Not One Letter, Not One Stroke of a Letter

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. 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. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.  Matt. 5:17-20.

In the Gospel from today’s Daily Office, Jesus emphasizes his continuity with God’s message to His people, a message first announced in the law and the prophets.  That continuity shines forth in the story of the Transfiguration, which St. Matthew records at Matt. 17:1-9 and which the icon above depicts.  As God announces Jesus as his beloved Son, Christ appears flanked by Moses and Elijah.  We might wonder, “Why those two heroes of the Old Testament?”  Moses and Elijah, respectively, represented the Law (given by Moses) and the prophets.  Jesus comes as the full flowering, the conclusion or completion of the law and the prophets.

Rather than encouraging his disciples to abandon Scripture, he asks them to take it seriously. Like many of us today, the Pharisees and scribes had read scripture as calling us into a worthiness competition.  We find the perfect example of that view in the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector.  (Luke 18:9-14; see here).  Jesus completes the law and the prophets by showing us that God’s love and grace has nothing to do with our worthiness.

A legalistic vision of Scripture works externally, requiring people to confirm to rules and to require such conformity from those around them.  Jesus calls us to internalize the Scripture, allowing it to transform our hearts so that we can live more deeply into it.  Legalism mistakes the packaging for the contents.  Thus, he tells his disciples that must go beyond the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees.  The impulse to legalism always calls us into a kind of idolatry, in which we substitute performance of a given set of obligations for a relationship with the living God.

Jesus asks us to move forward from the notion of right action to the idea of a right relationship with God. We find an example of what Jesus means in Matthew 23:23.  There, He notes that the Pharisees “tithe mint, dill, and cummin, but have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith.”  Jesus doesn’t ask us to reject the Law (the Torah), merely to examine the principles which underlie it.  When our principle objective becomes a relationship with the Almighty that pushes us toward justice and mercy and faith, we will read the Law in the right context.

Jesus brings that Law into its fullness, pointing out how narrowly the people had come to understand God’s purposes.  The problem wasn’t that the scribes and Pharisees overvalued the Law; the problem lay in their underestimation of God’s purposes.  Thus, Jesus taught that the good Samaritan actually lived into loving his neighbor, while a more legalistic or superficial view asked, “And who is my neighbor?” Luke 10:29.  Like many of us today, while the scribes may have known exactly what the words of the law said, they had completely missed what they meant.  They had captured the notion of compliance, but missed the blessing of God’s spirit reshaping their lives.

I pray that we find that blessing today.

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2012 James R. Dennis

14 responses to “Not One Letter, Not One Stroke of a Letter

  1. barbaraduffield

    Once again a good teaching, Br. James. I particularly appreciated the explanation of the difference between externalizing and internalizing Scripture. As I think of times when I can say I have understood that, I’m saddened by the recognition of those times when I can’t. I also needed the reminder that God’s love and grace does not depend on our worthiness. Thanks to be to Him for that. And thank you to you once again.

    • Barbara,

      I’m glad you liked it. We all stumble in externalizing Scripture, in part because that’s how we read other texts. I think, however, that recognizing the real authority of Scripture lies in allowing it to change our lives and our hearts. We all get trapped in the worthiness game, and that’s why we so often struggle against grace.

      God’s peace,

      Br. James

  2. I’ve been reading your posts since you put a comment on Fr Donal Neary’s gardiner st site and I have not been disappointed. Your comment on the reason for the broiled fish as a statement of God’s kingdom having arrived I am still pondering.
    I’m looking forward to your future posts.
    Best wishes, Des

    • Des,

      I’m a great fan of Fr. Neary’s work. I’m inclined to think the passage regarding the broiled fish (which is deeply incarnational) points us toward the Kingdom, and is well worth pondering. I’m glad you’re enjoying the blog.

      God’s great peace,

      Br. James

  3. We cannot break a single commandment? What about not working on the Sabbath? Taking the Lord’s name in vain? Honouring your parents? Not worshiping statues?

    • Robert,

      I believe that’s what Jesus said, not a single commandment. But I think the question is how we approach the commandments. By way of example, when Jesus cured on the Sabbath, the Judean authorities criticized him for not observing the Sabbath. Jesus properly observed that the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. In other words, the commandments are intended to liberate us, to free us to a closer relationship with the Divine Source of all that is.

      I hope that helped.

      God’s great peace,

      Br. James

  4. So the commandments can be broken? Or they can’t?

    You begin by saying “that’s what Jesus said”, as though that in itself makes it right. Words should be judged on their own merit regardless of who said them

    • Robert,

      Obviously, we can break them and we sometimes do, although I believe (and Jesus teaches) that we move away from God when we do. I agree we should judge words on their own merits, and believe Jesus spoke the truth, in fact, that He was the truth.

      Blessings on your day,

      Br. James

  5. I often think of the passage you started with, about obeying Christ’s commandments and teaching others to do so. I love reading the TaNaKh with Rashi commentary, because it is so rich, and I agree that many Christians try to overlook the Torah and study the New Testament. And like you said, we ironically become so legalistic in the next breath after speaking of amazing grace.

    I always find your insights fresh and inspiring. Sorry I missed the broiled fish thing- where might I find it?

    • Olive,

      I also spend a good deal of time in Jewish commentary, especially Rabbi Heschel and Maimonides. We Christians do tend to overlook the Old Testament, which is a bit like reading the last chapter of a novel and thinking you’ve understood the book.

      The bit about the broiled fish can be found here: As always, thanks for your encouragement.

      Christ’s deep peace,

      Br. James

  6. Dear Brother James,

    I’ve been very busy the past several weeks and am often exhausted after a long day when I visit your blog. The most I’ve been able to respond with is a “like” lately. But “like” isn’t strong enough. As I’ve said before, this is a place where I come to hear your thoughts and to share in this community of blessing that you’ve been building. Thanks for offering us such a place of refuge and solace.


    • Ron,

      I cannot thank you enough for your kindness, your support and encouragement. I know what you mean about having been swamped lately; we lead such busy lives. Hope all is well with you otherwise.

      Pax et bonum, my friend,

      Br. James

  7. Alethea Eason

    I hope that some day I “get” it; that it’s all about the heart. My heart has so much to learn, and my mind, which by habit or nature keeps such a harsh tally of my sins and those of my neighbors, needs to learn to be quieted by grace, to know it’s not a thought to be held, but a reality to be known.

    • Alethea,

      I think we all struggle with that harsh tally. In fact, I think that’s what the story of the Prodigal Son is all about. Knowing grace, living out grace, is the real challenge of the Christian life. I pray that you, and I, live into that challenge, knowing that His yoke is not heavy.

      God’s great love,

      Br. James

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