Don’t imagine that I have come destroy the law or the prophets; I have not come to destroy but to perfect. For amen I tell you, until heaven and earth perish, not a dot nor a dash will perish from the law, before everything has happened. So whoever neglects one of the smallest of these commandments, and teaches others to do so, will be designated the smallest in the Rule of Heaven; but whoever does them and teaches others to do them will be designated great in the Rule of Heaven. For I am telling you that unless your right living is more abundant than that of the Torah -Teachers and the Pharisees, you will certainly not enter the Rule Of Heaven.

This is tough reading for St. Paul and all who cling to his rejection of the Jewish Torah, the Law. Indeed St Paul would be designated the smallest in the Rule of Heaven, for teaching people to neglect the commandments. For there is a clear contradiction between Matthew’s version of Jesus’ teaching, and Paul’s theology of the Law and the saving Grace of God. Jesus’ states his aim of perfecting the Law, and proceeds in the Sermon to do so; while he teaches his followers to “do” the commandments. They are not a system to be learned and discussed but the will of God to be done. The perfecting of the law, as we shall see, is in restoring its terrible uncomfortable grasp of the whole person; the violent heart as well as the violent action.

The gospels were all written after the work of St Paul, and may therefore be a conscious corrective to his teachings. Their different pictures of Jesus’ ministry interact with Paul’s Gospel in the history of the Church, and still today in the faith of individual believers.


1. The Greek verbs for destroy and perfect are difficult to translate, that is to get the right contrast. The first verb comes from a root meaning to loose, to let go, to untie, with the addition of a prefix meaning “ to the greatest degree”. In effect it means “ to let go so that it no longer counts”. The second verb means literally to fill up or to fulfil. If the object is a vessel it means filling it to the brim; if it is the Law it means to perfect it.

2. the Law and the prophets. There was an important sect in Judaism, the Sadducees, who did not accept the prophets as scripture. Clearly Matthew did accept them and presents Jesus as accepting both, and in particular, perfecting prophecies by living their projections.

3. A dot nor a dash. These are tiny elements of Hebrew orthography, the letter yod (y) and the serif, a stroke of a Hebrew letter. Hebrew scribes and Torah -Teachers were scrupulous about such elements as they affected the meaning of the Holy Scripture. Jesus approves their care.

4. Obedience to the smallest command affects your stature in God’s Rule.

5. The Greek word dikaiosuné is traditionally translated righteousness, which has somewhat lost its glory in modern English. It means right living and I have so translated. The Pharisees promoted complete obedience to the whole Torah by all the people. To be more abundant than them in right living must have seemed an appalling challenge to Jesus hearers and Matthew’s readers.


  1. I wish you had written more on this passage.

  2. It’s a tough one all right! I think I said as much as I know, which means I should think about it again.

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