Matthew 5:19-20,  least commandments and righteousness

5:19 “Whoever, therefore, shall break one of these least commandments, and teach others to do so, shall be called least in the Kingdom of Heaven; but whoever shall do and teach them shall be called great in the Kingdom of Heaven.
5:20 For I tell you that unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, there is no way you will enter into the Kingdom of Heaven.”

(Matt 5:19-20 WEB)

Terms for entering the Kingdom

Jesus is careful to stress that a persons significance within the Kingdom of Heaven directly relates to their attitude to God’s commandments. Just how willing would they be to obey them when it meant personal inconvenience. For Jesus’ audience “the Kingdom of Heaven” was a familiar term. They would have understood it as that part of God’s creation which willingly sought to comply with his judgements.

Whilst, once you know that Jesus was teaching on the Ten Commandments, you might have realised that obedience to the law was a matter of honouring your heavenly father, in this passage we find a direct connection with that commandment. Yet, to appreciate it, one needs to see this passage from the perspective of Jesus' culture.

Judaism generally recognised that the Torah, the legal books of the Hebrew Bible, contained some 613 commandments in all. Within these, the rabbis held that some were weightier important, than others. This concept of weight carries the sense of significance or importance, so one might reasonably conclude that the least commandment would equate to the lightest one. In Jesus’ day there were generally accepted guidelines for interpreting the scriptures, one of which was that if God’s attitude to a light matter was clear, then that same attitude would surely apply to a heavy (or greater) matter. Thus, by stressing the need to keep the least, or lightest, commandment (which related to raiding nests), Jesus was, by inference, reminding his audience how much more important it was to keep the greatest, or heaviest, commandment, i.e. to keep the fifth commandment and honour your father and your mother.

Even the breaking of a minor commandment was a disappointment to God, conversely even the keeping of a minor commandment was worthy of praise. However, even those most committed to keeping the commandments, the Scribes and the Pharisees, were incapable of keeping them well enough to be granted entry into the Kingdom of Heaven simply on the basis of their behaviour. Jesus was underlining that if you wanted to enjoy the benefits of favour with God, then it was not just a matter of trying to keep rules. More was required, and that was precisely what Jesus had come to reveal.

Matt 5:19-20 in detail.