“Do not imagine that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets. I have come not to abolish them but to complete them.”
These words of Jesus can leave us in no doubt that his teaching, however radical to his contemporaries, was not intended to undermine the fundamental moral values enshrined in the Old Testament law. Jesus reinforced the commandments as absolute values rooted in the will of God. As such they were not subject to human accommodation. In his own words “not one dot, not one little stroke, shall disappear from the law until its purpose is achieved”.
If we are to understand this seemingly unbending stance on the part of Jesus, we must first consider what was meant when he said that he had come to bring the law to completion, that the law must stand until its purpose was achieved. A superficial caricature of the Old Testament law is that it was an unfeeling restraint limiting man’s freedom to grow and find fulfilment. The biblical understanding of law is quite different. Man, created in the image and likeness of God, is, of his very nature, destined to live in harmony with God and creation. Sin frustrates this destiny in man. The law, as God’s gift to a sinful people, laid down the path whereby this end was to be achieved. Far from being a restraint upon man, the law was described as the way to life. Sin, on the other hand, putting its own will above the commandments of a loving creator, frustrates man’s destiny.
It is in this sense that Jesus came not to abolish the law, but to bring it to completion. Jesus came that we might have life to the full. Such communion with God can only come when we are in harmony with his will as revealed in the commandments.
Jesus went on to explain his meaning in the call to a virtue that went deeper than that of the Scribes and Pharisees. He used various examples. The ancient law prohibited killing. Its completion, a community united in mind and heart, would be achieved only when mankind refrained not only from physical violence, but from violent thoughts and attitudes. Jesus went on to drive the point home by insisting that no offering was to be brought to the altar without reconciliation with our neighbour.
The demands that Jesus made concerning the fulfilment the law had been foreshadowed by the prophets. Jeremiah and Ezekiel had spoken of the New Covenant that the Messiah would establish. He would put his Spirit within them, change hearts of stone for hearts of flesh. Then they would truly be his people, sincerely following his laws and commandments.
This surely is another aspect of Jesus’s mission in bringing the law to its completion. Jesus did not simply demand the inner renewal that would enable his disciples to live in harmony with the law. His Spirit, entrusted to man, would enable him to embrace the law not only in its written prescriptions, but also in its very purpose: to live in harmony with God and creation.
The Book of Sirach emphasised that the law sets a choice before us. “Man has life and death before him; whichever a man likes better will be given him.” Fidelity to the law was never a matter of outward compliance. It was the choice of life or death. Jesus, as the Way, the Truth and the Life, is the fulfilment of that law. In him the purpose of the Law, communion with God, is fully achieved.