Opening the Word: Renewing the Law

In the Gospel of Matthew, our Lord proclaims to those gathered to hear his teaching, “Amen, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or the smallest part of a letter will pass from the Law” (Mt 5:18).

Yet, what does Jesus mean? After all, Christians do not require circumcision. We do not celebrate the same feasts that our Orthodox Jewish brothers and sisters do.

In Jesus’ teaching, we do not encounter an answer to religious legalism as much as a fulfillment of the Law itself.

The requirements of the Law are not bypassed but exceeded in encountering the person of Jesus Christ. And in exceeding the requirements of the Law, we are returned to that original state of love that God intended for humanity in the Garden.

To avoid killing, for example, is not a matter of the bare minimum: refusing to end the life of another. Instead, the one who does not kill also avoids any hatred.

The Christian fulfills the Law by avoiding hatred and thus watching one’s tongue even in the smallest of matters. This avoidance of hatred is so important that if a moment of anger surfaces as one approaches the altar of the Temple, one must first seek forgiveness.

The tendency of our Lord to exceed the requirements of the Law is underlined in his teaching: “everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Mt 5:28).

Adultery is not simply a matter of engaging in sexual activity with someone other than one’s spouse.

Instead, it is a form of lust that erases the humanity of the other at the same time that it functions as a breaking of the marital bond.

Jesus’ teaching about cutting out an eye may be extreme, but he is seeking to make a point: Take very seriously even the slightest arousal of lust because it is a disordering of desire that moves us away from the original harmony that we were created for in the Garden of Eden.

Jesus’ teaching on adultery is a response to Deuteronomy 24:1, which required a bill of divorce on the part of the husband divorcing his wife. But, Jesus makes clear that this was not the original intention of the Law: “whoever divorces his wife (unless the marriage is unlawful) causes her to commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery” (Mt 5:32).

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The word “unlawful” in Greek (porneia) may mean either infidelity on the part of the woman (including prostitution) or potentially an incestuous relationship.

Whatever the precise meaning of porneia, Jesus’ teaching is clear. Divorce is a result of sin rather than part of the Law. The one who upholds the heart of the Torah will also reject divorce, because it fractures the original communion between man and woman.

Lastly, Jesus discourages the taking of all oaths. To avoid swearing falsely, our Lord preaches, “But I say to you, do not swear at all …” (Mt 5:34). Instead, let honesty occupy the wholeness of our being so that when we say “yes,” we mean “yes.” When we say “no,” we mean “no.”

Our Lord thus comes to fulfill the Law by restoring us to the original purity that we enjoyed in the Garden of Eden. For this reason, we too must join the psalmist, singing out, “Blessed are they who follow the law of the Lord” (Ps 119:1b).

Timothy P. O’Malley is the director of the Notre Dame Center for Liturgy.