MARCH 17, 2004, WEDNESDAY OF 3RD WEEK OF LENT, HOMILY: DT 4: 1, 5-9; MATTHEW 5:17- 19

 

DO NOT THINK I HAVE COME TO ABOLISH THE LAW AND THE PROPHETS.  I HAVE COME NOT TO ABOLISH THEM BUT TO FULFILL THEM St. Luke tells us that the boy Jesus “grew and was strengthened, being filled with wisdom, and the grace of God was upon him (2:40).” In the long discourse known as he Sermon on the Mount of which today’s Gospel is a part, we are provided with evidence that a major source of the wisdom our Lord acquired resulted from a careful study of the Law and the Prophets. A careful reading of the opening words of this lengthy discourse reveals that each of the separate beatitudes he pronounces is grounded in some passage from the Hebrew Scriptures. He has assimilated them and suffused them with a freshness of spirit that only he could bring to bear on this traditional teaching. His words are already the beginning of that new work which the prophet Isaiah foretold: “Look at me, I am making something new; it is already in the bud. Can you not recognize it? (43:19)” Later, the author of the Apocalypse places these words on the lips of God, who, as it were, speaks from his throne in heaven saying “Look, I make all things new!” referring to the new heavens and new earth at the end of time. Matthew depicts Jesus in this Sermon on the Mount as the new Legislator of the people of God. His laws govern those who are being fitted to participate as citizens in the heavenly City of God.

 

This is the context in which we are to understand today’s Gospel. Rightly to grasp its intent we must recall that Matthew composed this discourse from various talks our Lord preached in view of instructing and encouraging his own harassed congregation of believers. He wrote at a time of confusion and of stress from the social situation at the time. The Romans had recently captured and ravaged the holy city of Jerusalem. Temple worship was finished with no prospect of its return. The old world was passing away under the duress of catastrophe and the radical changes that followed. It seemed essential that the Jews should be united. Yet the followers of Christ were creating division by refusing to follow the traditions of the synagogue worship by insisting that the Messiah had come and been rejected by the religious leaders. Such stubborn insistence seemed intolerable to the Jews who were struggling for the survival of their religion and nation, as they understood things. They began excluding the Christians from their synagogues and even imprisoned and scourged the more outspoken among them.

 

This then, is the situation Matthew was addressing when he presents Jesus’ as teaching his new way. DO NOT THINK I HAVE COME TO ABOLISH THE LAW AND THE PROPHETS.  I HAVE COME NOT TO ABOLISH THEM BUT TO FULFILL THEM. These words were intended for the unbelieving Jews as well as for the Jewish-Christian faithful. The early Church also rightly understood that this teaching of our Lord validated the Hebrew Scriptures permanently. The New Testament created by Jesus was to be grounded on the revelation made to the Patriarchs, to Moses and the prophets. Our Lord himself can be properly known only as fulfilling the earlier revelation and completing it in a surpassing manner. Accordingly, when Marcion came along and sought to do away with the Hebrew Scriptures as if they treated of a different God than the Father whom Jesus revealed, the Church rejected him and his views.

 

 While our Lord did not abrogate the Torah and the Prophets, he fulfilled them in such a way as to give them a fresh significance. Matthew states boldly that the Lord had the literal observance of the law in mind and that the Palestinian Christians were to observe the law in its complete detail. Yet St. Paul had already proclaimed a contrary view some twenty years earlier. “O foolish Galatians… did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by the hearing of faith?” And he went on to add: “if you look to the law to make you justified you have separated yourself from Christ.” (Galatians 5:4). Moreover, Matthew himself has Jesus immediately after this passage, set his teaching over against that of the letter of the law: “You have heard it said in the ancients ‘Thou shalt not kill… but I say to you…” Clearly, there was a considerable pluralism in the early church even in regard to so basic an issue as literal observance of the law. This respect for various perspectives on the ways to respond faithfully to Jesus and his message is reflected in the acceptance of four distinct versions of the Gospel by the Church.  When the Syriac writer Tatian attempted to harmonize these accounts by writing a single version using all four evangelists his work, The Diatesseron, was rejected and so thoroughly neglected that it is known today only in fragments.

At any rate, in practice, Jesus’ teaching, gave a fresh interpretation to the law and the prophets, and while the Church always honored the text as inspired by God, it understood them as surpassed by Christ who carried them to their fulfillment. Jesus made it evident that his authority surpassed that of Moses; he came as the Father’s delegate with all the authority of a beloved son. He cuts through the obfuscating detail of excessive casuistry and, without depreciating the legitimate observances of the revelation, provides for its proper application. “The sabbath is made for man, not man for the sabbath.” Later his disciple would summarize Jesus’ teaching with a phrase that continues to guide us as we seek to put his teaching into daily practice. “He who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law.” Jesus himself, in a later chapter of Matthew, when asked who was the greatest in the kingdom of heaven did not say ‘he who keeps the law in all its detail’; rather he embraced a child and told his followers that the one who becomes as a little child is the greatest.(18: 1-4).  May we open our hearts in faith to this teaching and at this Eucharist receive the strength of spirit to live out our life with the trust and the confidence of being loved that make us children of God the Father.

 

Abbot John Eudes Bamberger

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