Whosoever therefore shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, he shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven: but whosoever shall do and teach them, the same shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.
Human beings are marvelously complex. In the myriad of situations in which we find ourselves, with the multitude of people with whom we interact, we can respond in thought, word, and deed in a variety of ways with a range spanning from the darkest hell to the brightest heaven. Choices confront us at every moment and the decisions we make determine the people we become. We can align our will with our whims and blow about like a leaf in the wind with no final destination other than being eventually trampled underfoot. Or we can try to align our will with the will of God and thus become ruled by God, guided by God, and ministers of His presence in the world. This is the context of Christ’s comments on the dangers of breaking the least of the commandments and teaching others to do so as well as the glories of fulfilling them and teaching one’s brethren to do the same.
According to Saint Irenaeus, when a person breaks a commandment, the heart is darkened, God is forgotten, and the individual begins to worship himself or herself as God (Against Heresies, Book 5, chapter 24). Having a hamburger on a Wednesday or a Friday, for instance, may seem insignificant to some. But for a conscientious Orthodox Christian, such behavior is a breaking of the Church’s fast, which reveals an indifference to the betrayal of Christ and His crucifixion or at least relegates these events to a distant past that no longer directly touches one’s daily life. God is forgotten, while one’s needs and desires fill the empty space in the soul where God should reside. And this disregarding of a commandment in turn will make it that much easier to disregard another commandment, and then another, until one is left with the secular morality of being a good person without any of the radiance and illumination that comes from the Christian faith.
Saint Augustine put it this way, “Believe the commandments of God, and do them, and He will give you the strength of understanding. Do not put the last first, and, as it were, prefer knowledge to the commandments of God… Consider a tree; first it strikes downwards, that it may grow up on high; it fixes its root low in the ground, that it may extend its top to heaven” (Saint Augustine, Sermon 68). Keeping the commandments, all of the commandments, can enable believers to grow strong like mighty trees and to have deep roots so that tempestuous temptations cannot blow them down. In the ancient Christian text, the Shepherd of Hermas, it is written, “if you keep the commandments of God, you will be powerful in every action, and every one of your actions will be incomparable” (Book 2, 7). They will be incomparable, for they will be Godlike and above all they will be loving, for all the commandments rest on the great commandment to “love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind… and thy neighbour as thyself” (Matthew 22:37-39).
The divine and life-giving commandments of God (using an expression from canon law), even the least of them, are to be kept and to be taught because they alone on a moment to moment basis and in matters great and small can bring about a transformation in a person’s life, character, and ultimate destiny. They illumine us; they guide us; they initiate us into a mystery beyond human understanding. Through them, we come to know the image of God in man. As Saint Ambrose of Milan once wrote, “If, then, any one desires to see this Image of God, he must love God, that he may be loved by God; and be no longer a servant but a friend, because he has kept the commandments of God, that he may enter into the cloud where God is” (Book 2 on the Decease of his brother Satyrus, 110).