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

Thirty-first Sunday in Ordinary Time

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

A great King am I, says the LORD of hosts, and my name will be feared among the nations. And now, O priests, this commandment is for you: If you do not listen, if you do not lay it to heart, to give glory to my name, says the LORD of hosts, I will send a curse upon you and of your blessing I will make a curse. You have turned aside from the way, and have caused many to falter by your instruction; you have made void the covenant of Levi, says the LORD of hosts. I, therefore, have made you contemptible and base before all the people, since you do not keep my ways, but show partiality in your decisions. Have we not all the one father? Has not the one God created us? Why then do we break faith with one another, violating the covenant of our fathers?

1 Thessalonians 2:7B-9, 13

Brothers and sisters: We were gentle among you, as a nursing mother cares for her children. With such affection for you, we were determined to share with you not only the gospel of God, but our very selves as well, so dearly beloved had you become to us. You recall, brothers and sisters, our toil and drudgery. Working night and day in order not to burden any of you, we proclaimed to you the gospel of God. And for this reason we too give thanks to God unceasingly, that, in receiving the word of God from hearing us, you received not a human word but, as it truly is, the word of God, which is now at work in you who believe.

Matthew 23:1-12

Jesus spoke to the crowds and to his disciples, saying, "The scribes and the Pharisees have taken their seat on the chair of Moses. Therefore, do and observe all things whatsoever they tell you, but do not follow their example. For they preach but they do not practice. They tie up heavy burdens hard to carry and lay them on people's shoulders, but they will not lift a finger to move them. All their works are performed to be seen. They widen their phylacteries and lengthen their tassels. They love places of honor at banquets, seats of honor in synagogues, greetings in marketplaces, and the salutation 'Rabbi.' As for you, do not be called 'Rabbi.' You have but one teacher, and you are all brothers. Call no one on earth your father; you have but one Father in heaven. Do not be called 'Master'; you have but one master, the Christ. The greatest among you must be your servant. Whoever exalts himself will be humbled; but whoever humbles himself will be exalted."

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).

Posted: November 5, 2017

May Tam

May Tam, Bachelor of Social Science (University of Hong Kong), Master of Theological Studies (University of Toronto)

Other Sunday Reflections

Faith Is Trusting That God Will Keep His Promises
We don’t know how and we don’t know when, but Jesus will return as he promised. When he does, we’d better be ready! Continue Reading >
For what do you live?
It is natural that we human beings have desires. A person without any desire soon loses one's purpose to live. Continue Reading >
A powerful and effective prayer
We ask God to treat us with the same measure of mercy we show to others. Continue Reading >