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The Hebrew Bible presents a copious offering of laws, rules and regulations for virtually every aspect of life, as does the Church today. There is the Code of Canon Law, the Catechism and a rich body of magisterial texts that prescribe and proscribe in equal measure. All of this poses the perennial challenge of how a person is to understand and relate to such a body of laws and rules. Is full and permanent compliance with all of them the way to God and happiness? And are those who don’t comply to be reprimanded and shunned? Are laws a necessary and sufficient guarantee of holiness? Will adherence to them ensure a life that imitates that of Jesus, God who became man?
Probably the best way to arrive at an answer, or at least the beginnings of one, is to see what Jesus said and did himself. Here a good starting point may be the words with which he addressed the crowds to whom he had just presented the Beatitudes:
“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets. I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. Amen, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or the smallest part of a letter will pass from the law, until all things have taken place. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do so will be called least in the kingdom of heaven. But whoever obeys and teaches these commandments will be called greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” (Mark 5:17-19)So, it sounds like compliance with the law is pretty fundamental and not even the slightest deviation from it is to be tolerated. This seems pretty clear and one would expect that the rest of the Gospel accounts would be a catalogue of Jesus being exemplary at complying with the rules and regulations of Scripture.
However, the polar opposite is actually the case!
Jesus broke the laws calling for abstaining from work on the Sabbath, by healing the withered hand of a man (Matthew 12:9-19), which incensed the Pharisees to the point of plotting his death. He cured a “blind, lame and crippled” man, again on a Sabbath (John 5:1-18). He cured another man’s blindness (John 9:1-16), yet again on a Sabbath, making the Pharisees exclaim that “This man is not from God, because he does not keep the sabbath.” And Jesus also cured a woman “crippled by a spirit; [who] was bent over, completely incapable of standing erect.” (Luke 13:11) - again on a Sabbath and much to the consternation of the authorities, with the leader of the Synagogue exclaiming in exasperation: “There are six days when work should be done. Come on those days to be cured, not on the sabbath day.”
On another occasion, Jesus condoned his disciples’ breaking the Sabbath, when they picked grain from a field to feed themselves (cf. Matthew 12:1-8). In fact, the disciples’ behavior was a source of complaint by the Pharisees on another occasion too, when they asked Jesus: “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? They do not wash [their] hands when they eat a meal.” (Matthew 15:2).
Jesus broke the law again when touching a leper who approached him (Matthew 8:1-4), which goes directly against the rules laid out in Leviticus 13. He also touched a dead girl (cf. Matthew 9:25) which is against Numbers 19:11. Jesus allowed a prostitute to touch him (Luke 7:36-50) and he also ate with tax collectors on the same occasion, who broke the laws set out in Leviticus 25:36-38 that prohibit charging interest on loans. And he even invited himself for a meal at a tax collector’s house (cf. Luke 19:1-10)!
Jesus also broke the law when he stopped the stoning of an adulteress, even though the Pharisees told him directly that “in the law, Moses commanded us to stone such women.” (cf. John 8:1-11).
Finally, Jesus broke the law again when blasphemously identifying himself with God (cf. John 5:18), a crime he was accused of also during his trial before the Sanhedrin that lead to his - legal - condemnation to death (cf. Matthew 26:65-66).
So, what is going on here?
I believe there are two keys in the passage where Jesus declares that he has not “come to abolish the law.”
First, Jesus states that his purpose is to “fulfill” rather than abolish the law. To my mind, fulfillment is consistent both with change, since something that becomes fulfilled changes (since it was, presumably, not fulfilled before, otherwise it would have had no capacity for fulfillment) and with remaining the same (it is the one thing that grows in fulfillment). What kind of fulfillment does Jesus have in mind though? The obvious place to look to for an answer is the law that Jesus himself imposes on his followers: “I give you a new commandment: love one another. As I have loved you, so you also should love one another.” (John 13:34). The purity laws, the laws governing the Sabbath, the laws pertaining to blasphemy get, prima facie, broken for the sake of underlining the one law that they were designed to safeguard, but whose attainment they have become at times obstacles to: love of neighbor. When Jesus transgresses against laws, his motivation is love of neighbor: of the sick, of sinners, of his disciples. He is moved by mercy (misericordia, meaning compassion felt by the heart) and it is indeed this participation of the heart in bringing laws to fulfillment that Jesus saw lacking in the reactions of the Pharisees. This in turn lead him to throwing Isaiah’s prophesy in their faces when they complained about Jesus allowing his disciples to eat with unwashed hands:
“Hypocrites, well did Isaiah prophesy about you when he said:Second, there is another, perhaps less immediately recognizable key in Jesus’ words, which calls for a closer reading of the text. Note what it is that Jesus is actually saying in the following sentence: “Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do so will be called least in the kingdom of heaven.” If you break these commandments, you’ll be in heaven. You’ll be the least in heaven, but you’ll be in heaven! To my mind this is a brilliant piece of humor. It’s like saying: if you break the rules you’ll be the poorest among billionaires, the weakest among superheroes, the unluckiest among Leprechauns, the shortest among giants. And, let’s remember that Jesus isn’t saying that it is a free-for-all. He is quite happy to threaten exclusion and a “wailing and grinding of teeth” (cf. Luke 13:22-30) or to recommend that it would be better to “have a great millstone hung around [their] neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea” for those who lead the young astray (cf. Matthew 18:6-9). This is not about laxity, but about priorities: love of neighbor precedes adherence to rules and regulations, whose breaking may actually be the act of love that someone needs to have done to them to turn their life around.
‘This people honors me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me;
in vain do they worship me,
teaching as doctrines human precepts.’” (Matthew 15:7-9)