A reader writes:
What does it mean when in Matthew 5:19, it says, those who do away with the least of my commandments and teaches others to do so will be least in the Kingdom of heaven? I would think they wouldn't even get into the Kingdom of heaven.
Your perplexity on this point is understandable. Let's look at the passage:
17: "Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfil them.
18: For truly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the law until all is accomplished.
19: Whoever then relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but he who does them and teaches them shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.
20: For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.
This is one of the harder passages in the Sermon on the Mount. At the most general level, Jesus is giving an assurance that he has not simply come to overturn the Law of Moses. If we took verse 17 in isolation, it would sound as if he's reaffirming the binding authority of the Law of Moses and that's all there is to it. But then he seems to soften the statement in verse 18, allusing to the idea that the Law (or some of it) may pass away once "all is accomplished." The question is: What needs to be accomplished or fulfilled for this passing away to take place?
One possibility is the whole course of God's plan of the ages. This would mean that the Law of Moses would be binding on the Jewish people (it was never binding on Gentiles) until the end of the world. While this would be a plausible interpretation of the verse taken by itself, the interpretation runs into difficulties once we hit the book of Acts, where God clearly suspends some of the dietary aspects of the Mosaic Law by abolishing the distinction between clean and unclean animals (see Acts 9). In St. Paul's epistles, he indicates further that the Law of Moses is no longer binding on Jewish individuals and even says he himself is not under the Law of Moses but the Law of Christ.
This suggests that we are to look for something on a nearer-term time horizon as the fulfillment Jesus spoke of that allows the Law of Moses to be modified. If you look at p. 162 of Good Pope Benedict's most excellent book
you'll see him suggest what is the standard interpretation of the passage:
Christ does not comes as a lawbreaker. He does not come in order to declare the Law invalid or meaningless. . . . Christ comes in order to complete it. But that also means, in order to lift the Law up onto a higher level. He fulfills the Law in his suffering, in his life, in his message. And now what happens is that the whole Law finds its meaning in him. Everything that was intended by it, everything it aimed for, is truly realized in his perosn.
That is why we no longer need to fulfill the Law according to the letter, in the way its prescriptions regulate eveything down to the last detail. Our fellowship with Christ means that we are in the sphere where the Law is fulfilled; where it has found its true place; where it is quite literally "lifted up" to a higher level, that is, both preserved and at the same time transformed.
What the pope--then a cardinal--articulated in this passage is not dogmatically defined teaching, but it is the standard way of interpreting what Jesus says: Through his teaching, life, and death and resurrection, Christ provided the fulfillment needed for a modification in the Law of Moses to take place, meaning that even Jewish individuals today are not bound by it.
This provides important background for verses 19 and 20. In verse 19 he gives what is a rather soft-edged statement that makes it sound as if a person could relax the precepts of the Law and still remain "in the kingdom of heaven" (i.e., be saved).
He may indeed mean this. It is possible for people, in innocent ignorance or even with partial culpability, to water down the requirements of God's law and yet not lose their salvation. In modern terminology, they would sin venially by doing so, but only venially.
In verse 20, though, Jesus makes a harder-edged statement, speaking of the need for our righteousness to exceed that of the Pharisees or we won't get into the kingdom of heaven at all (i.e., not be saved). This may also be what he means. It may be that being called "least in the kingdom of heaven" means "not saved," but this is not clear and is not the natural interpretation of the phrase.
My suspicion is that Jesus meant the former interpretation, not the latter: That one can relax the lesser commandments of the Law and diminish one's standing in the kingdom through venial sin. The example of the Pharisees is still salutory, though, because Jesus viewed them as also watering down the commandment of God, only they were watering down very important ones, like the duty of honoring one's father and mother. He specifically criticized them for this in Matthew 15.
Now, you'll note that in the last couple of paragraphs, I've been speaking in a rather loose manner as if we today would be relaxing commandments of the Law. In reality, the Law he was talking about was still the Law of Moses, and he was addressing the situation of people living in his own day. If they prematurely relaxed what the Law of Moses required then they would suffer the consequences he mentions.
Since nobody today is bound by the Law of Moses, that doesn't apply to us directly, but the principles involved still do: God still has a law, called the Law of Christ in the New Testament and "the New Law" in theology, and if we water down its precepts in a way that constitutes venial sin then we will have our standing in the kingdom diminished thereby. If we utterly abograte them in a way that constitutes mortal sin, we will not make it into the kingdom any more than the Pharisees Jesus spoke of did.