“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.
Up to this point, he has been revolutionary. What once seemed so clearly up is actually down, and visa versa. The poor, the meek, the persecuted are the blessed. His hearers are just as vital to the lives of those around them that they are called salt, so illuminating that they are called light.
And perhaps it was because he sensed it in human nature, that we would be just as quick to take his words for an upheaval of everything we ever thought or knew as we would shout hosanna, or crucify that he was quick to clarify. The prophets, all the way back to Moses, they knew of what they spoke. Jesus warns his hearers that this is no novel religion that he espouses in his own teaching.
When he points back to the law, it is natural to think back to the 10 Commandments. And that will do for a summary. Worship God alone, no idolatry, no half-hearted allegiance, you must rest once a week, you must honor your parents, you must not murder, cheat, steal, lie or feed ambitions to any of the above. Of course, in Matthew’s account, Jesus would later boil even the summary down to two rules: love God and love each other.
But if human history has taught us anything, from Moses’ flagging faith and violent rap sheet to the countless wars- figurative as well as literal- that have raged from that time until now, law-breaking is inescapable, even if the law can be simplified to the word love.
Maybe he sensed that, at this point, we might take his words as releasing us from the harsh rules of the angry Old Testament God, who seems to be more interested in raining down wrath than he does in forgiving sinners. Maybe Jesus knew that some of us would take comfort in this more relatable version of the divine, who hangs out with sinners. Maybe this means that that law was what was keeping us from friendship with God this whole time.
Or maybe he saw our equal propensity to pay such close attention to the iotas and dots that we would miss the essence of his message. The harder we try to keep every last commandment, the easier it is to miss out on what it means to love God and neighbor. If you’d like proof of attempts at law-keeping that bring us miles away from love, check out Indiana’s ridiculous new provisions for exclusion. Are we prepared to sacrifice love for religious values? Perhaps we need to listen closer to what is being said.
Jesus is not espousing a new religion any more than he is looking to rewrite the old religion. He is giving an entirely new way to be in relationship with God and with one another.
He can promise a new way to be with God and with one another on the strength of his ability to keep the law perfectly. Only in living fully, freely, passionately, willingly- that is to say- only by his ability to live playfully on our behalf can Jesus move us beyond the law and the prophets’ boundaries.
Jesus’ fulfillment of the law transforms what once seemed like an impossible, constraining list of prohibitions and commandments to a simple framework for living a life characterized by freedom.
What person, in their right mind would could see God’s desire that his people only follow his voice as anything but a call to freedom? In calling us to not take his name in vain, is he not telling us to live wholeheartedly as his own in the world? In commanding us to rest one time a week, is he not inviting us to delight in the world and those in it?
In telling us to honor our parents, who provided for us purely out of love- albeit in painful imperfection- we are given the opportunity to return the kindness that was shown to us as children, as well as occasionally honoring our parents with our honesty as we are bold and kind enough to let them know how they have failed us.
And where, outside of Hollywood’s bizarre teachings, do we see murder, adultery, theft or envy as actions that bring us life? Who would want to destroy a law that is such fertile soil for a life lived in freedom? No, the law will stand forever as a testament to the goodness of the one who gave it, as well it should.
All it took was for Jesus to show us a better way to see the law- through the eyes of one who is playful, free and good.