Fulfilling the Law

Matthew 5: 17-48

The hill was green and gave a great view of the sea below. But the Galilean crowd was focused on the man before them. They had questions and Jesus seemed to know what they were thinking. “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfil them.” A few people gave each other a knowing look. This is exactly what they were discussing on the way up. Peter was feeling edgy, ‘Fulfil the Law and Prophets?’ Phew! Those were strong words. How would the crowd take it? What did Jesus mean?
With hind-site it’s easier for us to answer this question. Let’s first clarify the difference between ‘abolish’ and ‘fulfil.’ When we abolish something we discard it as not needed, when we fulfil something we complete it, we bring it to its intended destiny. Jesus demonstrated this graphically when he turned water into wine. He did not discard the water so he could use the jars for wine; he added more water then turned all of it into wine. He wanted continuity from water to wine. Why? For symbolic reasons; he was turning the water of the Law into the wine of the Spirit. He was turning water used externally into wine used internally. This is important because Jesus wanted the external Law written on stone to become an internal Spirit empowering our hearts. He wanted the Law to be something we acted on from within. My next point explains this further.
Jesus said to the crowd, “Unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.” This is a key verse. The Pharisees exalted the letter of the law and neglected the heart of the law. Jesus once told the Pharisees, “You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence” (Mt 23.25). Jesus wanted them to focus on their hearts and not just external rituals. You see, the Law was birthed by a heart; God’s heart. So the heart of the Law will always be more important than the letter of the law. The application of a law can change, but the heart of it remains the same. An example is Deuteronomy 22.5 “A woman must not wear men’s clothing, nor a man wear women’s clothing; for the Lord your God detests anyone who does this.” Does this mean that Masai tribesmen cannot wear traditional skirts, or that Scotsmen cannot wear kilts, or that American women cannot wear jeans? No, clothing changes depending on culture. The heart behind this law is simply this: Women should not try to be men and men should not try to be women. Whenever we interpret a law we must ask what the heart behind the law is trying to achieve.
While the crowd sits with the sea below them and Capernaum in the distance, Jesus takes six well known laws of the Torah and distinguishes the heart for each law from the traditions that had grown like thorns around them.
Jesus says, “You have heard that it was said…‘Do not murder,and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brotherwill be subject to judgment.” Jesus is saying that fulfilling this law is not just about avoiding the act of murder; it is about not being murderous inside, in our thoughts. Rather than be murderous we should be kind and forgiving. When we slander one another, we murder with words. Bad words come from bad hearts, and God judges us by the condition of our hearts.
Next Jesus says, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Do not commit adultery.’But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” Jesus is explaining that fulfilling this law is not just about avoiding the act of adultery, it is about not being adulterous in our thoughts and the way we look at the opposite sex. God wants us to be faithful to our partners in the way we think and they way we look.
Jesus carries on saying, “It has been said, ‘Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce.’But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, causes her to become an adulteress, and anyone who marries the divorced woman commits adultery.” Here Jesus has turned to a different aspect of adultery; divorcing for the wrong reasons. He is explaining that when someone divorces in order to marry someone else that they prefer it is adulterous. The Law of Moses allowed for divorce, but not divorce for adulterous reasons. Again we need to see the heart of God in this. We are sometimes like Pharisees looking for the legalities of when we can and can’t divorce. Jesus is simply saying ‘don’t make adulterous decisions,’ be faithful in heart, thought and deed.
Jesus moves on to oaths. “You have heard that it was said…‘Do not break your oath, but keep the oaths you have made to the Lord.’ But I tell you, Do not swear at all: either by heaven, for it is God’s throne; or…by your head, for you cannot make even one hair white or black.” The Jews had developed a habit of reinforcing promises they made to one another with an oath. They swore by the temple or by their lives that they would keep their word. They had turned a simple command about keeping ones promises into a complicated superstition. Jesus says, “Simply let your Yes be Yes, and your No, No, anything beyond this comes from the evil one.” If you have to reinforce your promise by swearing an oath, you obviously do not have a reputation for keeping your word! The heart of this command is simple: Speak the truth and keep your promises.
Jesus goes on, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.” This statement must be understood in the context of Jesus’ day. The saying, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth’ summarized a courtroom philosophy. Judges were not to dish out punishments that were excessive; punishments were to fit the crime. But ordinary Jews had taken the saying beyond the courtroom context and begun using it as an excuse to take personal revenge. A law advocating mercy had become an excuse to be vengeful. So Jesus says, “If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.” In Jesus’ day a slap on the cheek was a way of insulting someone. So Jesus is really saying “If someone insults you, don’t insult them back, rather let them insult you again.” Don’t fight evil with evil, fight evil with good. Keep your heart pure!
Finally Jesus says, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbourand hate your enemy.’ But I tell you: Love your enemies.” The law did not say that Jews should hate their enemies; it simply said ‘Love your neighbour.’ They had assumed that their neighbours were their countrymen and that it was legal to hate all others. But Jesus goes on to explain that God loves everyone; that he provides sunlight and rain for both good and evil people, and God’s sons and daughters should act just like their Father. Of course, this is as important for us today as it was for that crowd sitting on a hill overlooking the Sea of Galilee. We must love everyone regardless of their deeds; the Muslim, the homosexual, the tribe over the hill, and the race across the sea. Jesus says, “If you greet only your brothers, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that?”  Sobering words!
Jesus then concludes this part of his discussion by saying, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” This sentence is a summary statement to all he has just said, but it also needs to be understood within the context of his culture. The Pharisees and Jews thought they were perfect if they just practiced the letter of the Law. But Jesus has just blown their world apart. He has burst the boundaries of the Letter of the Law by showing them the Spirit and Heart of the Law. To be perfect they needed to practice the heart of the Law as laid out above.

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