Fulfilling the Law of God

Fulfilling the Law of God

Homily for Third Wednesday in Lent

March 6, 2024

Fulfilling the Law of God

Homily for Wednesday, March 6, 2024
Third Wednesday in Lent
Matthew 5:17-19

We humans like to have quick stories to help us make sense of things, but reality is often more complicated than our quick stories allow.  For example, if we see a well-dressed person, we might make assumptions about that person’s education or wealth, but our quick story might be mistaken – that person might live below the poverty line. Or if we see a large, beautiful home with an expensive car parked in front, we might make assumptions about the inhabitants’ health and happiness,but we might be mistaken – the person or people who live there might be lonely or suffer from an addiction or might just be unhappy.  Or (maybe a frivolous example) if we happen to see a pickup truck with Texas plates and its driver wearing a cowboy hat, we might put the driver in a box of, say, where he goes to church, what he eats or which football team he roots for.  But he could be a Roman Catholic who is a vegetarian and who likes the Philadelphia Eagles.  We like to have quick stories to help us make sense of things, but reality is often more complicated than our quick stories allow.

Many of us have a quick story about the Pharisees and Jesus that goes something like this:  the Pharisees are those who urged people to strictly keep the Mosaic Law, but Jesus is the one who sets us free from keeping the Mosaic Law.  Religion is not about observing every jot and tittle of a set of rules, says this story, but religion is about intent and what is inside of a person. But this quick story doesn’t account for the complexity of what we understand to be the on-the-ground situation in first-century Palestine; nor is it consistent with what Jesus in the Bible actually says.  For example, scholars believe that the Pharisees as a whole were the “good guys” of first-century Judaism, seeking to help people live the Law in a way that was not onerous.  And – at least for Matthew’s community –Jesus was not the teacher who set aside the requirements of the Law; rather, Jesus sought to observe the Law with even more rigor or (to use Matthew’s word) more “righteousness.”  As Jesus said in today’s Gospel:

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.

For Matthew’s community, our “quick story” about the Pharisees being the ones who urged the strict keeping of the Law and Jesus being the one who set people free from that Law is mistaken.

Here’s a guess as to what Jesus meant when he said that he had come not to abolish but to fulfill the law and the prophets…  As Jewish as Matthew’s community was, Matthew probably did not expect his community to keep every jot and tittle of the 613 commandments, or “mitzvoth,” found in the Old Testament; indeed, scholars question whether any community, anywhere in ancient Israel ever kept all 613 commandments.  Which might be why Matthew’s community found Jesus so compelling. Here was a teacher who could sum up those commandments in but one Sermon (the Sermon on the Mount), or that could sum up all those commandments in just two so-called “great commandments:”

"'You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.' This is the greatest and first commandment. And the second is like it: 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.'"  (See Matt 22:35-40)  

Though the observance of the 613 Jewish “mitzvoth,” or commandments, is in our DNA and is part of our heritage, for us who follow Jesus there is no expectation (as there wasn’t for Matthew’s community) that we will keep all those commandments to the letter.  But as followers of Jesus our call is no less rigorous; Jesus still has given us commandments and expects that we do our utmost to keep them.  For – as Jesus said in the verse immediately following today’s reading – “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”  

What to do in response to today’s passage?  I myself am going ask for the grace to more faithfully keep Jesus “commandments” in the Sermon on the Mount – commandments such as “turn the other cheek” and “go the extra mile” and “do not judge so that you may not be judged;” and – if in the moment I cannot remember Jesus’ specific commandments in the Sermon on the Mount – I will do my best to observe his two great commandments: to love God with all my heart, soul and mind, and to love my neighbor as myself.

May God give all of us the grace to faithfully live Jesus’ commandments.

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