Law takes back seat to justice, mercy, faith

May 2, 2016
GLEN ARGAN
WESTERN CATHOLIC REPORTER

Jesus opposed a severe interpretation of the Law. He healed people on the Sabbath even when they were not in immediate danger of death. He allowed his disciples to pick and eat corn while walking through a cornfield on the Sabbath.

Jesus associated with sinners and others considered impure. He told people to follow him instead of burying their parents.

All of this (and more) would have scandalized the Jews of his time, especially their leaders.

Yet, he was also adamant in saying, "Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish, but to fulfill. 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" (Matthew 5.17-18).

One could not ask for a more clear-cut statement. Indeed, Jesus calls his followers, calls everyone, to perform not only actions prescribed by the covenant, but to form interior dispositions that imitate those of Jesus. It is Jesus who saves, not the Law. Follow Jesus and you will also behave in an ethical manner.

Following his proclamation during the Sermon on the Mount that he will not abolish one stroke of a letter of the Law, Jesus presents what have come to be known as the six antitheses.

When the Law states do not kill, Jesus says do not even be angry with or insult a brother or sister. When the Law says do not commit adultery, Jesus says even looking on a woman with lust is equivalent to adultery. While the Law allowed divorce, Jesus says divorcing one's wife causes her to commit adultery, and if the man remarries, he too commits adultery.

In delivering the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus proposes six antitheses, which are even more demanding than Mosaic Law.

In delivering the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus proposes six antitheses, which are even more demanding than Mosaic Law.

When the Law says not to swear false oaths, Jesus says do not swear oaths at all, simply give your word. When the Law says "an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth," Jesus advocates total non-violence, even turning your cheek to someone who strikes you. When the Law says to love your neighbour and hate your enemy, Jesus says love your enemies (Mt 5.21-30).

Jesus has cranked up the moral demands made on us to a higher level. He is even more demanding than the Law.

This may seem confusing. On one hand, Jesus appears to break the Law in some instances and encourages his disciples to do the same. On the other hand, his moral demands are even greater than those of the Law, and he says his mission has nothing to do with breaking the Law.

Yet, Jesus is primarily neither a lawmaker nor a lawbreaker. He is the Son of God made incarnate. If he was anything less, his counsels would be brazen defiance of the will of God.

Jesus, however, puts the Law into context when he responds to the question about the greatest commandment: "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and first commandment. And the second is like it: You shall love your neighbour as yourself" (Mt 22.37-39).

It is in this context that Jesus criticizes the Pharisees for obsessiveness about the Law while ignoring the spiritual and material needs of the people: "Woe to you scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the Law; justice and mercy and faith" (Mt. 23.23).

RELATIONSHIPS

Justice, mercy and faith. These are the dispositions that lead to right action. Not one letter of the Law should be abolished, but every letter should be put into the light of how it will affect one's relationship with God and neighbour.

The Pharisees' problem is not that they were bad people - although you might not guess that from Matthew's Gospel. Their problem is that they believed so strongly that performing "the works of the Law" (Galatians 2.16) - primarily, circumcision, Sabbath observance and ritual purity - amounted to a badge that proved their participation in God's covenant.

It was inconceivable to the Pharisees that one could be a righteous Jew without strictly adhering to these works of the Law.

So when the disciples picked corn on the Sabbath or Jesus healed the sick on the Sabbath, it was a scandal in the eyes of the Pharisees. Likewise, when Jesus ate with sinners or tax collectors.

LOVE OF NEIGHBOUR

All these actions, seemingly against the Law, displayed and called people to justice, mercy and faith.

Although Jesus did not throw out the Law, he called people to follow him first. He embodies the Law in his person. He embodies justice, mercy and faith.

The Law was always meant to serve those virtues. In Jesus, justice, mercy and faith are not abstract ideas, but a concrete way of life. The Holy Spirit is in them, just as the Spirit is in Jesus.

Our primary mission is not a blind following of the Law, but one of following Jesus. Jesus is the way, the truth and the life. There is a New Law and that law is Jesus himself. Salvation comes, not primarily through obeying the Law, but by following Jesus.