“So anyone who breaks one of the least of these commands and teaches others to do so will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever obeys them and teaches others to do so will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20 For I tell you, unless your righteousness goes beyond that of the experts in the law and the Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”
Note: any Bible reference containing only a chapter number and verse number is understood to be in the Gospel of Matthew.
The incentive to be careful about the details
“Don’t sweat the small stuff!” is a once-popular idea that many still embrace. In certain contexts that idea probably works well, but I do not advise you to tell the police officer that you were only driving 10 miles per hour over the speed limit. :)
Trivializing the laws of man is nothing compared to making light of the laws of God. In first-century Jewish society, people would seek counsel from a scribe or rabbi to determine what they were obligated to do before God and what they might safely ignore. The language used to describe the rabbi’s answers included the verbs bind and loose. If the rabbi binds the commandment upon you, then he is saying it is your spiritual duty. If he looses the commandment, he is saying that, for some reason, the requirement does not apply to you.
The NET Bible is adequate when it translates “anyone who breaks one of the least of these commands” (5:19), but ESV translates better by saying “whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments.” The underlying Greek verb is λύω, and it means to loose or untie something. In practical terms, Jesus is speaking of a rabbi who teaches that someone can ignore one of God’s commands; the rabbi looses the person from obeying that command.
As to the least of these commands (5:19), one example would be Deut. 22:6–7, which forbids the removal of a mother bird from a bird nest containing eggs or chicks. Some rabbis considered that among the least commands. What does Jesus say about the least commands of the law?
Jesus continues to reinforce his position on the law by saying that anyone who relaxes the least commandment and teaches others to do so will be least in the kingdom of heaven (5:19). You can see in this result a rule of reciprocity —the idea that the punishment fits the crime — in that one least leads to another. R.T. France has it right when he says: “Jesus at first sight appears more merciful than the rabbis: one who breaks the commandment is least in the kingdom rather than excluded from it altogether (5:19); yet his following words show that those who merely honored the highest standards of their religion [while neglecting the others] fell short of entering the kingdom at all (5:20).”
All that Jesus has said up to this point has been remarkable, but when he uttered the words given in 5:20, I think his audience was shocked into silence. The scribes and Pharisees represented “the greatest righteousness imaginable within Judaism.” Jesus thought otherwise!
Jesus says to his disciples that their righteousness must exceed that of their religious leaders if they want to enter the kingdom of heaven. But he states the matter in extreme terms by using the strongest possible negative that New Testament Greek offers; they will absolutely not enter the kingdom without manifesting the higher righteousness he demands.
R.T. France correctly observes, “Jesus is not talking about beating the scribes and Pharisees at their own game, but about a different level or concept of righteousness altogether.” What is that righteousness? We will develop Jesus’ teaching over time. For now, I will say that this righteousness begins with a personal relationship, a faith commitment, to Jesus the Messiah. That is something the scribes and Pharisees did not have and could not offer. Only those who have such a relationship, and the transformed heart that goes with it, will enter the kingdom of heaven.
The most vital details
The first and foremost detail for entering the kingdom of God is that it all begins with Jesus. Those who will enter the kingdom must come through him. Only he can properly interpret the law and provide his disciples with the Holy Spirit to quicken their minds and hearts in all relevant ways. Only Jesus could die for our sins to reconcile us to God.
Jesus said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). Those are the most vital details, but not the only ones!
Copyright © 2011 by Barry Applewhite, Plano, Texas. All rights reserved worldwide. Derived from material created for Christ Fellowship, McKinney, Texas. Used by permission.
 R.T. France, The Gospel of Matthew, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2007) 179.
 Craig L. Blomberg, Matthew, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1992) 105.
 BDAG-3, μή, not (see meaning 4 for a combination with οὐ), q.v.
 R.T. France, Matthew, 189.