The Law and Prophets

This coming Sunday is the 6th Sunday of Ordinary Time in Lectionary Cycle A. The gospel reading is from the discourse popularly known as the Sermon on the Mount. In yesterday’s post we explored the meaning of biblical covenants as a way to frame the question: what does it mean to truly be God’s people? In today’s post we extend the idea of covenant, the arrival of the Messiah in the person of Jesus, and the controversial opening passage of the longer reading of the gospel: “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.” (Mt 5:17-18) As we proceed we need to remember that these verses follow upon the earlier passage wherein Jesus is teaching the disciples about discipleship in the kingdom of heaven (5:1-2) – something that is here and yet not fully here.

What is the Role of Jesus and the Law…. and the Prophets? Too often the question becomes framed only with respect to the “Law” where the verse reads “law or the prophets.” The phrase itself technically refers to the Pentateuch, the Former Prophets (Joshua-Kings) and Latter Prophets (Isaiah-Malachi), but forms the functional equivalent of the whole of Scripture. The question at hand is whether the current rabbinic interpretation of the Law and prophets is what God intended for the people of God. What the opponents hear as fundamental changes to Torah observance they seem to equate to rejecting the Law.  Jesus is clear. He does not abolish the law, yet he does not affirm the status quo of the manner of observance. Eugene Boring (186-87) offers some clear insights as he writes:

The whole Scripture testifies to God’s will and work in history. Jesus does not retreat from this affirmation.

God’s work, testified to in the Scriptures, is not yet complete. The Law and Prophets point beyond themselves to the definitive act of God in sending his only Son, the Messiah, to inaugurate the inbreaking of the Kingdom.

Jesus embodies and teaches the definitive will of God. The Law and Prophets are to be obeyed not for what they are in themselves, but because they mediate the will of God. What Jesus teaches is God’s will and thus there can be no conflict between Jesus and the Law which he fulfills.

The Law has been incorporated into the more comprehensive history of salvation/covenants that is the Christ-event. The Law has been affirmed, but that does not always mean a mere repetition or continuation of the original Law. Fulfillment may mean transcendence as well.

Jesus teaches/will teach that the critical principles of mercy, justice, love, and covenant loyalty are weightier matters of the Law by which the rest of must be judged. This means that neither the written Torah nor its interpretation in the oral tradition is the final authority. The definitive teacher, the Messiah, stands as the final authority.

R.T. France (1989, p.116) offers a paraphrase to make the point clear:  “‘17I have not come to set aside the Old Testament, but to bring the fulfillment to which it pointed. 18For no part of it can ever be set aside, but all must be fulfilled (as it is now being fulfilled in my ministry and teaching). 19So a Christian who repudiates any part of the Old Testament is an inferior Christian; the consistent Christian will be guided by the Old Testament, and will teach others accordingly. 20But a truly Christian attitude is not the legalism of the scribes and Pharisees, but a deeper commitment to do the will of God.”

Image credit: Cosimo Rosselli Sermone della Montagna, 1481, Sistine Chapel, Public Domain

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