The Least and the Greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven
April 15, 2020
by Barry Fike
The Rabbinic parallel to this Matthew 5:18 is found in Aboth 2:1, “Be equally attentive to the light and weighty commandments.”
Jesus regarded the Torah, with all its jots and tittles, as a world complete in itself, on which the existence of the real world depended (Matt. 5:17-20), and he was therefore faithful to the Torah in its entirety. Like many members of the School of Hillel, Jesus gave the Torah a humanitarian explanation, at the same time taking the view that the smallest commandment weighted as heavily as the greatest. It is precisely the small commandments which he identified with the moral ones, sharing the view of the Sages and the Hasidim (the “Pious”). By being more stringent in moral matters, he wanted to develop the moral and humanitarian side of Judaism.
Jesus met with opposition - the kind of opposition that every serious reformer encounters from the ranks of organized religion. He quarreled with the leaders, largely because he ignored certain legalistic refinements of the Hebrew Halachah. Breaches of little rules, like allowing his disciples to pluck ears of corn on the Sabbath, or healing on the Sabbath, gave his enemies something to talk about.
Jesus interpreted the words of the Torah according to the most stringent moral sense, like the adherents of Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai who stressed the moral side of Judaism. These more stringent interpreters were humane people, and that was why Rabbain Yohanan quoted their views. The expression “stringent interpreters” in this context refers to people who were more stringent on moral commandments from an a fortiori point of view: the ‘minor’ commandments are as important as the ‘major’ ones; and one should be as scrupulous in keeping the moral commandments as one is in keeping the ritual ones
He did not condemn the observances of organized religion; neither did he go about deliberately disregarding the Law. Should the observant Jew tithe mint and anise and cumin? Why certainly! But, one ought not to be absorbed in such petty details to the neglect of weightier matters. “These things ye ought to have done, and not to have left the other undone.” (Matthew 23:23)
Jesus makes his position clear in Matthew 5. There he speaks of keeping the Torah without transgressing against a jot or tittle. Anyone transgressing against the least commandment will not enter the Kingdom of Heaven, and anyone who keeps the “minor” commandments and teaches others to keep them shall be called great in the Kingdom of Heaven. Jesus emphasizes that the righteousness of his disciples in keeping the commandments must be greater than that of the scribes, or else they shall not enter the Kingdom of Heaven.
If we retranslate the Greek text of Matthew 5:17-18 to its Hebrew equivalents, and then translate those idioms to English, the following text results: “Do not suppose that I have any intention of undermining Scripture by misinterpreting it. My purpose is to establish the knowledge and observance of God’s Word, not undermine it.”
Another way to brining this saying into everyday English would be to render Jesus’ words as, “I would not think of abrogating the Torah through misinterpretation. My intent is not to weaken of negate God’s written instruction, but to sustain and establish it by correct interpretation. I would never invalidate the Torah by effectively removing something from it through misinterpretation. Heaven and earth would sooner disappear than something from the Torah. Not the smallest letter in the alphabet, the yod, nor even its decorative spur, will ever disappear from the Torah.”
“Whoever therefore shall break one of these least commandments...shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven” (v. 19) - We even find a comparison in the Apocrypha in 4 Macc. 5:19-21 which says,
“Do not suppose that it would be a petty sin if we were to eat defiled food; to transgress the law in matters, either small or great is of equal seriousness, for in either case the law is equally despised.”
There are two questions that we need to ask: (1) what commandments is he talking about; and (2) what is the kingdom? What commandments is he talking about? The 613 commandments that make up the written law, the Torah. Whoever breaks one of the least of them is going to go to hell? Is that what it says? It doesn’t mean that just because someone breaks one of the commandments that they’re going to get zapped all of a sudden. (In many religious circles today, we have that concept) Beyond that, the kingdom that he’s talking about here is his movement. He’s not talking about that they’re going to get to go to heaven. He’s talking about his movement. But if people are giving out incorrect instruction they’re not going to have the recognition in the community that they could have if they were teaching things right. It doesn’t mean that they’re not a part of the kingdom. There are a lot of people that are going to have their part in the world to come that are teaching silly things. The things that they are teaching are not just silly but off the wall. But, it doesn’t mean that they’re not going to have their part in the world to come. It means that in a lot of cases they’re self-deceived, they’re immature and they’re not as knowledgeable as they ought to be. It also doesn’t mean that they’re not brothers and that they should be treated with a certain amount of dignity and respect. If someone doesn’t think exactly the way that we think, and line up with every point of our theology, we think that these folks are going to go to hell. Not only is that bad theology but unscriptural as well.
“John said to Him, “Teacher, we saw someone else driving out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he does not accompany us.” But Jesus replied, “Do not stop him. No one who performs a miracle in My name can turn around and speak evil of Me.…” Mark 9:38, 39
Jesus requires his disciples to observe the commandments even more strictly than the scribes. From what follows we learn that he is talking about the ethical commandments, and it is these he means when he speaks of “the least of these commandments.” That is why in this sermon he generally moves from the minor instance to the major - a rabbinic method of interpretation called kal va-homer - at least with respect to those commandments connected with the second half of the Decalogue.
Hebrew adjectives have no degrees of comparison. We have one form, such as found here, light in the sense of not heavy, and that can be translated light, lighter or lightest. You can take your pick because in Hebrew there are no degrees of comparison. No comparative of the adjective and no superlative. Here we could translate light as “not one of the least”, or “the lightest”, but we would rather translate it as “one of the light commandments”.
In rabbinical terminology, Jesus could be speaking about mitsvot kalot (light commandments), which was rabbinic technical term for biblical commandments of lesser importance. The opposite of mitsvot kalot was mitsvot hamurot (heavy or serious commandments), commandments of greater importance.
It might be better to translate this verse,
“Anyone who breaks one of the light commandments and teaches others
to do the same, (that is teaches others that it is not necessary to keep
the light commandments), will be called light.”
Here Jesus is playing with the word light. Anyone who violates them or teaches others to do them will be called light, or a light weight, in the kingdom of heaven. But he who does and teaches them will be called heavy, or a heavy weight, in the kingdom of heaven. To have a light commandment means a commandment of lesser significance or importance. We have to realize that commandments are not light or heavy in and of themselves. A light commandment may be light compared to a heavy commandments but heavy compared to a third commandment which is lower on the scale. These commandments are a scale from very heavy to very light. Since no commandment is in and of itself light, generally, it’s hard to find an example of a light commandment. In Rabbinic literature there is one found in Mishnah, Chulline 12:5. It’s one that is referred to as sending away of the nest based on Deut. 22:6, 7. Here God commands that when we catch a mother bird and her baby birds that we shouldn’t eat them all together for lunch. You should let the mother bird go and then happily eat the baby birds because to eat them all together is cruelty. This is a commandment which is mentioned by the sages at the time of Jesus as a light commandment. What does God promise for observing this commandment? So that you may live a long time in the land. The only other commandment in the Torah, for which we have the same promise, is to honor your father and mother. Obviously, it’s very difficult to see how God evaluates such commandments.
Here is the argument of the Rabbis: here’s a commandment, the lightest of the light, and the promise is so that you will live long in the land. Then you have another commandment, one of the heaviest, one of the Ten Commandments, and for it the reward is the same. Since you can’t know how that God estimates, or evaluates, commandments there was a Rabbinic approach to the Torah which is called Kalah-Ka-Hamurah! In other words, light is heavy, or light is just as important as heavy. This is short for mitzvah kalah: a light commandment! Ka is as a mitzvah haumrah a heavy commandment. Its shortened form was expressed as light is as heavy. In other words a light commandment is just as important as a heavy commandment. The rabbis said, “Be as careful of [keeping] a light commandment as a heavy commandment because you do not know the reward given for the keeping of commandments.
This seems to be Jesus’ approach here. He says, “Anyone who breaks one of the light commandments, or even teaches others to break one of the light commandments, is going to be called light. That is of no importance, despised, or of little value in his movements the kingdom of Heaven. But whoever keeps these light commandments doesn’t underestimate them, doesn’t consider them of little worth, will be called a heavy weight in his movement, the Kingdom of Heaven.”
After this startling approach Jesus goes on to give a series of illustrations, a series of examples, which illustrate the approach. “You’ve heard it said to not murder. But I say to you don’t be angry with your brother. (Matt. 5:21, 22) Not being angry with your brother is just as important as not murdering your brother. Why is the lighter commandment, do not be angry with your brother (Lev. 19:17) just as important as the heavier commandment do not murder (Ex. 20:13)? Because anger leads to murder. The sages said, “An act begins with premeditation” and that was based on Numbers 15:39 which says that you go not after the lusts of your own heart and eyes.
When is the time to resist sin? Immediately, right at the beginning. There is a time to struggle against temptation and we must resist with all of our strength. We must struggle while it’s still possible because there may come a time when it’s no longer possible to resist. You must get rid of our anger toward our brother as the Bible says, “Do not let the sun go down on your wrath.” (Eph. 4:26) We pray, “Lead us not into temptation” which means don’t bring us into the hands of the temptation or trail. Help us not to succumb, to the power of the temptation. Help us to resist the temptation and not fall. You have to resist it from the beginning. That’s why a light commandment is as important as a heavy commandment.
There is a strong hint in the play on the word “light”. Such a person who makes light of the light commandments won’t even be in Jesus’ movement. You’ll be considered light but in effect he’s saying you won’t even be there. If one views certain commandments as insignificant he’ll be considered as insignificant. However, if one gives light commandments their proper due, he’ll be considered heavy, serious, a heavy weight in the kingdom of heaven.
What one encounters in Matthew 5:17-19 is a rabbinic debate. Apparently, someone had suggested that Jesus was “cancelling” the Torah. He was politely accused of misinterpreting the Scriptures so as to nullify their intent. Jesus politely disagreed, using the usual technical terminology for such situations.