Jesus’ attitude towards the Law is not obvious at first sight. It would seem on the one hand that He moves away from a strict observance of the details of the Law and towards a deeper conversion of heart and adherence to the principles of the Law. “You strain out the gnat but swallow a camel!”1, “You have heard it said[…], I say to you […]”2 However, in today’s Gospel, Jesus makes sure that His insistence on the essence of the Law does not encourage His followers to abandon the details altogether.
When we focus on doing things perfectly, or appearing perfect to others, it is actually an inversion of the Law’s intention. The Law was meant to be loved and adhered to with the heart – it is not a game or an acquired skill or technique. Saint Paul reminds us that, “without love I am nothing.”3 But when we love the Law, when we love Jesus, we discover that it is not enough for our every action, word, and thought to conform to what we understand love to require. They must also, and more importantly, conform to what the Law requires. Love must remain first, the motivating force behind everything we say, do ,and think , but rectitude cannot be found outside of what the Law indicates. One who seeks rectitude without love destroys both themselves and others. One who seeks the love of God without the rectitude that comes from the Law find themselves slipping out of the Kingdom of Heaven.
EPHREM THE SYRIAN:
When Elijah said, “I alone am left as a prophet to the Lord,” he was not speaking against the just, because they were no [longer] to be found. Rather he was denouncing sinners, because they had done away with [the just]. He did not wish it to be, therefore, that he alone be found just, and for this reason, he could not be found by them for three years, for he had discovered that they were not worthy of being visited by God.4
ISHO‘DAD OF MERV:
[Elijah] ordered [the prophets of Baal] to sacrifice first, in order that they might not have any excuse [by saying], “If we had sacrificed first, [Baal] would have accepted our sacrifice, but now he is angry with us, because we have sacrificed last.” They planned to set the fire secretly, according to their custom, but were prevented by divine power at this time.5
You, O mortal, are on an altar, you who are purified by water and whose sin is burned out that life may be renewed; for fire consumes wood and stubble. Do not fear the fire through which you are enlightened. Therefore it is said to you, “Come to him to be enlightened.” Take up the yoke of Christ; do not fear because it is a yoke; hasten because it is light. It does not bruise the neck but adorns it. Why do you hesitate, why do you delay? It does not bind the neck with chains but unites the mind by grace.6
And what is the source of your belief that Elijah who is to come will baptize? Did he not even baptize the wood on the altar in the times of Ahab, when it required a bath that it might be burned up when the Lord appeared in fire? He commanded the priests to do this, and not only once, for he says, “Do it a second time, when also they did it a second time,” and “Do it a third time, when also they did it a third time.” How, then, will he who did not himself baptize at that time, but gave the task to others, baptize when he has come in fulfillment of the things said by Malachi? Christ, therefore, does not baptize in water, but his disciples. He reserves for himself the act of baptizing with the Holy Spirit and fire.7
You are that victim. Contemplate in silence each single point. The breath of the Holy Spirit descends on you; he seems to burn you when he consumes your sins. The sacrifice that was consumed in the time of Moses was a sacrifice for sin, wherefore Moses said, as is written in the book of the Maccabees: “Because the sacrifice for sin was not to be eaten, it was consumed.” Does it not seem to be consumed for you when in the sacrament of baptism the whole outer person perishes? “Our old self is crucified,” the apostle exclaims. Herein, as the example of the Fathers teaches us, the Egyptian is swallowed up—the Hebrew arises renewed by the Holy Spirit, as he also crossed the Red Sea dry shod—where our fathers were baptized in the cloud and in the sea.8
While it is sinful to abolish the least of the commandments, all the more so the great and most important ones. Hence the Holy Spirit affirms through Solomon: “Whoever despises the little things shall gradually die.”
Consequently nothing in the divine commandments must be abolished, nothing altered. Everything must be preserved and taught faithfully and devotedly that the glory of the heavenly kingdom may not be lost. Indeed, those things considered least important and small by the unfaithful or by worldly people are not small before God but necessary. For the Lord taught the commandments and did them.
Even small things point to the great future of the kingdom of heaven. For this reason, not only words but also deeds are important; and you should not only teach, but what you teach, you should do.9
CYRIL OF ALEXANDRIA:
Whoever sets aside “one of the least of the commandments” of the law is set aside by God as God’s enemy and as an inventor of laws opposed to God. And now out of the law of the gospel that one receives the retribution which, under the ancient law, was not defined. For this reason Christ fittingly says, “I am not come to destroy but to fulfill.” For that which then was lacking, here is made full. It is said in the law: “Stand in the presence of the elderly” and “If you see the beast of your enemy fallen under its load, go help him lift it up.” If anyone transgressed these commandments, there was no retribution specified under the law. So Christ makes up this lack when he says that in the kingdom of heaven such a person will be treated with scorn.10
The final part of the introduction (5:17–20) affirms an organic relation between Jesus’ teaching and the Torah. That relation is expressed as “fulfillment” (5:17). There is no direct parallel to any other Synoptic text (see Luke 16:16–17 for a vaguely similar saying). Within the passage there are tensions (the two “until” clauses in 5:18), and there are also tensions with the apparent abrogations of the Torah in 5:31, 33, 38. Nevertheless, the thrust of the passage as it stands is that Jesus’ fulfillment affirms and establishes the Torah rather than nullifies it. It uses the “light-heavy” distinction among the commandments that is well known from the rabbinic writings only to reject it in practice (as Rabbi Judah did). It challenges Jesus’ followers to a righteousness superior to that taught by the scribes and Pharisees.
Whatever the origins and history of the material contained in Matt 5:17–20, its present form expressed the convictions of the Matthean community. The Torah remains in force. Jesus came not to destroy it but to fulfill it. Jesus’ program for interpreting and practicing the Torah is superior to that of the scribes and Pharisees […].
The sayings about the abiding validity of the Torah as interpreted by Jesus (5:17–20) serve as a further reminder of the organic relation between Judaism and Matthean Christianity. They remind us that at least some Christians in the late first century A.D. found no contradiction in following both the Torah and Jesus’ teaching. This fact should forestall mindless attacks against “Jewish legalism.” On the other hand, these sayings refer to the Torah—the revelation of God’s will to Israel on Sinai, not law in general. In all the texts of the introduction to the sermon it is important to cut a pathway between philosophical generalities and sectarian anti-Judaism. That pathway involves a respect for the Jewish background and setting in which these texts originated.11
- Mt. 23:24.
- Mt. 5:21-43
- 1 Cor. 13:2.
- COMMENTARY ON TATIAN’S DIATESSARON 7.14. Conti, M., & Pilara, G. (Eds.). (2008). 1-2 Kings, 1-2 Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther (p. 109). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
- BOOKS OF SESSIONS 1 KINGS 18.25. Conti, M., & Pilara, G. (Eds.). (2008). 1-2 Kings, 1-2 Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther (pp. 109–110). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
- ON ELIJAH AND FASTING 22.83. Conti, M., & Pilara, G. (Eds.). (2008). 1-2 Kings, 1-2 Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther (p. 110). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
- COMMENTARY ON THE GOSPEL OF JOHN 6.125. Conti, M., & Pilara, G. (Eds.). (2008). 1-2 Kings, 1-2 Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther (p. 110). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
- DUTIES OF THE CLERGY 3.18.106–7. Conti, M., & Pilara, G. (Eds.). (2008). 1-2 Kings, 1-2 Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther (p. 111). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
- TRACTATE ON MATTHEW 20.2.1–3. Simonetti, M. (Ed.). (2001). Matthew 1–13 (p. 96). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
- FRAGMENT 48. Simonetti, M. (Ed.). (2001). Matthew 1–13 (p. 98). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
- Harrington, D. J. (2007). The Gospel of Matthew. (D. J. Harrington, Ed.) (Vol. 1, pp. 83–84). Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press.