Thursday, July 25, 2013

Learning the Meaning of the Law

Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.
Matthew 5: 17-20

Reflection – I’m going through the Sermon on the Mount, bit by bit, as a Year of Faith project. The light of faith illuminates the whole of human life, and so my focus in this series is on the ability of these core teachings of Jesus to shed light on how we are to live—the true wisdom of God, and not of the world.

I have to admit, though, my first thought when I conceived of doing this series was, but what will I say about Matt 5: 17-20? Because, if we’re honest, I think we can all admit that there are at least one or two Gospel passages that utterly elude our attempts to understand them, right? Probably, if we were wiser, we would realize that we truly understand very little indeed of the Gospels which are so above and beyond us.

But this is one of ‘my’ passages, one which I have never quite been able to penetrate. Because of course we know that the Christian church has never practiced the whole of the Jewish law, and in fact it was determined by the apostles and promulgated at length in the writings of St. Paul—all of which is Spirit-authored canon, just as much as Matthew’s Gospel—that we are not to do so.

And yet a plain reading of the text of Matthew 5 yields that we are supposed to practice and teach the law of Moses. I say this, not to sow doubt or confusion in anyone’s mind, but to share with you honestly that I have never quite succeeded in resolving this passage’s meaning in my own mind. I have no doubt whatsoever that the problem lies between my ears and the immoveable mass of concrete found there, and not in the sacred text!

Meanwhile, what light does it shed upon my life and yours? Well, certainly we see from this passage that a lawless Christianity is not from the Lord. Whatever Jesus means by these words, He does not mean that He came so that we could all do just as we please and not before with any silly rules and commandments any more.

And this is of course a bright light shining upon post-modern man. Anomy—lawlessness—is prevalent in our world, and likely to be even more so in years ahead. I won’t inventory the various social pathologies that make this so. And in some Christian circles there has been an anomic sense, an idea that freedom means doing what you wish and that God’s love is permissive and laissez-faire.

Matt 5: 17-20, besides doing a good job of showing Fr. Denis Lemieux that he’s not especially smart, makes it impossible for us to sustain this view of Christian freedom. And perhaps the fact that the Christian Bible retains the whole Law of Moses as canonical writ has this meaning. Whatever function the Law has in Judaism (which I have studied, actually, and is very beautiful and rich), in Christianity perhaps the Law of Moses teaches us that God does indeed providentially order every dimension, every bit of life in His loving wisdom, and that the response of loving freedom is not to do as we will, but to do as God wills in every slightest detail of our life. It has never been the norm of Christianity to find the specifics of this will and this ordering of life in the precepts of the Law of Moses, but rather in the Law of Christ, which is the law of love guided by the gifts of the Spirit.

Freedom consists in allowing God to shape our whole life, every corner, every moment, every smallest letter and stroke of the pen, by his loving will and the action of His Spirit. And so the law abides with us to remind us of this and to keep our eyes and hearts earnestly turned heaven-ward, to order our days in peace and our lives in love.


  1. One of our protestant brothers has told me that if we place ourselves under the(old) law( by choosing to live it)then we become subject to the law and will be judged by it as opposed to being judged by accepting the resurrection. This has always seemed odd to me, as clearly the 10 commandments were not dismissed, but I also can't seem to grasp this passage. Any good reading you could recommend?

  2. I agree with Theresa - my hope was always founded in the first and last lines: " fulfill them" and "unless your righteousness surpasses ...", that only Jesus' righteousness could hope to fulfill the law, and without Him we have no hope.

  3. "not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished."

    Do Lk 22:15-16 ("I have greatly desired to eat this passover with you before I suffer; for I say to you that I will eat of it no more, until it has been fulfilled in the kingdom of God.") and Jn 19:30 ("when Jesus had taken the wine, he said, 'It is consummated!'") have anything to do with this question?


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