I have found that many Christians are better able to cope with tensions in life in general than they are able to cope with tensions in their spiritual and religious life. There are reasons for this, I’m sure, but I am not going to speculate on what they may be. It’s enough to acknowledge the reality.
For whatever reason there are many Christians who are willing to overlook real paradoxes and contradictions, and settle for superficial solutions. Tensions abound—in the biblical text, in our faith communities and relationships, and in our individual lives—and yet these tensions are often consistently ignored, denied, and trivialized in favor of simplistic answers, dogmatic certitudes, and quick fixes.
Matthew 5:17-19 presents a case in point. Apparently there were tensions in Matthew’s church over the place and validity of the Jewish law for disciples of Jesus. Should the Jewish law have authority in the church and in discipleship to Jesus? This question may seem strange to us today given our place in history, but in those days this was an explosive and divisive issue.
Matthew’s community, most likely, consisted of a mixture of Jews and Gentiles. Apparently some of the non-Jewish members of the community, who may have been influenced by the teachings of Paul (though there is no way to know for sure), wanted to do away with either some or all of the Jewish law. Matthew seems to be responding to this group in this passage. Matthew says that Jesus did not come “to abolish” the law, but “to fulfill” it, which I read to mean, that Jesus wanted to flesh out the true spirit or intent of the law. Jesus wanted to help people live in righteousness—in right relationship with God, each other, and all creation.
So far so good. But then, Mathew’s Jesus says, “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.” If Matthew is pushing back against those who want to do away with the Torah, he risks pushing them off the cliff.
The problem is that the above statement seems to clearly contradict Matthew’s own portrait of Jesus, who does not mind at all disregarding certain aspects of the Jewish law.
In Matthew 12, for example, Jesus clearly disregards Sabbath law by permitting his disciples to pick grain on the Sabbath. When he and his disciples are confronted by certain Jewish leaders acting as guardians and custodians of the law, Jesus justifies their actions by citing an example from the Old Testament. David disobeyed the law, says Jesus, when he and his men ate the sacred bread in the holy place (12:3-4). Famished from being pursued by King Saul’s army, they took the bread from the holy place, which was unlawful to do.
Jesus clearly did not care about every stroke and letter in the law. In fact, twice Matthew’s Jesus says, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice” (9:13; 12:7) suggesting that acting mercifully, caring for human need always takes precedence over the details and regulations of the law.
What I find so interesting is that Matthew surely knew this. When he included this passage in 5:18-19 he knew this stood in glaring contradiction to his overall portrait of Jesus. Nevertheless, he writes it down and lets it stand, without any attempt to resolve all the tension this creates. Matthew gives both the conservatives and the liberals in his church something to chew on.
This tension in the text undoubtedly reflects some of the tension in his faith community. There were those who insisted the Jewish law needed to be kept and those who insisted it didn’t, and they were together in the same church. Evidently they made it work.
Matthew’s church is an example of disciples of Jesus from different backgrounds with different theological perspectives and faith practices worshiping, sharing, and serving together.