17 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. 18 For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. 19 Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.20 For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.
Oh, what a tricky little bit of scripture. Should we still be following Levitical law? Eschewing meat cooked with milk (bye-bye, cheeseburgers!) and not wearing cloth woven of two threads? According to some, yes, and a surface reading of this passage would imply so. But there are two important things to remember: One, Jesus tended to use hyperbole. Two, in the same breath Jesus uses to reinforce the primacy of Old Testament law, he jabs at the Pharisees and their externalist approach to said law.
Is this an example of Jesus’ using hyperbole? There’s no way to know for sure, but the use of absolutes hints at it. A relatable example I found was when a teenager tells his parents that “everyone” is going to be at the party. Is that true? Is the whole world going to be at that party? Of course not, but we understand that figure of speech. So when Jesus speaks of the littlest letter and the least stroke of the pen, it’s a good hint that perhaps this is an example of hyperbole.
I love the tongue-in-cheek comment about the Pharisees. The sarcasm is just dripping off that last verse. Time and again Jesus comes after the Pharisees and their false piety – one that has them following the letter of the law (see what I did there???) but not the spirit of it. The righteousness of the Pharisees was only for show. Jesus knocks them again in a few verses for being overly dramatic with their fasting, walking through the streets purposely disheveled with ashes on their head, and urges his followers to instead “oil their beards” so that only God would know they are fasting, and thus reward their secret hearts.
I do believe that much of the Old Testament still holds true, but it’s application may change over time. My favorite illustration of this is the cleansing of mold from houses. This is a twenty verse discourse in Leviticus. Mold was (and still is) a real problem in buildings, and can cause serious health problems. People in the time of Moses, when this law was written, did not have access to modern-day chemicals and the mold-killing household cleaners that we do. Hence intricate steps needed to be taken to isolate the mold, determine if it was dangerous or spreading, and then deal with it by literally removing parts of the house if necessary. Then there was a cleansing ceremony involving a dead and live bird, some scarlet string, hyssop, and cedar. Dealing with pervasive mold in houses can still be an ordeal today, but not many people would say it requires the use of a priest, a religious ceremony, and animal sacrifice. Especially if the mold is on the outside, a good power-washing will usually do the trick.
Are we in violation of the law Jesus talks about because we power-washed the house instead of getting the local pastor to swing by and take a look? I seriously doubt it. God is most concerned with our inner hearts, and how the law informs our spirit. Sitting in the same seat on the subway where a menstruating woman just sat won’t jeopardize your salvation. (Check out Leviticus 15:19-21) Also, we don’t need to cut off a woman’s hand to save her soul if she grabs an assailant’s genitals while defending herself or her family (Deuteronomy 25:11-12) What really matters is if we are kind to our neighbors, giving to the needy, and prayerful in our decisions. The law, both that which Jesus gave us and the law of the Old Testament, when read with a discerning eye, can inform us in that.