Every Jot and Tittle

Yesterday was my birthday, so I thought I’d explain how I came about my name Matthew Tittle.

In the Christian Scriptures, in the King James Version of the Book of Matthew (5:17-18), during the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is recorded as having said:

Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfill. For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled.

In English, jots and tittles are best described as the cross of a t and dot of an i, respectively. In the original written Greek of the Christian scriptures they were iota and keraia, the smallest letter of the Greek alphabet and a serif or accent mark. In the spoken Aramaic of Jesus’ time and place, they were probably the yodh (the smallest letter in the Aramaic alphabet) and small diacritical marks, hooks, and points that help to distinguish one letter from another. The point in all three cases is attention to the smallest detail. I could say that my study of linguistics and credentials as a language teacher, combined with my theological training are my credentials for explaining jots and tittles, but I would be misleading you….The real story is this…

My parents, Mr. and Mrs. Tittle, bestowed upon me the biblical name of Matthew. They were, at the time, churchgoing folks, Presbyterians, my mother with perfect attendance for many years. So, they certainly knew that the passage in the King James Bible that read, “one jot or one tittle,” came from the book of Matthew. Hence my name Matthew Tittle is inherently biblical. That is, as long as you’re reading the King James Version of the Bible. My parents would not have overlooked this detail, especially since I know my family was focused on the gospels. You see, my older brother was Mark. My older cousin was Jon. I came third as Matthew, but my mother’s youngest sister rebelled, when her son was born, she refused to name him Luke. So we had Matthew, Mark, Jeff, and Jon. If I had been a girl, I would have been Mary, I don’t know if the intent was mother or Magdalene. So, being especially qualified to do so by virtue of my name alone, I am writing on what it means to attend to every jot and tittle in our spiritual lives! (written tongue-in-cheek for those who might think I’m serious…)

Unitarian Universalist minister Edward Frost says, “liberal faith in the perfectibility of humankind is tested to the breaking point by the daily demonstrated truths that human beings are capable of just about anything.”

We need to think deeply and attend to every detail in our practice and understanding of religion. We all encounter much that requires us to understand every jot and tittle of our own religion and that of others.

Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfill. For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled.

When Jesus explains that he hasn’t come to destroy the law and the prophets, he is referring specifically to Jewish law and the teaching of the many prophets of the Hebrew Scriptures. Remember, Jesus was a Jew, and was preaching to those who knew the Jewish law and scriptures, both Jew and Gentile. He had to explain himself in this way because he had just seconds earlier done something incredibly risky by saying, in what we call the Beatitudes, that the poor, those in mourning, the meek, the hungry, the thirsty, the merciful, the pure of heart, the peacemakers, and the falsely persecuted are those who are blessed. He raised them up over the rich, those without feeling, the bullies, the well-fed, the merciless, the deceitful, the war makers, and the persecutors. He also told them, the poor, the meek, the peacemakers, and so on, that they were the salt of the earth and the light of the world, and that they needed to let their light shine. This was heretical, dangerous stuff. And so, he felt it was necessary to explain himself.

Jesus’ disciples asked him later why he hung out with such low lifes as tax collectors and sinners. He responded that those who are well don’t need a physician, but those who are suffering…

Again, he said he wasn’t trying to destroy the law. He even told the people to specifically obey and not break the Ten Commandments. But Jesus was very much an activist and even subversive. I think he was trying to change the law. He promoted nonviolence, but he also promoted active resistance. He told the people to turn the other cheek, effectively offering an oppressor the chance to take another shot, which may very well land them in trouble. He said go the second mile. Soldiers could enlist citizens to carry their gear a certain distance, but no further. Jesus suggested going the second mile, not to help them out, but to get them into trouble. He said give them not only your shirt but also your cloak. A debt collector had to leave something for people to be afforded basic comfort. The cloak was both a coat for warmth and a blanket for sleeping. It couldn’t be taken, but if you gave it to them, again those charged with protecting the law risked breaking it. And even if these measures are interpreted as gestures of good will to the authorities, the result is additional suffering on the part of the poor, the meek, the pure of heart, the peacemakers. The result either way is that the weak are really the strong. They are the blessed. To invoke a phrase from Joel Osteen of Lakewood Church across town, “the victims are the victors.” Or as he says to his congregation “Be a victor, not a victim.” A sound soundbyte.

I am not come to destroy, but to fulfill.

What was he fulfilling? I think this is the key to the whole passage. Traditional interpretations suggest that the meaning here is nothing short of eschatological– the end times, the fulfillment of the apocalypse, and final judgment. I think that modern Christianity would be a wholly different and even more appealing religion if the book of Revelation had been left out. Which it almost was. Some even tried to have it removed as recently as a few hundred years ago.

If we separate the wheat from the chaff (to invoke another biblical nugget), we find that the heart of Jesus’ teachings (the wheat in this case), was almost exclusively devoted to the theme of love and care for one another, neighbor, and enemy alike. It was for the creation of a beloved community. His message was one also of personal empowerment of those who were considered the least among us. He told them time and again that faith would heal them. Faith comes from within. Faith is the very hardest thing in the face of truth, which is why he spent so much time trying to empower them to overcome adversity through faith.

For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled.

This first phrase, “For verily I say unto you” in the King’s English (I’m sorry I don’t have the Greek or Aramaic on the tip of my tongue) is universally interpreted by biblical scholars to be an attention getter. “Hey folks, listen up, you better believe me when I say…” My own paraphrase of the rest of the passage goes like this: “Hell will freeze over before even the smallest detail of the law changes, until all is fulfilled, until you do something about it. Don’t go breaking the law, but change it so that this beloved community can be formed.”

After going through a few examples, he told these underdogs that until their righteousness exceeded the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, until they became victors and not victims, that they would not enter the kingdom of heaven. The scribes and the Pharisees were the recorders, and the interpreters and the enforcers of the political, social, and religious law. Jesus was saying that those who suffer, those who care, those who are oppressed, those who look out for the world, are as well and even better equipped for the task of interpreting the rule of law, than are those charged with doing so.

The kingdom of heaven that he refers to isn’t in the hereafter as many would have us believe. It is here and now. We can create heaven or hell here on earth. Human beings are capable of almost anything. Nothing is going to change until we change it. We need to attend to the details of our spiritual lives. We need to challenge the status quo, as Jesus did, so that we can bring about heaven here on earth. We can sit back and watch and do nothing and feel sorry others, or feel sorry for ourselves. But this would be the worst sin of all.

Over the past few years in the United States many have been criticized and ostracized, and persecuted for doing just what Jesus did–for dissenting–for being critical of the status quo and of those in and with power. But this is our task. This means speaking out, and more importantly, acting out in the world. It means knowing who you are spiritually, and being as certain and secure in that faith as are the scribes and Pharisees of our times. If we shy away from this moral imperative, “Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law.”


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