Jesus goes beyond letter of the law to fulfill it

in the beginning
Father Mike Stubbs is the pastor of Holy Cross Parish in Overland Park and has a degree in Scripture from Harvard University.

by Father Mike Stubbs

Because of their deep respect for the Torah, the rabbis in ancient times formulated additional regulations to protect the various individual points of the Mosaic Law, to ensure that they would not be inadvertently violated.

For example, the law prohibits stewing a kid goat in its mother’s milk. (Ex 23:19b) The rabbis extended that prohibition to rule out eating any meat with any dairy products. This extension of the law is known as a “fence” around the law.

In Sunday’s Gospel reading, Mt 5:17-37, Jesus exhibits a similar respect for the Torah. He declares: “Not the smallest letter or the smallest part of a letter will pass from the law, until all things have taken place. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do so will be called least in the kingdom of heaven. But whoever obeys and teaches these commandments will be called greatest in the kingdom of heaven.”

Respect for the Torah had led the rabbis to construct fences around the law. Similar respect for the Torah led Jesus to examine the commandments, to arrive at the heart of the commandment and determine the reason for that commandment. Understanding that, Jesus could elaborate on the commandment and draw it out to its logical conclusion.

For example, in examining the commandment against murder, “You shall not kill,” Jesus could determine that its underlying message opposed violence against persons. Accordingly, Jesus extended the commandment to prohibit anger and personal insults:

“Whoever is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; and whoever says to his brother, ‘Raqa,’ will be answerable to the Sanhedrin; and whoever says, ‘You fool,’ will be liable to fiery Gehenna.”

Notice that, even though Jesus does not take a legalistic approach to the commandment, he is still very demanding. He does not let us off the hook.

In extending the various commandments, Jesus is bringing out their deeper meaning. In that way, he is bringing them to fulfillment. Jesus is living up to his promise made in the Gospel reading: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets. I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.”

Jesus seeks to fulfill the law by understanding its spirit. By going beyond the letter of the law and arriving at its spirit, he gives it life.

“For the letter brings death, but the Spirit gives life” (2 Cor 3:6).

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