Monday, 24 June 2013

Not to Abolish, but to Fulfil (Matthew 5:17-20)

St Matthew has presented Jesus as going up the mount, giving the beatitudes and informing the Church of her function as salt of the earth and light of the world. I wrote a bit about what that meant, and it involved what one might mundanely call "doing good works," or more poetically express this as "reflecting the light and glory of Christ" or "presenting Jesus Christ in word and deed." All these point to the same underlying truth, that the Church is called to the very highest standard of morality - indeed the next section of the sermon, known as the "antitheses" ends with Jesus commanding:

"Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect."
(v. 48)

This conclusion to the antitheses is the interpretive key to the whole of the sermon on the mount, particularly the moral teaching. What is Jesus doing? Isn't he just contradicting six sections of the Mosaic Law? No, he is not. Yet nor is he strictly speaking just interpreting the spirit of the law.

"‘Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfil. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished." (vv. 17-18)

Jesus is very clear that he is not here to get rid of the Law (capitalized to show that I refer to the Mosaic Law - though I may be inconsistent) or the prophets. This "law and prophets" is used to refer to the Old Testament, which is the only collection of Sacred Scripture that existed at the time, and so denotes the totality of what is nowadays the Old Testament. Is the wisdom literature Scripture? Absolutely. But that got canonized after the Law (Pentateuch - five books of Moses) and prophets did, so I suspect the idiom just stuck. So he is not here to get rid of the teachings of the Old Testament. [1] He is saying this, however, because it might seem like it when he starts giving people his teaching.

Having been warned, we should expect that Jesus' words sound like contradiction when they are in fact not. What does it mean to not abolish but fulfil? Well, abolishing something means getting rid of it. Fulfilling something can either mean bringing to completion or bringing it fullness (fulfilling comes from filling to full). It is not clear from the word fulfil itself whether completion implies finish and end, but the next line leaves no doubt: "until heaven and earth pass away not one letter, not the stroke of a letter will pass from the law until all is accomplished." The law is here to stay for some time yet. So what is the change? It is not simply a new interpretation, for fulfilling means more than "showing true meaning."

Jesus adds, and does not take away. His commands go deeper than the Law without removing anything. His formulaic statement is "You have heard it said that...but I say to you..."  which may as well be "You have heard it said that...and I say to you that even..." For example, adultery is immoral described as immoral in the Mosaic Law, and it is still immoral now - but even lusting after a married woman, or when married, is adultery of the heart.[2]

Why deepen the Law when it was already hard enough? Jesus continues:
"Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven." (vv. 19-20)

There is something rather interesting about this part, because whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments is not necessarily condemned - he will simply be called least in the kingdom of heaven. Are the least in the kingdom of heaven actually in hell? Well, it is not clear, specially since Jesus talks directly afterwards about people who will never enter the kingdom of heaven. I suspect the answer is that breaking one of the least of the commandments of the law will not cause one to go to hell, but it surely will not make one great there. That seems to be what the text is saying.

Here is why it is important to deepen the Law: observance of the Law is not enough. One has to be even more righteous than the greatest observers of the Law, that is, the scribes and Pharisees. Unless one is more righteous than even these most pious of the Jews, one cannot enter the kingdom of heaven.

So the antitheses are going to fulfil the Law in the sense that they will go all the way, express the Law to the fullest. Observance of these will imply perfection, "as your heavenly Father is perfect." When we get to them, we will be forced to ask, as the disciples did  a little later, "who then can enter the kingdom of God?" Is it really possible to observe such penetrating commands?

[1] Insofar as Old Testament refers to the old covenant, it reaches its end in the Paschal ministry of Jesus on the cross, when he ushers in the New Testament - the new covenant. Here I mean the set of teachings found in the books referred to as Old Testament.
[2] Adultery is necessarily a marital sin, one that occurs within the context of the covenant of marriage - yet lest we think that lust when unmarried is fine, remember that an analogous statement could be made for lust and fornication. Still sin, just under a different name, with different immediate effects.

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