thoughts and observations on the daily readings
Wednesday of the 10th Week in Ordinary Time
Readings may be found here
This passage from the Sermon on the Mount concerning the Law and the Prophets is a bit puzzling on the surface. In Matthew 15:1-20 (cf. Mark 7:1-23) Jesus appears to set aside at least some aspects of the “law.” Of course, Paul famously and passionately argues for the relaxation of aspects of the ritual law for the sake of the Gentiles.
It is true that each gospel has its own unique perspective and that Matthew’s Gospel understands the ministry and message of the Lord Jesus in light of the Jewish tradition. Nonetheless, there are important considerations when examining the question. For example, Pharisaical leaders in Jesus’ day took a very particular approach to the Law. They expanded the category to include the oral teachings and commentaries of the Rabbis. In doing so, they expanded and intensified the holiness codes (laws related to ritual purity). In the gospels, Jesus confronts this notion because it places undue burdens on the poor and upon rural Jews who lived far from the resources of the Temple (Matt 23:4). Jesus’ own teaching hearkens back to an earlier focus on the written Scriptures (the Law and the Prophets). We must also consider that Jesus repeatedly asserts the authority of the Holy Scriptures and that He and the text cite numerous Old Testament passages in relation to Jesus’ identity and mission.
It makes perfect sense that the passage today sees Jesus speaking of the ongoing validity of the Old Testament and its close relationship to the Kingdom that He preaches. As He speaks of their eternal importance, He also asserts that He “fulfills” them. Here is the critical detail. Jesus Himself is the authoritative interpreter of the purpose and meaning of the Law and the Prophets. His dispute with Pharisaical approaches is not a rejection of the Law, but a correction of their expansion of the Law to include their own traditions.
The central truth proclaimed here in this passage is the close relationship between Jesus and the Old Testament. I realize that our Christian tradition gives pride of place to the gospels, but this passage is a timely reminder that the Law and the Prophets are a gift that help us to know and understand the Lord (John 5:39).