Christ, the Divine Son and Word of God, embodies and expresses within His person, teachings, miracles and saving Passion, the whole of the Law and the Prophets. Another passage gives us further insight into this concept. In Matthew 22:34-40, Jesus answers the lawyer's question, "What is the great commandment in the Law?" by saying, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul and mind and your neighbor as yourself." Jesus goes on to say that, "On these two commandments depend all the law and the prophets." Loving God with everything you got and loving your neighbor is the essence of the Law. Jesus fulfills these two commandments perfectly in His words and actions.
Today's Gospel passage is preceded the Makarismoi or Beatitudes in verses 1-12 and followed by an extended discourse on the Law in verses 21-48. Looking at this larger context, we see that Jesus wants His disciples to understand the deeper meaning or spirit of the Torah/Law. This, of course, contradicted the Pharisaical approach of external legalism with regards to the Law. Thus, Jesus points to the problem of anger beyond the command to not murder (v.21-25). He raises the specter of lustful thoughts beyond the prohibition of adultery (v.27-30). He confronts the problem of no-fault divorce (v.31-32) and the integrity of our words beyond taking oaths (v.33-37). Finally, Jesus tells us not to return evil for evil (v.38-42) and go beyond loving your neighbor to showing love for your enemies and praying for those who persecute you (v.43-48).
Sohow do we view the Torah/Law of Moses today? We cannot allow this law to be forgotten or ignored because it directs us to patterns of thought, word and deed that are essential for healthy and whole relationships with God, our neighbor and ourselves. In fact, as St. Paul says, the Law is our tutor that brings us to Christ (Galatians 3:24).
As Orthodox Christians, we have a challenge. Our Church, in its Faith and Traditions continues to uphold ritual and law as guideposts to direct us to a deeper relationship with Jesus Christ and to more loving, caring and respectful relationships with each other. However, we, like the Pharisees and Sadducees of Jesus' time, are just as susceptible to fall into the temptation of external legalism. We can attend liturgy, fast and pray but still miss the boat in terms of the weightier matters of the law like justice and mercy. As Jesus says, we should practice justice, mercy and love without neglecting the rest of the Law (Matthew 23:23).
Fr. Richard Demetrius Andrews is the pastor of St. George Greek Orthodox Church in St. Paul, Minnesota. Fr. Andrews is the past president of Minnesota Eastern Orthodox Christian Clergy Association (MEOCCA), and a volunteer chaplain with the St. Paul Police Department.