Saturday, September 19, 2009

I have come not to abolish but to fulfill

‘Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfil. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

- Matthew 5:17-20

My study bible elaborates on the meanings of this text. What is the fulfillment of the Law? The fulfillment of the Prophets? According to what I read, Jesus fulfills the Law in his Person, words and actions by performing God's will in all its fullness, transgressing none of the precepts of the Law, declaring the perfect fulfillment of the Law (which he is about to deliver in the Sermon on the Mount as it continues after this reading), and granting righteousness - the goal of the Law - to us. He fulfills the Prophets by carrying out fully what they had foretold about Him.

"Truly I tell you" is "amen" in Greek (originally from Hebrew, this word made its way intact into the original Greek of the scripture, and of course, following, into many other languages). Jesus uses it as a solemn affirmation, a form of an oath, even prefacing certain proclamations. This has the effect of underlining the authority of his words. A traditional translation reads "not a jot or a tittle" will pass from the Law (a jot being the smallest Greek letter "iota" and the tittle being a small stroke in certain Hebrew letters). Therefore, Jesus is saying that the whole of the law is the foundation of the new teaching: it is fulfilled by Christ and will not pass away. The gospels of Mark and Luke also use the phrase "until heaven and earth pass away."

Jesus is the fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets: what he commands then will stand the test of time. In this context, he continues: righteousness which is according to the Law is a unified whole. The observance of the least of these, according to my study bible, secures the observance of the greatest, while the violation of the very least is equivalent to the violation of the greatest. Moreover, righteousness is more than proper behavior or observance (such as the scribes and Pharisees were advocating), and more than holy thoughts. Righteousness, right-relatedness, centers on our relationship with God. Once again, we return to Jesus' description of the two greatest commandments: the first to love the Lord God with all heart and soul and mind and strength, the second to love one's neighbor as oneself.

This is a very hard passage for me to write about. I consult notes from tradition and patristics so that I may understand how others - much wiser than I - have read and understood this passage, and I "report" them to you via this blog. So, I have come to understand Jesus as the fulfillment of what has been written and promised, of the law that taught discipline and worship and the prophets who have written about his coming. Jesus himself, then, becomes the great revelation to which all that has come before has pointed. He has prepared us in the past two readings (The Beatitudes and his teachings on Salt and Light) for what it is to practice discipleship in this kingdom. In this reading, he is teaching us what it is to fulfill what has come and to follow in His footsteps. What has come before, what is now unfolding before them in Jesus' life, and what is to come for discipleship in the kingdom is therefore united in this great Sermon. Jesus' simple teaching in these verses is a unification of past, present and future. It is also a summoning up of what remains always with us.

Not only is Jesus himself the fulfillment of all these in his Person, but I find that scripture in the same sense, having come to us via witnesses, seems always to be packed with such an energy that its nature is constantly unfolding. It fits the various times of our own lives in a such a way as to be timeless, both personally and for the Church as a whole. Ultimately, it is our relationship to God wherein all of this rests, including righteousness, or "right-relatedness." We remember in order to recall to ourselves what this is and what it looks like; but all of it works within the realm of relationship and grace, to that depth within us that works with us. It has been written often that the basic character or theme of Matthew's gospel can be summed up in the word, "Immanuel" or "God with us." In this simple paragraph of today's reading, nothing is more "filled" than this word.

No comments:

Post a Comment