The Law and the Prophets
Isaiah 58:1-8 | Matthew 5:13-20
Today, as we continue our exploration of Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount, the best known block of his teaching about what it means to live as his disciple, as a citizen of his reign, our gospel reading brings us one of those passages where it’s hard to avoid thinking that life – especially life for the preacher – would have been much easier if Jesus hadn’t said what he said.
“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law… not one letter will pass from the law until all is accomplished… 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”
You don’t need to have read much of the Old Testament law to get the sense that, if this means what it seems to mean – that the law, as laid out in the Old Testament still applies – we have a bit of a problem. Quite aside from the food laws, and circumcision, and the sacrifices, the Old Testament law is full of requirements that made sense in a particular place and time, but really don’t here and now. Laws requiring the death penalty for blasphemy, laws governing polygamy, and slavery, laws giving a father the right to choose a husband for his daughter.
And amongst all these laws are some we see Jesus breaking – the restrictions of the Sabbath, for instance (although it is noteworthy that in Matthew’s gospel Jesus’ explicit breaking of the laws is much less prominent – for this author Jesus was, among other things, the ideal Jew, something we really ought to remember as we consider this passage).
And of course there are many others the early Church setting aside – Peter’s vision declaring all food clean, Paul permitting the eating of meat sacrificed to idols.
So what is Jesus saying, when he says “I have come not to abolish, but to fulfil”?
Sometimes these words are read as Jesus speaking of bringing the law to an end by, his life and, in particular, his death and resurrection. The argument goes that by living a perfect life, Jesus fully satisfies the requirements of the law, and thereby completes, fulfills them, freeing us from the need to do the same.
But the words such an argument leans on, Jesus fulfilling the law, are sandwiched between statements his declaration that he has not come to abolish it, and that those who break the commandments will be least in the kingdom. So this seems to me a heroic effort to make Jesus words mean pretty much the opposite of what they look to say.
Others choose to question whether Jesus really said these words, or whether Matthew added them. After all, in the early Church debate between those who would preserve the Jewish nature of the faith and those who would leave it behind, Matthew was pretty clearly in the Jewish camp.
But while I am far from being a Biblical literalist, and am quite sure that the Gospel writers took a certain degree of literary license in composing their gospels (for, and again, this is always important to remember, they did not write as a modern biographer would write), I’m very uncomfortable with an approach that allows us to simply place aside texts which don’t correspond to our understanding of Jesus. It’s my problem with many of the so-called quests for the historical Jesus – they always seem to me to end up finding a Jesus who is suspiciously like the one who is looking for him.
If we only read and hear the parts of the scriptures that we can make sense of, the parts that we feel we agree with, then the story loses power to challenge us.
So somewhere between “just read it and believe it” and “choose the bits that make sense to you” must lie another path, in which we struggle with those stories we don’t get, and perhaps in the struggle discover something we would otherwise have missed.
And for me, as I grappled with this passage, that something lay, as it often does, in some of the words I missed until I read more slowly.
Because I’ve always read this passage as being about the law – the set of instructions set out to govern the life of the people of Israel in the Old Testament. But Jesus didn’t say “I have not come to abolish the law but to fulfil it” – he said “I have not come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come to fulfil them”.
That is – the thing that Jesus describes as not being abolished isn’t the law of itself; it is the law and the prophets.
The law, the law of Moses, the directions to govern life amongst the people of God, does not stand alone. It is part of something bigger, part of the Torah, the living dynamic description of what it means to be God’s people. Something that could never be reduced to a set of rules, any more than life in a family cannot be reduced to a legalistic framework.
The Torah, wasn’t so much about a set of specific dictates to be followed as it was a description of living rightly, life lived in shalom, the peace we explored back in advent. And so the law of Moses – the rules that guide day-to-day living – are held alongside the words of the prophets, those men and women who called the people again and again back to worship of the living God. Words which sometimes called people back to the letter of the law, but at other times challenge the people to rediscover the deeper sense behind those letters.
Last week, we read from the prophet Micah, mocking the sacrifices of the people – sacrifices which were required by the letter of the law – and calling them instead to justice, mercy, and humility. And today we hear Isaiah saying very similar things of another religious practice – fasting.
What Micah and Isaiah each do is to remind the people that obedience to the letter of the law is not the point, is not the end: ultimately it is not what God has called them to. In a way, what they, and each of the prophets do, is to give a reading, and interpretation, of the law in the light of the Torah; a reading of the legal requirements of God in the light of the living relationship into which God calls the people.
And here, in the Sermon on the Mount, we see Jesus doing exactly the same thing. Not abolishing the law and the prophets, but fulfilling them – making them full, complete. Jesus, in the sermon on the mount, reads the Old Testament law for us. You see this over and again in the sermon – “you have heard it said… but I say to you…” not contradicting, abolishing, what has come before, but giving it meaning, giving it life.
And I’m sure it is not by chance that Matthew, composing his telling of the story of Jesus, lays his teaching out as he does – the sermon on the mount, one big block of teaching, almost certainly not because that’s the way Jesus taught, but because that is the way books of the prophets worked; laying out the teaching as retelling of the torah of God; retold to give people a fresh vision of the call of God, to challenge them to return to the true worship of their God, to remind them that their religious duties were not an end in themselves, but were tools to help them to live right lives that were worthy of the God who had created them – worthy of God, consistent with the character of God, reflecting the light, the taste, of God. Lives that, in Micah’s words, showed justice, mercy, humilty; lives that, in Isaiah’s words, shared their possessions, set free the oppressed, cared for those in greatest need.
Last week, in the beatitudes, Jesus answered the question “what does it mean to live a good life”. This week, our text moved on to the question “what does it mean to obey the law of God”. The answers, the exploration, the exegesis of those questions make up the rest of the sermon on the mount, and the stories and parables that make up the bulk of Matthew’s gospel.
But for now, we are left with a challenge: to what extent do we make the mistake that Micah, Isaiah, and Jesus, all challenge? What rules and law and aspects of the faith have we so internalised that we’ve forgotten what they were really about?
What traditions or practices or patterns of the life of faith, all of which may be very valuable in and of themselves, have we elevated, treating them as if they were the point of the law, not just a signpost to that point?
Can we listen again to the words of the law and the prophets, and the rites and rituals and practices of our tradition, and the rules of faith we have learned to live by, and hear in all of them the dynamic, lifegiving description of a people living in harmony with God?