JESUS said to his disciples: “I tell you, unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.
“You have heard that it was said to your ancestors, You shall not kill; and whoever kills will be liable to judgment. But I say to you, whoever is angry with brother will be liable to judgment.
“You have heard that it was said, You shall not commit adultery. But I say to you, everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.
“Again you have heard that it was said to your ancestors, Do not take a false oath, but make good to the Lord all that you vow. But I say to you, do not swear at all. Let your ‘Yes’ mean ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No’ mean ‘No.’ Anything more is from the evil one.”***
The early Christian communities struggled with the question of their relationship with the Law of Moses as they entered the new era inaugurated by the death and resurrection of Jesus. The evangelist Matthew tried to settle this issue for his own community by showing them how Jesus viewed the Law and understood his role in relation to it.
In his inaugural address–the Sermon on the Mount–Jesus clearly defines his relationship with the law: “I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.” Thus he affirms the Law’s enduring validity for Christians in every age.
The essence of the Law is love. The original intention of the Lawgiver is to lead his covenant-partner Israel into a loving relationship with him, with their fellow human beings, and with the rest of creation. But like an ancient painter’s original masterpiece which passed from one patron to another and was retouched by other hands and overlaid with paint and dust, the original intention of the Lawgiver was obscured by the way it had been interpreted by the so-called experts of the law–the scribes and the Pharisees. Their meticulous analysis of words and formulations locked up the spirit of the Law, so that its intended meaning was kept beyond the reach of ordinary people. Thus, obedience to the law, as interpreted by these law experts, was reduced to mere compliance with the “letter of the law” and attention to little details, often to the neglect of what is essential. Yet they held the illusion that such manner of obeying the law led to righteousness.
Jesus comes from the Lawgiver and knows fully the Lawgiver’s intention. He alone can pierce through the letter and formulation of the law and reveal its divinely intended meaning. Thus, he presents himself as the ultimate authority and definitive interpreter of the law. The role of Jesus can be likened to that of the restorer of the ancient painter’s masterpiece–the one who will remove the layers of paint and dust and dirt that cover the original work to allow its pristine beauty to emerge. “I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.” The implication of this pronouncement is great, for it affirms that God does not contradict himself—giving the Law at one time then sending somebody to abolish it at another time. God’s intention is consistent from the beginning. The Law traces out the path of love and fidelity for his covenant partner Israel. The claim of Jesus “not to abolish but to fulfill” is strategically placed by Matthew before the series of contrasts that come in verses 21-48–“You have heard… but I say to you…”–in order to dispel any misconception that Jesus is putting himself in opposition to the Law rather than setting its spirit free from imprisonment in the letter. This spirit, which is love, is placed at the heart of the redefined commandments. Their radically intensified formulation by Jesus points to the new kind of righteousness that surpasses that of the scribes and the Pharisees.
Jesus, the Messiah, is the final goal of the whole law. In his life, teaching, passion, death and resurrection, he embodied the fulfillment of the law and opened the floodgates of grace that enable believers to live righteous lives and be admitted into the heavenly kingdom.
– Sr. Bernardita Dianzon, FSP
– (Feb. 12, 2017)