Wednesday, June 10, 2009

I Have Come Not To Abolish The Law, But To Fulfill It.

2 Corinthians 3:4-11
Such confidence as this is ours through Christ before God. Not that we are competent in ourselves to claim anything for ourselves, but our competence comes from God. He has made us competent as ministers of a new covenant—not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter brings death, but the Spirit gives life.

Now if the ministry that brought death, which was engraved in letters on stone, came with glory, so that the Israelites could not look steadily at the face of Moses because of its glory, fading though it was, will not the ministry of the Spirit be even more glorious? If the ministry that condemns men is glorious, how much more glorious is the ministry that brings righteousness! For what was glorious has no glory now in comparison with the surpassing glory. For if what was bound to fade away was glorious, how much more will what endures be glorious!

Matthew 5:17-19
"Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. To tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. Anyone who 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 practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.”

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In preparing these daily meditations, I consult several sources: various versions of the Scripture texts of the day, as well as a number of other meditations and homily notes on the Scripture of the day. I usually borrow some ideas and images from these sources, and I rarely cite one extensively; whenever I do, you will see the original author’s name at the bottom of the text ( e.g. Donagh O’Shea sj

One of my sources, Daniel Patrick O’Reilly, is a regular contributor to Creighton University Daily Reflection. He comments that, at first reading, he finds today’s readings rather confusing. I can understand why. In 2 Corinthians, Paul speaks of a New Covenant, one not of the letter, but of the spirit. “For the letter brings death, but the spirit brings life.” Observance of the letter of the law is replaced by faith in Jesus Christ and guidance from the Holy Spirit.

Today’s gospel begins with Jesus telling his disciples that he has not come to abolish either the law or the prophets. In fact, not the smallest letter or the smallest part of a letter will disappear. Some of us may be more familiar with that second verse in another form: “Not one jot, not one tittle, shall pass from the law till all this be fulfilled.” That word “jot” is Elizabethan English for the Hebrew letter yod, which has basically the size and shape of an apostrophe; and “tittle” refers to a point or small sign used as a diacritical mark in writing or printing, such as the aforementioned apostrophe, or a comma, or quotation marks. In Hebrew, the tittles are the vowel signs above the letters, all of which are consonants.

This reflection is not about grammar and punctuation, though, but about the law, and not just any law, but the Law of Moses, which was given to the Hebrew people on Sinai, on tablets of stone etched by the very hand of God.

It is Jesus Christ, who said that not a jot or a tittle of the law would be changed. But Jesus himself often broke the law, at least as it was interpreted by the Scribes and Pharisees. He accepted invitations to the homes of tax-collectors and sinners. Even worse, he called himself Son of God, a blasphemy, in their eyes, which would have cost him his life if the Romans had not reserved the death penalty to offenses against their own law.

When is a law perfectly observed? Is it when it is observed to the letter? Not really! The aforementioned Scribes and Pharisees prided themselves on adhering to the letter of the Law, but Jesus accuses them of setting aside the commandment of God, and yet holding to human tradition, such as washing pots and cups, and many other such things. (Mark 7:8).

A law is fulfilled, in fact, when the purpose for which it was enacted is being fulfilled. Legislation, whether civil or ecclesiastical, is a means to an end: the good order of the society. However, if the end or purpose is subverted by the law, then it is no longer a law. This is not the statement of a lawyer or a jurist, but of a philosopher and theologian: Saint Thomas Aquinas. Law, he wrote, is an act of reason, which orders a means to an end; it is not an act of will. Law is not the heavy hand of someone who has power over you, but the gentle voice of God’s Holy Spirit guiding you toward the fulfillment of the purpose of your life: to love God with all your heart, mind and might; to love your neighbor as yourself; and, ultimately, to be happy with God and your neighbor in Heaven.

Law does not subvert either your mind or your will, but guides you along the path that leads to God’s abode, at the summit of a spiritual Mount Carmel. Law does not stifle your freedom, but supports, enlightens and defends it. That is the only way there can be such an entity as Divine Law: there is no conflict between law and love.

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