Wednesday, March 18, 2009

I have not come to abolish the Law, but to fulfill it.

Today’s First Reading is taken from the speech Moses gave to the people of Israel after he came down from the summit of Mount Sinai with the tablets of the law. The message is not a threatening one, not “Disobey at your own risk!” but an encouraging one: Teach these precepts to the neighboring peoples, and you will make the earth a better place, the people a better race.

In the Gospel, Jesus tells his disciples that he has not come to abolish the Law of Moses, but to fulfill it. “Not the smallest letter, or the tiniest stroke of a letter” will be erased. The earliest English translations were closer to the original, “Not a jot or a tittle”. The “jot” refers to the smallest letter in the Hebrew alphabet, yod, which looks rather like a comma. A tittle is part of a letter, like the dot on our letter I, or the accents on letters in French. To say that not a jot or a tittle would be removed from the Law is a sign of how immutable God’s Law is: it has never changed, from the Garden of Eden, to the teaching of the prophets, to the birth, death and resurrection of Jesus. But if Jesus was so insistent that the Law would never change or disappear, why was he unhappy with the Pharisees, who made it their mission to persuade people to observe the Law to the letter, even to the tiniest stroke of a letter?

We’re not going to hear “the rest of the story” tomorrow, because March 19, is the Solemnity of Saint Joseph, with prayers and reading of its own. So it might be helpful to complete the account today.

Jesus said to his disciples: You’ve heard that our ancestors were told, “Don’t commit murder”, and “Whoever takes the life of another will be subject to judgment”. But I tell you that if you’re angry with your neighbor, or call your neighbor an idiot, you are liable to judgment. If you curse your neighbor, you are in danger of hellfire.

So, if you’re going to the Temple to present a sacrifice at the altar, and you remember that your neighbor has something against you, leave the sacrifice right there, go back and be reconciled to your neighbor, then come back and offer your sacrifice to God.

You’ve heard the commandment, “Don’t commit adultery,” I tell you, that anyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery in his heart. In this saying, Jesus appears to be even more legalistic than the Pharisees. But, at another time, Jesus said, “My yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:30) So, what he just said is not heavier, but lighter, than the doctrine of the Pharisees?

Jesus said, “I have not come to abolish the Law, but to fulfill it.” A law is not fulfilled when it is being observed to the letter, but when it serves the purpose for which it was enacted. If he had said, “Don’t bother with the details, just do the best you can”, he would have sounded like a reckless liberal, to use a modern phrase. But he still would have been talking about the letter, not the spirit of the Law. He would be in a different corner of the same box the Pharisees had put themselves in.

Jesus is “outside the box”. He goes beyond the external observance, and probes the heart. He sees that murder begins with hatred or anger, that adultery is the fruit of lust. Everything we do starts with an impulse, followed by a decision whether to act on that impulse, or to reject it. Jesus reminds us to focus not on the letter of the law, but on the intention of the heart. Our model is the Sacred Heart of Jesus: “Love one another, as I have first loved you.”

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