Sunday, 12 February 2017

Week 6 Sunday (Year A)

Readings: Sirach 15:15-20: Psalm 119; 1 Corinthians 2:6-10; Matthew 5:17-37

The opening verses of today's gospel reading have been described as the most controversial in the New Testament. Jesus says that he has come not to abolish the law and the prophets but to fulfill them. Not an iota or dot of the law will pass from it until it is accomplished. But Paul - and Jesus elsewhere - speak and act as if the law has, very definitely, been surpassed to be replaced by faith and grace.

Jesus teaches that there is at least continuity between the first covenant and the new covenant, between the law given to Moses on Sinai and the law taught by Him in the Sermon on the Mount. Here Jesus presents the fullness of the law once given to the Hebrews at Mount Sinai. Give full weight to the term 'presents': he presents it in the sense of teaching it and expounding it, but he also presents it in the sense of making it present to those who are listening at the present moment of their encounter with Him.

There is continuity between the old law and the new law. In a series of illustrations Jesus, an excellent teacher, points out how the Law is to be fulfilled: 'you have heard that it was said ... but I say to you'. He does this for killing, adultery, divorce, oath taking, vengeance, and love for others. These are the central commandments of the Mosaic law (as well as being the primary precepts of the natural law). These commandments remain but they are to be observed in a particular way. They are to be interiorized, lived not simply as a matter of external obedience or out of fear, but as a matter of internal conviction and out of love.

Just as there is no new commandment in the Sermon so there is nothing that is not found already in the prophets, especially in Jeremiah, Hosea and Ezekiel. We might be tempted to say that Jesus here turns the religion of Israel into a religion of the heart whereas before it was a religion of 'rules and regulations'. This is a profound misunderstanding (and has been one of the roots of anti-Judaism in Christian history). Read these prophets and you will find already everything Jesus says about observing the Law from one's heart. What's the point of circumcising your flesh if you do not circumcise your heart? That's Jeremiah. What you need is a new heart and a new spirit (implication: not new laws, you already have all you need): that's Ezekiel. The problem is that you have forgotten the law God has already given you, you have no real understanding of it, or of the divine love and mercy in which it originates: that's Hosea.

So what does the fulfillment of the law mean? If Jesus adds nothing to the commandments of the law and adds nothing to what the prophets had already taught about its spiritual character, is there anything new here? Of course there is. The new thing here is the teacher. This teacher of the law is also the one who observes it fully; in his own person he perfects it, he fulfills it, he accomplishes it.

The term 'pleroma' means completion or fullness. Jesus says that the law stands until it reaches its fullness, its end. And what is the end of the Law? It is the manifestation of the holiness of God, and a communion established on that holiness between God and God's people. So the Law is not fulfilled until that holiness is manifested and that communion is established, things to be done precisely by one who observes the Law ('salvation is from the Jews'). In giving the Law to His people God revealed His mind and heart, He shared with them His words and His love, His wisdom and His truth. The law was given through Moses, grace and truth have come through Jesus Christ: we know this from the prologue to John's gospel. Wisdom and teaching were already given through Moses, Jesus Christ is the one who enables a life according to that wisdom and teaching. He is the Spirit-filled One who gives the Spirit, poured into our hearts as love, so that we can observe the Law in the ways in which he asks us to do it - not just in our words but from the depths of our hearts.

'Love is the fullness of the law': so Paul says in his letter to the Romans (13:10) and once again the term 'pleroma' is used. In other words Jesus Christ is the fullness of the law. Not a dot or iota will pass away 'until all things have taken place', 'until all is accomplished'. In the moment in which Jesus breathes forth the Spirit he says 'it is accomplished' (John 19:30). Then everything is finished, perfected, fulfilled.

The Sermon on the Mount is a wonderful text, often taken to be the finest summary of the specifically 'Christian' moral teaching. It can be a bit of a shock to realize that there is nothing in it that is not already in what Christians call the 'Old Testament'. If we go looking in it for a new teaching, a new doctrine, a new commandment, or even a new reason for observing the law, we are barking up the wrong tree. We have not listened to Jesus: 'I have come not to abolish the law and the prophets but to fulfill them before which not a dot or iota will pass away'.

The great, extraordinary, mysterious fulfillment of the Law which is given in the Sermon is not in the teaching but in the Teacher. This is where the law is fulfilled and this is where it is accomplished. Here is the obedient One who lives completely from the love of the Father, manifesting the holiness of God in everything he says or does, establishing between the Father and humanity the communion that was God's intention from the beginning. God gave the law to Moses, to help the people to live in communion with God. The Father sends his Son into the world, full of grace and truth (the divine attributes of steadfast love and faithfulness), so that all who live in His presence might be children of God. Jesus comes not just to help us but to enable us to live according to God's law.

You have heard that it was said 'observe the commandments of the law and you will live'. But I say to you, 'all who believe in Him will live the kind of life He lived, will be set free by the truth, and they will never die'.

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