Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Till heaven and earth pass away

"Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill. For assuredly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle will by no means pass from the law till all is fulfilled. Whoever therefore breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I say to you, that unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven."

- Matthew 5:17-20

We continue, in the midst of Jesus' Sermon on the Mount. This is the third reading midst this Sermon, the first two being the readings from Monday and Tuesday (see The Beatitudes and Salt and Light). He is preparing us for what is to follow, as he continues with his Sermon and expands on the Law. Let us examine what he teaches today.

"Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill." My study bible notes, "Jesus fulfills the Law in His Person, words and actions by (1) performing God's will in all its fullness (3:15); (2) transgressing none of the precepts of the Law (John 8:46; 14:30), (3) declaring the perfect fulfillment of the Law, which he was about to deliver to them; (4) granting righteousness -- the goal of the Law -- to us (Romans 3:31; 8:3,4; 10:4). He fulfills the Prophets by carrying out fully what they had foretold about him." So, what we have in this passage is an introduction to us of who Jesus is, exactly. He is teaching us about His Person, as my study bible notes. And, in teaching us about himself, he teaches us what he wants us to be -- and why he is giving us his particular teachings in this homily of the Sermon on the Mount.

"For assuredly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle will by no means pass from the law till all is fulfilled." Another helpful note in my study bible reads: "Assuredly is amen in Greek, meaning 'verily,' 'of a truth,' 'so be it.' Christ uses it as a solemn affirmation, a form of oath, even using it to preface certain proclamations. He takes an oath by Himself to underline the authority of His words. A jot is the smallest letter in the Greek and Hebrew alphabets; a tittle is the small stroke in certain Hebrew letters. Thus, the whole of the law is the foundation of the new teaching. It is fulfilled by Christ and will not pass away till heaven and earth pass away (Mark 13:31; Luke 16:17)." Jesus continues to express the idea that both in himself and in his teachings, he is building on the Law, not rejecting it. The Law is included in his perspective and what he teaches; there is nothing excluded. We must be prepared for his new teachings in this expectation and understanding.

"Whoever therefore breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven." Again, helpful note reads: "Righteousness which is according to the Law is a unified whole: the observance of the least of these secures the observance of the greatest, while the violation of the very least is equivalent to the violation of the greatest. To teach what one does not practice condemns the teacher (Romans 2:21); to do right without guiding others lessens the reward of righteousness. Jesus Himself set the doing before the teaching. We ought to do right and teach ourselves, before we attempt to set others right." It's fascinating, this juxtaposition of doing and teaching. Jesus has taught us already about the values we embrace in the Beatitudes, and he has taught us about how essential we are as disciples, about forbearance, being steadfast in the face of those who will reject and seek to hurt us as the "salt of the earth and the light of the world" (see Salt and Light). Here, he emphasizes both his role that he will play and ours as we share in his mission. Teaching and doing are inseparable; we commit to both, we must be both.

"For I say to you, that unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven." My study bible notes, "Righteousness is more than proper behavior, such as the scribes and Pharisees were advocating, and holy thoughts. It centers upon our relationship with God." This depth of righteousness is a key component of Jesus' teachings. The Law covers a portion of faith, but there is also a depth to be considered, what is in our hearts and not merely how we conform to a set of rules for outward behavior.

What Jesus is advocating and teaching here is a fullness of faith, in which the whole person - of each one of us - is involved. This is more than a fulfillment of duties, a set of rules that govern good behavior. It is more than that. In him, in Christ, in the life of Jesus, we have the fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets: he is within the Law, and yet he wishes to take us to something deeper, richer, a deeper understanding of the spirit of the law, and especially a living, dynamic relationship within our hearts to the Author of the Law, and the Spirit of the prophets. We will go forward now with his teaching, and he will begin to explain and unfold what it is not just to fulfill the law, but to live in active dynamic faith that both does and teaches. The discipleship that Jesus advocates is one that sees beyond conformity to rules, but asks also what is within us, what is in our hearts, where we establish relationship with Him and with the Spirit which he will send. This is a dynamic powerful reality. It is not a bypassing of the Law, but rather a fulfillment of what is promised throughout the whole of Jewish spiritual history. It is fulfilled for us in Jesus and in what he will leave with us so that we may be better disciples and cultivate this relationship, and grow in that discipleship and his teachings here in this Sermon. The Beatitudes are his promises that will be fulfilled in this teaching, a way of life conveyed to us through this homily. We go forward into this life as "Salt and Light" - necessary to the world, and as today's passage teaches, as those who both do and teach, understanding that importance. How are we the fulfillment today? Do we live in this spirit of the Prophets, and the promises of the Law? How are we each like Him, cultivating this dynamic relationship, and embodying his teachings? What fruits does it produce in your life? .