Mt 5:17-19: Teaching About The Law

“Do no deny, seldom affirm and always distinguish” is a normative attitude any would-be-philosopher or rational human being should have. In today’s Gospel, we see its relevance in understanding the life and teaching of Jesus about the law.

Knowing Jesus as someone who broke what the Jews called Law, it is astonishing and puzzling to hear Jesus warning his disciples: “Whoever will break one of the least of these commandments, and will teach others to do so, shall be called least in the Kingdom of heaven; but whoever will do them and will teach others to do them, he will be called great in the Kingdom of the Heavens” (v. 19) Several passages of the Gospel attests to the very fact and truth that sometimes Jesus did not observe the handwashings that the Law laid down; he healed sick people on the Sabbath, although forbade such healing; he was in fact condemned and crucified as a law-breaker; and yet he seems to speak of the Law with a veneration and a reverence that no Rabbi or Pharisee could exceed.

At first, Jesus appears to be inconsistent and tempts us to judge him by saying: “Look who’s talking? Here we need to distinguish the kind of Law Jesus is referring to? The kind of law we need to follow with reverence and veneration and which is not.

The Jews used the expression The Law in four different ways. (i) They used it to mean the Ten Commandments. (ii) They used it to mean the first five books of the Bible. The part of the Bible which is known as the Pentateuch-which literally means The Five Rolls-was to the Jew the Law par excellence and was to them by far the most important part of the Bible. (iii)They used the phrase The Law and the prophets to mean the whole of Scriptures; they used it as a comprehensive description of what we would call the whole Old Testament. (iv) They used it to mean the Oral or the Scribal Law.

In the time of Jesus it was the last meaning which was the commonest; and it was in fact this Scribal law which both Jesus and Paul so utterly condemned. What, then, was this Scribal law? It refers to a compilation of rules and regulations possibly deducted and expanded out of the great principles of Law. It was believed that the Moses received 613 precepts on Mount Sinai and these were expanded by the Scribes into thousands of rules and regulations.

The Scribes were the men who worked out these rules and regulations. The Pharisees, whose name means The Separated Ones, were the men who had separated themselves from all the ordinary activities of life to keep all these rules and regulation.

For many generations this Scribal Law was never written down; it was the oral law, and it was handed down in the memory of generations of Scribes. In the middle of the third century A.D. a summary of it was made and codified. That summary is known as the Misnah; It contains sixty-three tractates on various subjects of the Law, and in English makes a book of almost eight hundred pages. Later Jewish scholarship busied itself with making commentaries to explain the Misnah. These commentaries are known as the Talmuds. Of the Jerusalem Talmud there are twelve printed volumes; and of the Babylonian Talmud there are sixty printed volumes.

Righteousness, according to the pious Jews, in the time of Jesus, is keeping religiously thousands of legalistic rules and regulations. For them, it is a matter of holiness, it is a matter of salvation. Clearly Jesus did not mean that not one of these rules and regulation was to pass away; repeatedly he broke them himself; repeatedly he condemned them; that is certainly not what Jesus meant by Law, for that is the kind of law that both Jesus and Paul condemned.

“The Old Law is the first stage of revealed Law. Its moral prescription are summed up in the Ten Commandments. The precepts of the Decalogue lay the foundations for the vocation of man fashioned in the image of God; they prohibit what is contrary to the love of God and neighbor, and prescribe what is essential to it. The Decalogue is a light offered to the conscience of every man to make God’s call and ways known to him, and protect him against evil: ‘God wrote on the tables of the Law what men did not read in their hearts’” (CCC 1962; St Augustine, En. In Ps. 57, 1: PL 36, 673).

The Law is the first stage on the way to the Kingdom. It prepares and disposes the chosen people and each Christian for conversion and faith in the Savior God. It provides teaching which endures forever, like the Word of God. The Old Law is a preparation of  the Gospel. It is completed by the teaching of the sapiental books and the prophets which set its course towards the New Covenant and the kingdom of heaven (see CCC 1963-64).

The Law is “holy, spiritual and good (cf. Rom 7:12, 14, 16),” yet still imperfect. Like a “tutor (cf. Gal 3:24)” it shows what must be done, but does not of itself give the strength, the grace of the Spirit, to fulfill it.

The New Law or the Law of the Gospel is the perfection here on earth of the divine law, natural and revealed. It is the work of Christ and is expressed particularly in the Sermon on the Mount. It is also the work of the Holy Spirit and through him it becomes the interior law of charity: “I will establish a New Covenant with the house of Israel….I will put my laws into their minds, and write them on their hearts, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people (Heb 8:8,10; cf. 31:31-34; CCC 1965).

The Law of the Gospel fulfills the commandments of the Law. The Gospel, far from abolishing or devaluing the moral prescriptions of the Old Law, brings the Law to its fullness through imitation of the perfection of the heavenly Father through forgiveness of enemies and prayer for the persecutors, in emulation of the divine generosity. And the entire law of the gospel is contained in the “new commandment” of Jesus, to love one another as he has loved us (cf Mt 5:44-48; see CCC 1968-69, cf. Jn 15:12; 13:34).

To fulfill the law to its perfection is to love. Hence, the perfection of the Christian life consists principally and essentially in charity. Do we not also find in the First Commandment: Thou shall love, thy God, with all thy whole mind, with all thy heart, with all thy soul and with all thy strength,” a resume and condensation of the fullness of the Law (Rom 13:8, 10). That suffices. So it is that charity expresses all, contains all and crowns all. Charity as the bond of perfection and the fulfillment of the Law (Col 3:14; Rom 13:10) rules over all the means of attaining holiness, gives life to them, and makes them work. Hence, it is the love of God and of neighbor which points out the true disciple of Christ.

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