Greatest In The Kingdom of Heaven
Ordinary 6 Year A
A Hebrew Catholic Perspective
St. Matthew 5: 17 — 19 and 5: 20 — 37
As is often the case with other pieces of Sacred Scripture which at first reading appear mysterious or even confusing, our text of three verses brings us to a very special unfolding of the Christian Faith. It renders us spiritually present at a key moment in our Lord’s mission. Some scholars raise various doubts as to how these verses became part of this record of our Lord’s sermon. We have no doubt as to their authenticity and, in fact, no problem with the magnificent message they contain.
It is helpful to recall the setting in which Jesus is teaching a great crowd (Matthew 5: 1). The occasion is the “Sermon on the Mount” — the giving of the eight beatitudes. They are called “beatitudes” because each of the spiritual principles our Lord enunciates begins with the word “blessed”. They are often called the “New Law,” not in contrast to the “old Law” but to emphasise their new focus: Jesus the Anointed One — the Messiah, the Christ.
He came to establish the Kingdom of Heaven, which is begun on earth and consummated in heaven. Our blessedness depends therefore on belonging to it here and hereafter. The Beatitudes (The “Blessed” Sayings) are therefore the qualifications of the true members of the Messiah’s Kingdom. (Kleist and Lilly)
Some Reflections on the Text
“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets.
I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.
Our Lord uses a common term, among the rabbis: the “Law and the Prophets”. It names two of the three sections of the Sacred Scriptures without mentioning the “Sayings” or “Wisdom” literature which included the Psalms. But the term meant the whole of what we know as the Old Testament. Thus Jesus opens this short segment with a most solemn declaration of respect for the Torah — the Law or Teaching God gave to His People Israel. As such it was irrevocable; but it was also a preparation for things to come. Jesus had just given His Beatitudes followed by a call for His disciples to be “salt of the earth,” and “light of the world”.
So, the question for His listeners is — where does all this stand with regard to the Holy Law of God? Has He taught them to set aside the Law and the Prophets? In a Hebraic way, our Lord answers the question before it is asked, and leads His listeners to reflection — not so much where He fits into the whole Biblical Teaching, but how it relates to Him. Twice He says — “I have come”. The focus is therefore on Him and His work of fulfilling the Law. There is no need for anyone to be mystified by what He meant. He is quite clear: His coming is not an abolition of the Sacred Teachings — He has come to be Himself their fulfilment — He has come to bring them to perfection, to complete them and what they stand for.
Let’s pause for a moment to reflect on some aspects of our Lord’s use of the word, to “fulfill”.
• First, He Himself is the fulfilment — He has come to reveal the full
intention of the divine legislation. Thus: The old Law doesn’t die;
it rises to a new life, infused with a new spirit. And it is to be pursued
with even greater attention to detail than previously ordained.
In other words, Jesus, in His own life brought the Law to its complete
perfection by insisting not only on the external act, but also on the interior
dispositions. (Mark Kennedy, OFM.)
• Second, our Lord’s action demonstrated (in fact, proved) that
He was the fulfilment of God’s Law. There are three specific areas
of the Old Testament which our Lord fulfilled.
a) He fulfilled the Prophets by fulfilling their predictions, giving
light to their teaching and affirming their dedicated witness to God.
b) The Mosaic Law was partly ceremonial, embracing religious
rites, sacrifices and distinction between clean and unclean foods.
This Law was called a “type,” a forerunner, “a shadow of the good
things to come,” (Hebrews 10: 1) It had a very important purpose
in building a culture sensitive to God’s Torah or Teaching on holiness
and consecration to Him. Our Lord transformed the former shadows
of things to come, with the realities associated with His life, death
and resurrection. Thus, He fulfilled the ceremonial Law.
c) The Mosaic Law was also partly moral. Our Lord also fulfilled
the moral law — i.e. brought it to perfection — bringing out more fully,
the original intention of the Divine Lawgiver, God Himself. To do this
He upheld the original Commandments and, as we have said above,
took them even further in more precise detail, drawing out
their interior spirit. (Based on Kleist and Lilley)
Some contemporary, seemingly aggressive de-Judaisers, strongly contest this understanding of “fulfilment”. They explain it to mean something like this:
Jesus used the word “fulfill” only because He Himself was part of the era and culture He was bringing to fulfilment. However, as soon as He died on the Cross, and the Temple Veil was torn, the “old” was done away with totally (i.e. destroyed) and the “new” replaced it.
This is another manifestation of “replacement theology” (supercessionism) which claims that the Christian Church has superceded Israel in God’s Plan. We draw attention to this prominent theory due to the great damage it can cause in the Church’s mission and evangelisation.
Verses 18 and 19
Amen, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away,
not the smallest letter or the smallest part of a letter
will pass from the law, until all things have taken place.
Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these
commandments and teaches others to do so will be
called least in the kingdom of heaven. But whoever
obeys and teaches these commandments will be called
greatest in the kingdom of heaven.
The opening words, “Amen, I say to you,” are an emphatic way the rabbis drew attention to special understandings.
Our Lord insists that this on-going time of fulfilment, of bringing to perfection, will continue until the end of time among His followers.
Jesus is never more forthright: to be an example, in the Kingdom of God, of what He expects us to be — in fact, to be like Him, will mean abiding by the teaching He has outlined in His Beatitudes.
We need to remember that our Lord is not saying His disciples will carry into effect each special injunction of the old Law. Rather they are to apply the spirit of His teaching and live according to the interior meaning of the Gospel message; paying careful attention to detail.
Jesus applies this instruction in a range of examples:
Verses 21 — 24 Thou shalt not kill;
Verses 25 — 26 Be prudent with debts;
Verses 27 — 30 Thou shalt not commit Adultery;
Verses 31 — 32 Bill of Divorce;
Verses 33 — 37 Oaths and Vows.
Note: We attach the text of St. Matthew covering this teaching, but have reserved
our main focus on the critically essential principles in verses 17 to 19.
It is said that Jesus fulfilled, or perfected the moral Law in three ways:
• He extended the application of His Teaching to meet the needs
of all peoples in the world.
• He highlighted the fundamental law — the love of God and
• He corrected false interpretations, commonly taught by
certain scribes and Pharisees.
As we have seen, our Lord did not abolish, destroy, abrogate, terminate or in any way minimise the place of the Mosaic Law. On the contrary, He brought forth the inner spiritual beauty of the Law and most importantly, revealed all of that in His own living. He Himself, therefore, became the fulfilment of the Law and the Prophets. His teaching enables us, likewise to do this in union with Him. Those who follow this path are called by our Lord Himself, “the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven”.
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Let us remember God’s teaching, contained in His Word and in doing
Greatest In The Kingdom of Heaven
Ordinary 6 Year A St. Matthew 5: 17 — 19 and 20 — 37
1. When we talk, in everyday life, of the “old legislation” or something similar, we
Part of our problem lies in the error of thinking of the Torah ― the first five
In the fullness of time the Messiah came to bring those words, that teaching,
2. Our Faith is not just about “believing”. It is also about “observance”: carrying
3. Passing on this teaching of the Lord will be honoured by Jesus, as one of
Let us pray for one another that we will take to heart the teaching of Jesus that
Matthew 5: 17 — 19 and 5: 20 — 37
Ordinary 6 Year A
17 13 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or
18 Amen, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away,
19 Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these
20 I tell you, unless your righteousness surpasses that of
21 15 16 “You have heard that it was said to your ancestors,
22 17 But I say to you, whoever is angry 18 with his brother
23 Therefore, if you bring your gift to the altar, and there
24 leave your gift there at the altar, go first and be
25 Settle with your opponent quickly while on the way to
26 Amen, I say to you, you will not be released until you
27 19 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not
28 But I say to you, everyone who looks at a woman with
29 20 If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and
30 And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and
31 “It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife must give
32 But I say to you, whoever divorces his wife (unless the
33 22 “Again you have heard that it was said to your
34 But I say to you, do not swear at all; 23 not by heaven,
35 nor by the earth, for it is his footstool; nor by Jerusalem,
36 Do not swear by your head, for you cannot make a
37 24 Let your ‘Yes’ mean ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No’ mean ‘No.’
13 [17-20] This statement of Jesus’ position concerning the Mosaic law is composed of traditional material from Matthew’s sermon documentation (see the note on ⇒ Matthew 5:1-⇒ 7:29), other Q material (cf Matthew 18; ⇒ Luke 16:17), and the evangelist’s own editorial touches. To fulfill the law appears at first to mean a literal enforcement of the law in the least detail: until heaven and earth pass away nothing of the law will pass (⇒ Matthew 5:18). Yet the “passing away” of heaven and earth is not necessarily the end of the world understood, as in much apocalyptic literature, as the dissolution of the existing universe. The “turning of the ages” comes with the apocalyptic event of Jesus’ death and resurrection, and those to whom this gospel is addressed are living in the new and final age, prophesied by Isaiah as the time of “new heavens and a new earth” (⇒ Isaiah 65:17; ⇒ 66:22). Meanwhile, during Jesus’ ministry when the kingdom is already breaking in, his mission remains within the framework of the law, though with significant anticipation of the age to come, as the following antitheses (⇒ Matthew 5:21-48) show.
14  Probably these commandments means those of the Mosaic law. But this is an interim ethic “until heaven and earth pass away.”
15 [21-48] Six examples of the conduct demanded of the Christian disciple. Each deals with a commandment of the law, introduced by You have heard that it was said to your ancestors or an equivalent formula, followed by Jesus’ teaching in respect to that commandment, But I say to you; thus their designation as “antitheses.” Three of them accept the Mosaic law but extend or deepen it (⇒ Matthew 5:21-22; 27-28; 43-44); three reject it as a standard of conduct for the disciples (Matthew 31-32; 33-37; 38-39).
17 [22-26] Reconciliation with an offended brother is urged in the admonition of ⇒ Matthew 5:23-24 and the parable of ⇒ Matthew 5:25-26 (⇒ Luke 12:58-59). The severity of the judge in the parable is a warning of the fate of unrepentant sinners in the coming judgment by God.
18  Anger is the motive behind murder, as the insulting epithets are steps that may lead to it. They, as well as the deed, are all forbidden. Raqa: an Aramaic word reqa’ or reqa probably meaning “imbecile,” “blockhead,” a term of abuse. The ascending order of punishment, judgment (by a local council?), trial before the Sanhedrin, condemnation to Gehenna, points to a higher degree of seriousness in each of the offenses. Sanhedrin: the highest judicial body of Judaism. Gehenna: in Hebrew ge-hinnom, “Valley of Hinnom,” or ge Ben-hinnom, “Valley of the son of Hinnom,” southwest of Jerusalem, the center of an idolatrous cult during the monarchy in which children were offered in sacrifice (see ⇒ 2 Kings 23:10; ⇒ Jeremiah 7:31). In ⇒ Joshua 18:16 (Septuagint, Codex Vaticanus) the Hebrew is transliterated into Greek as gaienna, which appears in the New Testament as geenna. The concept of punishment of sinners by fire either after death or after the final judgment is found in Jewish apocalyptic literature (e.g., Enoch 90:26) but the name geenna is first given to the place of punishment in the New Testament.
20 [29-30] No sacrifice is too great to avoid total destruction in Gehenna.
21 [31-32] See ⇒ Deut 24:1-5. The Old Testament commandment that a bill of divorce be given to the woman assumes the legitimacy of divorce itself. It is this that Jesus denies. (Unless the marriage is unlawful): this “exceptive clause,” as it is often called, occurs also in ⇒ Matthew 19:9, where the Greek is slightly different. There are other sayings of Jesus about divorce that prohibit it absolutely (see ⇒ Mark 10:11-12; ⇒ Luke 16:18; cf ⇒ 1 Cor 7:10, ⇒ 11b), and most scholars agree that they represent the stand of Jesus. Matthew’s “exceptive clauses” are understood by some as a modification of the absolute prohibition. It seems, however, that the unlawfulness that Matthew gives as a reason why a marriage must be broken refers to a situation peculiar to his community: the violation of Mosaic law forbidding marriage between persons of certain blood and/or legal relationship (⇒ Lev 18:6-18). Marriages of that sort were regarded as incest (porneia), but some rabbis allowed Gentile converts to Judaism who had contracted such marriages to remain in them. Matthew’s “exceptive clause” is against such permissiveness for Gentile converts to Christianity; cf the similar prohibition of porneia in ⇒ Acts 15:20, ⇒ 29. In this interpretation, the clause constitutes no exception to the absolute prohibition of divorce when the marriage is lawful.
22  This is not an exact quotation of any Old Testament text, but see ⇒ Exodus 20:7; ⇒ Deut 5:11; ⇒ Lev 19:12. The purpose of an oath was to guarantee truthfulness by one’s calling on God as witness.
23 [34-36] The use of these oath formularies that avoid the divine name is in fact equivalent to swearing by it, for all the things sworn by are related to God.
24  Let your `Yes’ mean `Yes,’ and your `No’ mean `No': literally, “let your speech be ‘Yes, yes,’ ‘No, no.’ ” Some have understood this as a milder form of oath, permitted by Jesus. In view of ⇒ Matthew 5:34, “Do not swear at all,” that is unlikely. From the evil one: i.e., from the devil. Oath-taking presupposes a sinful weakness of the human race, namely, the tendency to lie. Jesus demands of his disciples a truthfulness that makes oaths unnecessary.
Scripture texts in this work are taken from the New American Bible, revised edition