Living into God’s Law
The law. Why do we have laws? There are many kinds of laws, which laws must we follow and obey? For some, laws represent limitations on their freedoms. Some observe laws as means to control others. They impose laws on others, but do not observe them themselves. In this passage from Matthew’s gospel, Jesus challenges us to look at the idea of the law with new eyes, and with a deeper understanding.
ʺDo 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 say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from the law until all is accomplished.ʺ (Mt. 5: 17-18)
Jesus is addressing a question that has troubled mankind from the beginning. It is a recognition of the fact that there are laws that are made by human beings and institutions, and there are laws that come from God. The former can be sources of both justice, and injustice. The latter are always perfectly just and, when known and understood in their proper context, offer a marvelous paradox. When understood and practiced in their proper context, do not ‘confine’ us, rather they empower and liberate us to become more fully human. They are not limits to our freedom, rather they give our freedom its deepest meaning and most life-giving power.
Human laws in our day, just as in Jesus’ day, can be either just or unjust. Jesus is not talking about human laws in this passage. The Pharisees were always trying to ʺcatchʺ him and his disciples breaking one of their human laws. They had created over 600 religious laws since the time that the Law was handed down to Moses centuries earlier. So many that even they could not keep them all. Jesus, in this teaching about the law, has this in mind. Unlike the Pharisees, he had an understanding of the law from the perspective of the eternal. He knew the entirety of the human story. He knew that in the beginning when our first parents lived in perfect freedom and harmony with God’s Law. Remember the story? They were given one seemingly simple ‘law’ concerning the Garden. They were not to eat the fruit of just one of the trees, the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. But pride entered them and they disobeyed, eating of that fruit. From that original disobedience rooted in pride arose all the other sins that are familiar to the human experience: greed, anger, jealousy, gluttony, lust and sloth. God, in time, and in his mercy, gave us the Ten Commandments, to help us, once again, to come back into harmony with the natural law, the Law of God written on their conscience by God himself. (See Romans 2: 12-16)
Jesus knew that we human beings still have that immature, rebellious streak in us. But he also knew that our truest nature is made for eternity. When he teaches that he had not come to abolish the law, but to fulfill it, he is not talking about the human laws of the Pharisees, or of the state. He is talking about the Law that orders and guides all of creation in accord with the eternal and infinite wisdom of the Creator. It is the Law of Love. This is the Law that he came to fulfill and to teach us. This Law does not limit our freedom, but fulfills it. He says, ʺFor truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from the law until all is accomplished.ʺ In this statement is the unspoken promise of God, that one day, indeed, it will be fulfilled. His love is so great for us that, in spite of our fallen and rebellious nature, he challenges us to see, to understand, and to choose to live the Law of God more and more every day.
Jesus would later state the Ten Commandments in the more positive form when he was asked, ʺOf the commandments, which is the greatest?ʺ He responds, of course, with, ʺLove the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself. All the Law and the prophets hang on these two commandments.’ʺ (Matthew 22: 36-40) This is an entirely new way of understanding the Ten Commandments. The first statement covers the first three of the Ten Commandments and the second covers the remaining seven commandments of the decalogue. But now he has put them in the positive form. It is no longer, ʺthou shalt not,ʺ but now it is, ʺLoveʺ God with all of your being and your neighbor as yourself. It has changed the idea of ‘obedience’ from a passive obedience to an active obedience. It is no longer what you should not do, but rather, what you should do, according to your God-given nature. The former implies punishment if you do not comply, the latter implies a freely chosen, positive action that has the potential to bring about positive and good consequences for your neighbor as well as for yourself. The former is appropriate for teaching the faith to the child, the latter is appropriate to the life of an adult believer. This is the Law of God and Jesus is our example, both in his humanity and in his divinity. This is the law that he has come to fulfill, not to abolish.
This is the eternal Law that we aspire to as Christian believers. This Law is not just words on a page. This is the Law that is written in every one of our consciences and in every element of creation. Not the ‘smallest letter or stroke’ of it will be abolished. Rather, we as Christians are called not just to know it, but to strive with all of our will and desire to live it in our daily lives. ʺTherefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do so will be called least in the kingdom of heaven. But whoever obeys and teaches these commandments will be called greatest in the kingdom of heaven. I tell you, unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter into the kingdom of heaven.ʺ (Mt. 5: 19-20) Because of our fallen nature, it will not be fulfilled perfectly in us until ʺall is accomplished.ʺ But if we willingly choose to live in accord with the Law of Love, imperfect as we are, we know that we will be doing God’s will and that he will support us always with his generous grace and that he will give us his willing forgiveness when we fail.
God is trying to fulfill every letter and stroke of the Law in us every day. Let us, then, open our hearts to that love every day. With all of our heart, mind and soul, let us commit our lives to God’s Law of Love boldly, faithfully, and righteously as best we can every day. When we fail, let us not despair, but rather, turn to Jesus who is the fulfillment of that Law. Let us pray earnestly, and in humble faith; ʺThy will be done.ʺ Let it be done here on earth as it is in heaven. Amen.