We hear these striking words on Jesus’ lips, “I have come not to abolish but to fulfill the law,” which, I think is a core issue for the divisions within the Church, now and also since the very beginning. What can change and what must change if we are to “fulfill the law” that Jesus had in mind?
The questions, for example, about human sexuality with which the Church (not just Episcopalians but the entire Church) is now struggling is part of this. So is our recognition, only within the last quarter century, the key role of women in church leadership. We Episcopalians and many others now see the passages in the Scriptures about divorce very differently than we had for centuries. [i] And it has only been for a little more than a century that the Church has repented from using Holy Scripture to condone human slavery – scriptural passages from the Old Testament and the New Testament, such our first lesson these evening from St. Paul’s letter to the Romans. (The supposed biblical justification of the former apartheid policies in South Africa is still fresh in our memory.) You may recall that some fifty years or so ago, Adolph Hitler appealed to Holy Scripture to justify his divine mandate for purifying both church and nation. Quoting St. Paul : “ Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God… ” [ii] And Hitler does not stand alone in recent history. On and on I could go on how we don’t see things as we once did, as you likely know well. What can change and what must change if we are to “fulfill the law” that Jesus had in mind?
From the earliest days the Christian movement was divided from within, and under attack from without. Long before there was an institutional structure called “Christianity,” long before there was Canon of Scripture (“Hebrew Scripture” or what we call the “New Testament”), long before there was any systematic understanding of church order and authority, there was simply and profoundly the experience of Jesus. That first generation that had seen Jesus with their own eyes and experienced Jesus in their own hearts was, from the beginning, under attack. In today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus sounds rather defensive. Matthew records Jesus’ saying that he has come not to abolish but to fulfill the law: “not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished,” we hear Jesus say.
It seems to me that we’ve got to interpret what Jesus is saying here about the law by seeing what Jesus is doing. And what is he doing? Well, if he’s not abolishing the law, he sure seems to be re-interpreting it. Jesus and, from the earliest days, the Christian movement was under attack for violating the law. [iii] There was the continual disregard for the traditional Sabbath: if Jesus and his followers decided to work or to walk or to harvest on the Sabbath, they seemingly did so without blinking an eye, appealing to some kind of higher authority than “the law.” They were accused of being lax about the observance of feasts and fasts and for not keeping the rituals of the faith. (Very slack on hand washing, for example.)
Perhaps most significant and most galling (and most frightening), Jesus and his early followers continually broke the standards for purity. [iv] That’s the outcry which blazed with such burning heat because of the perceived eroding of morals. Jesus and his followers intentionally and indiscriminately associated with those branded as being the most notorious of sinners – the “invisible people,” ranging from prostitutes and tax collectors and shepherds, to women who were “ritually unclean,” to people born of a different race, of a different type. Jesus simply called them all, “children of God.” Jesus and his followers ate with them, touched them, even slept under the roofs of their houses, in every way identifying with them. And for his opponents, if Jesus’ character could not be assassinated, then he would have to be killed, and the movement with him. Hopefully.
Though Jesus and his disciples seem to disregard the law and prophets, they were no less serious than Judaism about matters of moral and ethical behavior. It’s just that Jesus introduced another factor into the ongoing debate: grace. When Matthew records Jesus’ saying, “Do not think I have come to abolish the law…” he’s speaking to this ongoing debate on the relationship between law and grace , a debate that runs through the New Testament writings and is still with us. For example, we might recall what the writer of the Acts of the Apostles calls “dissension and debate.” [v] (This is Acts 15.) The debate is whether to impose the demands of Jewish law onto Gentile converts. Finally Peter stands in the assembly and says, “Why are you putting God to the test by placing on the neck of the [Gentile] disciples a yoke [of the law] that neither our ancestors nor we have been able to bear? On the contrary, we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.” [vi] The debate on “law and grace” rages elsewhere in the New Testament. In the Letter to the Galatians , at one point Paul “opposes [Peter] to his face” because of disagreements about the interpretation of the law. [vii] St. Paul concludes his letter by saying, “You who want to be justified by the law cut yourselves off from Christ; you have fallen away from grace.” [viii]
We know that the Jewish people used the expression “the law” in different ways. [ix] They used the expression, “the law,” to mean the Ten Commandments. They used the expression, “the law,” to mean The Pentateuch: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy. They used the phrase, “the law and the prophets” to mean the whole assembled body of Hebrew Scripture. (We hear in the psalm appointed for this evening: “I love to do your will, O my God; your law is deep in my heart….” [x] In Jesus’ day, the expression “the law” was used most commonly to mean the “Oral or the Scribal Law.” And it is the “Oral or the Scribal Law” that Jesus and St. Paul so utterly condemn, because it so misses the mark. [xi] We know that the Scribes had taken the broad principles of the Jewish Scriptures and culled from them a rule and regulation for every jot and tittle of life, what, centuries later, would be called the Mishnah .
So, here’s an example. According to Scribal Law if one were to write something on the Sabbath, that would be work. But then writing has to be defined. So Scribal Law dictates:
One who writes two letters of the alphabet with their right hand or with their left hand, if they are written with different inks or in different languages, is guilty of breaking the law.
And so on…
Even if they should write two letters from forgetfulness, they are guilty, whether they have written them with ink or with paint, red chalk, vitriol, or anything which makes a permanent mark.
You get the gist of it…
Also one that writes on the Sabbath on two walls that form an angle, or on two tablets of their account book so that they can be read together is guilty…
Those kinds of things…
But, if anyone writes with dark fluid, with fruit juice, or in the dust of the road, or in sand, or in anything which does not make a permanent mark, that one is not guilty.
On and on it goes…
If, on the other hand, one writes one letter on the ground, and one on the wall of the house, or on two pages of a book, so that they cannot be read together, that one is not guilty…. [xii]
To try to follow that kind of law was oppressive and an intolerable burden. It’s not liberating. It’s probably fair to say that Jesus found that kind of law-keeping as exhausting as we would. When he says, like in Matthew’s Gospel, that he came not to abolish the law, he’s recognizing that this all-too-prevalent Oral or Scribal Law simply missed the mark. What Jesus set out to fulfill is the real principle underpinning the whole Law. That underpinning principle is summed up in Jesus’ saying we are to love God with all our heart and mind and soul and strength, and to love our neighbors as ourselves. (Who is your neighbor? Everyone.) And that principle under the law, under the laws, of loving and “reverencing” God and all that God had created, that principle under the law, under the “laws,” Jesus was not about to abolish. He would fulfill it.
What Jesus did was to abandon himself into what God was doing. I don’t think it happened over night. I think it took a good many of those “hidden years” for Jesus himself to “get it.” I would say, what dawned on Jesus was that it didn’t all happen in the past: God’s creation and revelation continues. In the words of the French theologian Jean Pierre de Caussade, God continues to create each day with fresh energy, with a scheme that is without limit, with a fecundity that is inexhaustible. [xiii] God comes to us from the future… because God is up to something new. It’s not all finished, and it’s not already written. God’s work within us and among us is describable but it’s not prescribable. God is up to a new thing. God is always More. And God’s creating will extend through all eternity. There is this recurring sense in the Gospels that Jesus came to abandon himself in utter availability to whatever it was that God was doing. Moment by moment he breathed in the Spirit, and the Spirit led him, the same Spirit left to lead us into all truth. And when Jesus had the clarity to say to his followers, “Come, follow me,” I think it’s because he had this sense of being led, not backward but ahead into this new thing, this future that the God, whom he called “Father,” was creating and fulfilling. Jesus gives us all an invitation to participate in this new thing, to follow him in this ever-new thing. God is always More.
[i] Some branches of the church have come to see it possible to be a faithful Christian, even an ordained Christian, while having been divorced and re-married, e.g., Matthew 5:31 , 32; I Timothy 3:1-3.
[ii] Romans 13:1.
[iii] See “Matthew 5:13 -20” in Preaching Through the Christian Year – Volume A , by Fred B. Craddock, et al. Philadelphia : Trinity Press International, 1992; pp. 106-108.
[iv] See Marcus Borg’s discussion in Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time . San Francisco : Harper Collins, 1995; pp. 13, 49-59, 128, 134.
[v] Acts 15:2.
[vi] Acts 15:10-11.
[vii] Galatians 2:11-21.
[viii] Galatians 5:4.
[ix] Excerpted from William Barclay’s commentary on The Gospel According to Matthew [ 5:17 -20]; pp. 127-133.
[x] Psalm 40:9.
[xi] See Jesus Before Christianity , by Albert Nolan, O.P. Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1994; pp. 85-88; 137.
[xii] Barclay, p. 129.
[xiii] The images in this paragraph are drawn primarily from de Caussade’s writings in Abandonment to the Divine Providence .
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