Christians in general and Catholics in particular sometimes have an uneasy relationship with the notion of law. This uneasiness can be traced back to Jesus’ own confrontations with Jewish authorities regarding his interpretation of the law of Moses, and later to the Apostle Paul’s antithesis between the law and faith, as seen in Gal 2:16: “yet we know that a person is justified not by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ.”
Yet, it is demonstrably the case that Christians still follow the law of Moses in some respects—the Ten Commandments, for example—and accept its dictates as perennially valid. It is also true that the church has law, the Code of Canon Law, which Blessed John Paul II said “is extremely necessary for the church. Since the church is organized as a social and visible structure, it must also have norms.” Law is necessary for civil and religious life, so that we can live together (somewhat harmoniously) on earth and to aid our preparation for the life to come.
Still, there were distinct challenges Jesus made to certain religious lawyers of his own day, accusing them of preferring the minutiae of law over the broader concerns of God’s love and mercy, a concern that reverberates in the church even today. As Pope Francis said in the interview published in America (9/30/13): “There are ecclesiastical rules and precepts that were once effective, but now they have lost value or meaning. The view of the church’s teaching as a monolith to defend without nuance or different understandings is wrong.” This gets to the heart of Jesus’ response to the religious lawyers, in which laws are not the goal but guides that point to our ultimate end.
When Jesus says, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill,” both verbs are essential: the law of Moses for the Christian is not abolished but brought to fulfillment by the Messiah. It is fairly straightforward to understand “not to abolish,” but what does it mean for Christian life that Christ has “fulfilled” the law?
The verses that follow immediately in the Sermon on the Mount supply our best clues. Jesus gives us six antitheses. Each begins with, “You have heard that it was said,” and follows with, “But I tell you.” But these things that Jesus says were “heard,” were not quips uttered in the marketplace, or wise words spoken in the synagogue, but God’s law given to Moses on Mount Sinai. In stating with respect to God’s law “But I tell you,” Jesus is claiming authority over God’s law, an authority that can only be divine.
This divine, Messianic authority fulfills the law not by abolishing it or making it easier but by transforming it. “Notice that in every instance Jesus has radicalized the Law of Moses, making it more demanding,” wrote Ben F. Meyer in Five Speeches That Changed the World. If people were having trouble following the law before Jesus, how does making it more demanding allow Jesus’ disciples to follow this fulfilled law? The unstated supposition here is not only that the law of Moses has been transformed, but that the disciples of Jesus are transformed by the Messiah. It is not just murder that is prohibited, but the anger that leads to it; not just adultery, but the lust that leads to it.
This is not a law that leads us to boast because we have not broken one of the Ten Commandments (like some people we know!) or because we have minutely followed a code in each and every respect (unlike some people we know!). This is a law that makes known our utter dependence on the Messiah, who has transformed our crooked hearts and rebellious spirits. Jesus recreates the law not as a list of rules and regulations but as the evidence of our deepest yearnings for God’s way, rejecting any thoughts or behaviors that draw us away from right relationship to God and neighbor. When we stumble in word or deed, the law fulfilled by Jesus is a sure sign of God’s constant presence on our journey, a path to follow along the way to God’s kingdom.