Is Jesus’ law of love a continuity or a discontinuity to the law of Moses?

by May Tam
Thirty-first Sunday in Ordinary Time

Malachi 1:14B-2:2B,8-10

1 Thessalonians 2:7B-9, 13

Matthew 23:1-12

What Jesus says in today's Gospel of Matthew is well understood by many. The core message is simple: practise what you preach. When we say this to others or that being said to by others, there is a subtle implication of something hypocritical, that is, it points to a lack of integrity in the words which are said and in the deeds which are shown. To Jesus, it is an open and straight forward denunciation of the scribes and the Pharisees whose deeds do not conform to their teachings. Apart from His anger towards their perversion of Israel's religious spirit, Jesus' denunciation reflects the deep opposition between His ministry and the teachers of the Law in His time; the opposition that arises from the controversies surrounding the attitude towards the Law.

To the Jews, there is no question about the validity of the Law but its interpretation could be contentious; whether it is in the light of the Pharisaic tradition or Jesus' own teachings. While Jesus upholds the authority and teachings of the scribes and the Pharisees (rf Mt 23:2-3), He teaches His disciples not to call anyone rabbi or master (rf Mt 23:7-9). While Jesus Himself intents to fulfill the law and commands fidelity to “every letter and stroke of letter” of the Law (Mt 5:17-19), He overthrows the laws of retaliation, divorce and oath taking (rf Mt 5:31-42). So what does Jesus want to preach?

Jesus wants to preach love and compassion – “I desire mercy, not sacrifice” (Mt 9:13). He makes it the fundamental principle of interpreting the Law (rf Mt 22:34-40). He practises what He preaches: He welcomes sinners – He eats with them (rf Mk 2:15-17); He befriends them (rf Jn 4:1-18, Lk 7:36-39); He heals on the Sabbath (rf Mk 1:21-31, 3:1-6, Jn 5:5-18, Lk 13:10-12); He forgives all sinners even His enemies (rf Mk 2:5; Jn 8:3-11; Lk 7:48, 23:24) and He lays down His life for His friends (rf Jn 15:13). His distinctive emphasis of the “love command” (rf Jn 15:12) is therefore in direct confrontation with the legalistic rigorous attitude of the Pharisaic Judaism (rf Mt 9:1-17, 12:1-14, 15:1-20) and more so, when He claims superiority over it (rf Mt 5:21-28).

As Jesus' followers, we certainly would not want to be like the Pharisees but neither should we become an antinomian (one who takes the principle of salvation by faith and divine grace to the point of asserting that the saved are not bound to follow the Law of Moses). The Law remains valid as the revealed Word of God. It is the ”handed on” and written revelation of God as norm and regulation for life. But by Jesus' resurrection, the turning point in salvation history, the Law is now filtered through the teaching authority of the risen Lord who, not only “fulfills” the Law (Mt 5:17) but revives its proper spirit.

If we follow Jesus' command of love when keeping the Law, we will be safeguarded on one hand, from being a rigid conservative and on the other hand, from being a loose liberal. Perhaps most importantly, we will avoid falling into hypocrisy like the scribes and the Pharisees for “love does not boast, it is not proud. . .it is not self seeking” (1 Cor 13:4-5).