Jesus said to his disciples: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets. I have come not to abolish but to fulfill” (Mt 5:17). Jesus was a devout Jew, he grew up practicing and understanding the law and the prophetic tradition. We see evidence of that when, at twelve, he is found by his parents among the teachers and scholars discussing, with understanding and wisdom, the law. Jesus in his public ministry very much speaks on behalf of God, calling the people of Israel back to the law, both those who have turned away from God as well as those who used the law as a bludgeon and for building a wall to keep others out.
Jesus shows time and again that being true to Torah is about building relationships with God and others. He extends his hand, person to person, as a bridge for people to come to God, and he calls out the religious leaders who have utilized the law to build walls, to keep people out. Jesus healed on the Sabbath, Jesus forgave sins, Jesus touched lepers and he ate with tax collectors, prostitutes, and sinners, those on the peripheries, not because he was being willy-nilly with the law, but because he was showing by his lived example that the greatest commandment of the law was to love God with all his mind, heart, and strength and to love his neighbor as himself.
This practice goes right to the foundation of who God created us to be. All of humanity has been created in God’s image and likeness. By that very fact, each of us is endowed with dignity by the very fact that we exist as a son and daughter of God. In Jesus, we see that the highest observance of the law of God is to love. Jesus met each person where they were and accompanied them. That also meant calling out those who misused the law by keeping others at arm’s length. Jesus did the opposite. As the Son of God, Jesus became one with us in our humanity, so that we could become one with him in his divinity. Jesus offered others his arms extended outward, inviting others to enter into his loving embrace. He would show this fully on the cross, where he opened his arms wide to embrace all peoples of every race, ethnicity, and gender.
Jesus built on the law and the prophets, because he was the fulfillment of them, and in doing so, he gave the law its greater context. The foundation of the law and the prophets were founded in Love, meaning its highest expression, which is to will the good of the other as other. This means that the law is not like a stagnant pool, where we grasp onto the law and tradition for its own sake, but the divine law of God is rather like a running stream, it is always fresh and being renewed by the Holy Spirit.
What Jesus ushered in, was the reign of God, which was possible through the foundations laid by those who had gone before him: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, the judges and prophets, David, and those who answered the call of God to serve in his name. From a person, Abraham, to a clan, a loose gathering of twelve tribes and then a nation, Israel, God called a people to himself to shine the light of his will to others. Then at the appointed time, he sent his Son, to be one with the people he called to draw all nations to himself so that all created in his image and likeness were invited to come to be one with him, the God of all creation.
Our joy and fulfillment take shape as we are transformed by the love of God. As we build on the traditions of our faith that give us a solid foundation, we must resist holding on to them so tightly that they strangle us and suck the life out of us. That which leads us to encounter and renew our relationship with Jesus in love is what we are to embrace and preach. That which has become stagnant and no longer is an avenue for affirming life must be pruned.
The love and mercy of God extended to us by the presence of Jesus among us is not a watering down of the law and the prophets. I would argue that it is not only the fulfillment of them, but they are harder to put into practice and demand a closer walk with Jesus. This is so because we cannot fulfill a life of love and mercy on our own. We can only fulfill Jesus’ invitation to love and be able to enter into the chaos of another if we are transformed by his love and continue to allow Jesus to be present to others and love them through us.
God’s love invites us out of the darkness of our own sin and withdrawing into our own false sense of self-control. We become healed when we are humble enough to trust the movement of the Holy Spirit in our lives, are willing to confess how we put our own self-interests, fears, and prejudices first and become contrite – to acknowledge the sorrow of the hurt we have caused others, and become less drawn to making excuses and protecting the false self of the ego. Through participating in the life that Jesus invites us to, we drink from the living stream of his love, we come to grow into the freedom of being true to ourselves and who God calls us to be. This is not for ourselves alone. Jesus calls us to be a light for others who are experiencing the shadows of a life of half-truths and/or are immersed in the darkness of a false and/or empty life that we ourselves are emerging from.
Painting: by Melody Owens – The original painting is 11″x14″ gouache.