The moral Law

Question: Jesus is adamant that he “did not come to abolish the law and prophets” in Matthew 5:17, yet St. Paul seems to say the opposite in Ephesians 2:15 (“by abolishing in his flesh the law of commandments and ordinances”). Please clarify these two passages.

Paul VanHoudt, Erie, Colorado

Answer: There are two approaches to understanding Jesus’ words about the Law in Matthew 5. One is to emphasize that he says the Law will not be abolished “until all is accomplished.” But according to this argument, in Jesus’ passion, death and resurrection, all is accomplished. Hence, the Law now can change, because what it pointed to has come to pass.

This approach, however, neglects the first half of what Jesus says: namely, that “until heaven and earth pass away,” nothing in the Law will be changed. By implication, he means that all is accomplished only at the end of time, not simply at the Resurrection.

Another approach is to distinguish what Jesus means by the Law. The Jewish Law had three basic components: the moral law, rooted in the Commandments; the ceremonial law; and civic or customary law. The ceremonial law spoke to things like the vestments of the priests, the feast days, the manner of carrying out sacrifices, etc. The civic or customary law spoke to how people dressed, what they could eat, how they conducted business and even things as minute as the requirement to put rails on one’s rooftop to prevent falls.

According to this second understanding, Jesus is referring only to the moral law of God, which is unchanging. And this makes contextual sense because Jesus goes on to discourse only on the moral law in the examples in the remainder of the chapter.

Indeed, the moral law does not change. Murder, adultery, lying and theft are not going to become virtuous. They and the rest of the moral precepts remain forever unchanged.

Clearly, Jesus and the apostles did alter the customary laws, such as kosher, and the ceremonial laws, such as how and when lambs are to be killed. Those things pointed to Christ and are now fulfilled. Jesus is the Lamb who offers a perfect, once-and-for-all sacrifice. No need to kill thousands of lambs. Because Jesus came to give an inner transformation, there is no need to worry about unclean foods entering our bodies or to call unclean what God has rendered clean and so forth.

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But God’s moral law cannot change, because it is rooted in the unchanging nature of things that God has made and set forth. It is of this law that Jesus says not even the smallest part of it shall be eliminated.

As for St. Paul’s comment, he is speaking to the way the Law is kept, not the Law itself. The context of St. Paul’s reflection in Ephesians (and also in Romans) indicates that he is speaking of how grace enables us to keep the Law in a fulfilled and perfected way. Before grace, the Law was to be kept by human effort. As such, it taught and also condemned us, because no one could fulfill all the precepts and their implications. Jesus died to end all that.

By bestowing grace through a saving relationship with us, he enables us to fulfill the Law (i.e., to fill it full). Thus, for example, by the Lord’s grace we can love not only our neighbors and benefactors but also our enemies and those who spitefully mistreat us. The Law is now a picture of the human person transformed by grace rather than merely a series of rules to keep us from our own feeble nature.

Msgr. Charles Pope is the pastor of Holy Comforter-St. Cyprian in Washington, D.C., and writes for the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., blog at blog.adw.org. Send questions to msgrpope@osv.com.