Revisiting the commandments, stepping away from traditions! Wednesday- 10th Week in ordinary time-Mt 5:17-19
In order to constantly understand Jesus as presented in Matthew’s Gospel we need to keep in mind a Judaeo-Christian community that has found itself locked out of the synagogue by the Jewish authority. So while Matthew portrays Jesus as respectful of the Torah, he will not show the same courtesy to the keepers of it who are seen by Jesus as hypocrites.
The Pharisaic halakha with which Jesus was in conflict with, was a collective body of Jewish religious laws derived from the written and oral Torah. It included 613 mitzvot or commandments. The mitzvot were both ethical and ceremonial.
Verse 17 begins with what could only be seen a presupposition. Their religious leaders had already begun to poison the minds of the people against Jesus presenting him as a radical leader. For them He was not really a rabbi for He disregards the law and the prophets. Jesus takes on this slanderous accusation head on. He is clear, He is not here to abolish the law but to fulfil it and fulfil every letter of it.
For four hundred years up to Jesus, the voices of prophecy had been silent. In this void, a group of people know as the Pharisees and scribes become interpreters of the law and in a sense de facto intermediary between God and man. To the people, these leaders were examples par excellence, men to be followed for their religious piety.
Imagine the challenge that Jesus threw His hearers when He said that the righteousness of an ‘ordinary Jew’ must exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees, in order to get into the kingdom of heaven. This would almost seem like an impossible task, yet Jesus came to help people see the law and the prophets the way God wanted it to be and not twisted in ceremonials like the Pharisees had made it out to be. In short, Jesus was here to give them the law as it should be, unadulterated by human tradition.
When Jesus said he was not here to abolish (kataluo, meaning to tear it apart, to loosen it) the law, He was conscious that this law had been practiced by the Jewish leaders and its people both in its judicial or moral aspect and it ceremonial or sacrificial aspect. So to give an example, one of the things that the ceremonial aspect of the law stipulated was the slaughter of a lamb in sacrifice as an atonement for sin to be forgiven. Sin was seen as a serious business and blood had to be spilt, a life was required; and the life of an animal was in the blood.
When Jesus says that He has not come to do away with the law (in this case ceremonial law) but to fulfil it (pleroo meaning “bringing something to an end”), He proves it by dying on the cross at Calvary. In shedding his blood and giving his life, our sins are washed away. Jesus does not abolish the ceremonial law; he fulfils it and goes beyond what was stipulated. He becomes the sacrifice.
Jesus takes on the Jewish leaders understanding of the law which they have filled with human tradition. In Matthew 15: 1, He will confront the leaders when he says, “And why do you break the commandments of God for the sake of your tradition?” It is these human traditions that Jesus is here to abolish and not the commandments of God.
While Matthew does not explicitly say that the Pharisees will not enter the kingdom, he is also warning the Christians living in these uncertain times, that they must live a better ethical live than that of the Jewish leaders. The same can be said of us who bear the name Christian.
In giving us the new commandment, Jesus wants each Christian to not simply meet the requirements of the law but to go beyond it. The law for Jesus is not a “what must I do to be saved?” but a “go and do likewise of the last supper”
Fr Warner D’Souza