Not to abolish, but to fulfill
The Evangelist Matthew wrote his Gospel for Jewish converts to Christianity. His main purpose was to prove that Jesus was the promised Messiah, prophesied in the Old Testament. At the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew addresses the concerns of Jewish Christians – does Jesus fit well into the scheme of Mosaic law and teaching? Matthew uses Jesus’ own words to affirm: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfil.” (Mt. 5 17).
Jews divided the Old Testament into three sections – Law, Prophets, and Writings. Sometimes, as mentioned in today’s scripture passage, the Old Testament was divided into just the Law and Prophets, in which the section of prophets also included the writings. In its strictest sense, The Law (in Hebrew – Torah) means the Ten Commandments of God. In a broader sense, this section includes all five books of Moses – Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy.
When Jesus said that He had not come to abolish but to fulfill the law, He was speaking about the essence or the true purpose of the law. The Old Testament was interpreted by the scribes through many oral laws which were called scribal laws. These laws were later codified and came to be known as Mishnah. These interpretations of the laws were extremely legalistic and were binding for religious Jews. Then, many Rabbis wrote further commentaries on these scribal laws (Mishnah), called Talmud. There are 60 volumes of Babylonian Talmud.
For Jesus, the Torah was meant to bring life. The purpose of the law was to bring us closer to God. The law taught us only one thing and that is to centre our lives in God, by giving Him our reverence. The Torah helped us to respect God, our fellow human beings, and ourselves. It gave us a unique dignity to be the children of the ‘Most High’ God. The Sermon on the Mount is the teaching of Jesus to restore the relationship with God by restoring the meaning of Torah.
There is always some limitation within the law. The Mishnah and then the Talmud tried to reduce these limitations, in fact, they augmented them. Jesus was trying to set before the people, not just the law of God but rather what it stands for – the Love of God. The demands of the law can exhaust, but the demands of love are eternal. There should be no limit to the love of a true disciple of Christ.
-Fr Ranjan D’Sa, OCD