“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law and the Prophets”

In Jesus’ time, it was customary for the scribes and the Pharisees to spend hours arguing about the Law.  There purpose was to determine which of the laws was the most important.  The arguing was not about the Ten Commandments.  Rather, they argued about the more than 600 commandments that had made their way into the Scriptures.  These Laws attempted to cover all the possibilities of violation by which a person could act contrary to God’s will,

When Jesus was asked: “Good Master, which of the commandments is the greatest commandment?” that was not an unusual question.  The lawyers asked each other the same question every day.  Here, however, a sinister motive prompted the question.  The experts in the Law asked the question in order to trip him up and so to have a charge to bring against Jesus.  To disobey a law was to be unfaithful to God.  Such a one could be declared a sinner.  Jesus got into trouble because his disciples were seen eating grain without first washing their hands.  Jesus made the Pharisees angry because he worked a miracle on the Sabbath.  On top of that, he bade the once paralyzed man to “pick up your pallet and go home.”  Cleary both actions violated the Law.

If Jesus had spoken out against the Law, he would have been persecuted.  To break the Law habitually could have resulted in his being cast out of the synagogue, the Temple, and he could have been stoned to death.  His ministry would not have lasted the three years that it did.  He welcomed sinners and ate with them, thus violating the Law.  He came into contact with lepers and Gentiles.  Jesus was accused of all these “crimes” as he stood before Pilate.  Thus they crucified him.

What is the new teaching about the Law in the Sermon on the Mount?  Jesus speaks about fulfillment of the Law, not about breaking of the Law.  For the Jewish people the Law had special significance.  The Law signified the covenant between God and the Jewish people.  If God was to be their god and they were to be God’s people, the Law spelled out how they were to live.  Obeying the commandments would be an eloquent sign to all the other nations of the wonderful relationship between God and this people.

What about the Prophets?  Jesus says that he came not to abolish the Law or the Prophets.  Look at the role the great Prophets played in the Lives of the Jews.  Remember, to be a prophet is to speak for God a message God wants the people to hear.  In Israel’s history, when the people wandered from the Law and became fascinated with the ways of the Gentiles and their gods, the people became weak and vulnerable to those who would oppress them and eventually lead them off into exile and captivity.  The Prophets called them back to fidelity.  When the Jews were enslaved, the Prophets accused the people of their idolatry and sinfulness.  They pointed out the weakness that resulted.  But the Prophets spoke also about God’s fidelity to this people even though they had wandered.  God’s faithfulness would bring the people out of slavery again.  Remember.  It was God who led the people out of Egypt.  God will restore the people to Israel and to the holy city, Jerusalem – when the people once again become followers of the Law, when the people return to fidelity to God.

So, is Jesus preaching a slavish, even scrupulous following of all six hundred plus commandments in the Law?  Perhaps in the beginning he was.  Remember, the Sermon on the Mount happens at the beginning of his ministry.  It is possible that his thinking changed as his ministry continued and he had increased experience of the people and their lives.  Look at the final words of Jesus’ teaching on the Law and the Prophets.  “I tell you, unless your holiness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees you shall not enter the Kingdom of God.”  It seems clear that Jesus is saying that fulfilling the minutiae of the Law is not enough.  After all, that is what the scribes and Pharisees tried to do.  What were they missing?  And more important, what could we in our practice be missing?

The Law is not an end in itself.  To make it so could result in that situation Jesus held up to scorn.  “You strain after the speck in your brother’s eye and miss the beam in your own.”  The Pharisees, as they are characterized in the Gospels, were observers of the Law and the judges of those deemed to be breaking the Law.  Think of the woman caught in adultery.  Remember how the Pharisees taunted Jesus?  “The Law of Moses says such a woman should be stoned to death.  What do you say?”  Notice how careful Jesus was not to give voice to the breaking of the Law as he forced the accusers to confront the error of their judgment.  “Let the one of you who is without sin be the first to cast the stone.”  In so doing, Jesus gave the Pharisees an opportunity to contemplate and to give thanks for God’s mercy and desire to forgive that they had experienced in their own lives.  They could do that if they could admit to being sinners.

We will see the applications of Jesus’ thinking regarding specifics of the Law in the verses that follow this section.  For now, it is important for us to look ahead, if you will, at what Jesus will teach his disciples about the new law.  God had said to the people, in effect, when you keep the commandments others will know that I am your God and you are my people.  Jesus will say, “By this will all know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”  Love becomes the Law in the new Way.  Love of God.  Love of neighbor.  As soon as love becomes the norm we find the all-consuming demands of the new Law.

Certainly the Decalogue continues to bind believers.  The Ten Commandments govern the basic relationships between people and God, and people with one another.  Deuteronomy and Leviticus summarized the Ten Commandments and condensed them into two:  Love God with your whole being.  Love your neighbor as yourself.  These two statements sum up the Law and the Prophets, Jesus will say.  The operative word is “love.”  Isn’t it interesting how many are rankled by Pope Francis’s emphasis on this theme?  How dare he say, “Who am I to judge?”  Is he heretical for saying that divorced and remarried Catholics are not ex-communicated?

Do you remember the parable about the Good Samaritan?  Probably all too well.  In some ways that is unfortunate, because familiarity dulls the impact of the story.  The audience to whom Jesus is speaking, the Jews and the Samaritans, considered heretics, are enemies.  Besides the Samaritan, the other characters in the parable are prominent figures in Jewish life, figures that slavishly keep the law.

What happens in the parable?  An unfortunate man is beaten and robbed and left to die by the side of the road that goes from Jerusalem to Jericho.  On their way to Jerusalem for temple worship on that same road travel a priest and a Levite.  Each sees the man.  Each passes by.  There may be many reasons why they ignored the desperate individual and went to the opposite side of the road, but the principal reason was that they not break the Law.  They did not want to incur ritual uncleanness that would result from coming into contact with blood.  The Samaritan approaches and not only sees the man, but tends to his wounds.  He puts the man on the Samaritan’s beast of burden and takes the wounded one to an inn, pays for his lodging and promises to pay for anything that is not covered by his payment.  Amazing, don’t you think?

What occasioned the parable?  A lawyer had asked Jesus what he had to do to inherit everlasting life.  Jesus answered him with a question: “What is written in the Law?”  The lawyer knew the law well and answered: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind; and you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”  When Jesus commended the lawyer for his answer, the man then asked for some limits on the law.  “And who is my neighbor.”  Maybe he could love his neighbor as long as there were some exceptions to that umbrella term.  But the parable states quite boldly that that neighbor law applied even to people one might be tempted to despise.

Jesus will be specific in John’s Gospel when he commands his disciples to love their enemies and do good to those who hate them.  When one might be tempted to think that the Love Law surely doesn’t apply excluded because they belong to a hated race, color, creed, or national origin, Jesus says there are no exceptions.  Even your enemies must be ones you love and to whom you must do good.

When you think about the new Law Jesus’ disciples are to follow, think of someone who has done ill to you, someone who holds you in contempt.  How easy would it be for you to love that person?  Not so easy, I would imagine.  I know it wasn’t easy for me.  But that doesn’t let us off the hook, no if we want to be Jesus disciples.

The survivors of the shooting victims in the church in Charleston shocked the world when they went to the alleged killer’s court hearing and one by one told him they forgave him.  Their faith, which was being shared when the attack happened, wouldn’t allow them to not forgive.

That all demanding love has not always been apparent historically in the church’s actions.  It’s hard to see love in burnings at the stake.  Some would like to see evidence of that kind of judging and condemning today in the church.  Then there is Pope Francis washing the feet of non-Christians, both young men and women, and obvious sinners.  He was photographed kissing their feet.  There is a message there for those open to receive it.  It is not about lording over.  It is about serving among.

Love fulfills the Law, Jesus says.  Love manifests God’s attitude toward those created in God’s image and all creation.  But it is not enough to be loved.  Those who are loved must let God’s love flow from them and embrace all, especially those deemed unlovable by others, or even by themselves.

“Unless your holiness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees you shall not enter the reign of God.”  Perhaps it is only when we let God reign in our lives, when Jesus lives in us, perhaps it is only then that one can fulfill the law of love.

It is grace that empowers and makes all the difference in the world.



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