“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. Therefore, 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; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Matt. 5:17-20.
In the Gospel from today’s Daily Office, Jesus emphasizes his continuity with God’s message to His people, a message first announced in the law and the prophets. That continuity shines forth in the story of the Transfiguration, which St. Matthew records at Matt. 17:1-9 and which the icon above depicts. As God announces Jesus as his beloved Son, Christ appears flanked by Moses and Elijah. We might wonder, “Why those two heroes of the Old Testament?” Moses and Elijah, respectively, represented the Law (given by Moses) and the prophets. Jesus comes as the full flowering, the conclusion or completion of the law and the prophets.
Rather than encouraging his disciples to abandon Scripture, he asks them to take it seriously. Like many of us today, the Pharisees and scribes had read scripture as calling us into a worthiness competition. We find the perfect example of that view in the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector. (Luke 18:9-14; see here). Jesus completes the law and the prophets by showing us that God’s love and grace has nothing to do with our worthiness.
A legalistic vision of Scripture works externally, requiring people to confirm to rules and to require such conformity from those around them. Jesus calls us to internalize the Scripture, allowing it to transform our hearts so that we can live more deeply into it. Legalism mistakes the packaging for the contents. Thus, he tells his disciples that must go beyond the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees. The impulse to legalism always calls us into a kind of idolatry, in which we substitute performance of a given set of obligations for a relationship with the living God.
Jesus asks us to move forward from the notion of right action to the idea of a right relationship with God. We find an example of what Jesus means in Matthew 23:23. There, He notes that the Pharisees “tithe mint, dill, and cummin, but have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith.” Jesus doesn’t ask us to reject the Law (the Torah), merely to examine the principles which underlie it. When our principle objective becomes a relationship with the Almighty that pushes us toward justice and mercy and faith, we will read the Law in the right context.
Jesus brings that Law into its fullness, pointing out how narrowly the people had come to understand God’s purposes. The problem wasn’t that the scribes and Pharisees overvalued the Law; the problem lay in their underestimation of God’s purposes. Thus, Jesus taught that the good Samaritan actually lived into loving his neighbor, while a more legalistic or superficial view asked, “And who is my neighbor?” Luke 10:29. Like many of us today, while the scribes may have known exactly what the words of the law said, they had completely missed what they meant. They had captured the notion of compliance, but missed the blessing of God’s spirit reshaping their lives.
I pray that we find that blessing today.
James R. Dennis, O.P.
© 2012 James R. Dennis