“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.” The Father’s saving will for his people and their response in daily life was set down for the faithful Israelite in the Law of Moses and the writings of the prophets. The presumption underlying these writings was that God not only calls us to himself. He also reveals the values that will express our response. The choices that we make in daily life, therefore, are determined by God’s saving will rather than convenience or changing circumstances.
It was in this sense that Jesus insisted that he had not come to abolish what had been laid down in the Law and the prophets. He reiterated all that had gone before, summed up so clearly in the Book of Ecclesiasticus: “If you wish, you can keep the commandments, to behave faithfully is within your power.”
There is a fundamental conflict between the words of Jesus and the presumptions that underlie much modern thinking. For Jesus, the will of God was the foundation of all morality. For many today, morality is rooted not so much in God as in ourselves and our frequently confused perception of what it is to be human.
On a purely practical level we should be aware that every choice in life has consequences. What we become is the consequence of the many choices that we make in life. The Book of Ecclesiasticus described such consequences in dramatic fashion: “Man has life and death before him; whichever a man likes better will be given him.”
We are free to choose, but when we choose the ways of God such choices are life-giving. When we choose for ourselves at the expense of everything else such choices lead to the death of everything that we are and hope to become.
Jesus therefore embraced the Wisdom of the past, taking it one significant step further. He had come not to abolish this ancient law but, most importantly, to bring it to perfection. What Jesus meant by perfecting the law within us became evident in his teaching.
The ancient law had said you must not kill. Jesus described the perfection of this law as a life lived without any thought of violence. The ancient law had forbidden adultery. Jesus described the perfection of this law as a life lived without lustful thoughts, with minds that profoundly honoured the gifts and responsibilities of our human sexuality. The ancient law had forbidden the violation of a solemn oath. Jesus saw the perfection of this law as a life of perfect integrity, a life whose transparent goodness surpassed what any oath might guarantee.
At first sight this perfection of the law might seem beyond us. We would, one hopes, avoid murder, but we are indeed fortunate if we have not, albeit occasionally, harboured murderous thoughts. Jesus set this higher standard before us as a challenge, a challenge that invites us to understand as he understood, to act as he acted. What is impossible for sinful human nature becomes possible for those to whom the Lord entrusts his Spirit. It was in the perspective of this Spirit that St Paul understood the demands of the Gospel: “These are the very things that God has revealed to us through the Spirit, for the Spirit reaches the depths of everything, even the depths of God.”