Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. (Matthew 5.17)
I’m a big biography nut who finds enormous pleasure in reading how history unfolds in the lives of people who make it. Absent the filter of their talents and compulsions, fortes and flaws, the human story seems, well, less human. It devolves into dates and events that feel too arbitrary and neat compared to the messiness of modern life. I’m less a fan of biographical movies, however, as time constraints typically mandate conflation. Melding two or more lives into an emblematic figure or similar dilemmas into a single conflict often enhances pace and clarity. Yet what gets lost is the reminder human struggle and progress don’t happen quickly and clearly. Ongoing authorship of our story entails tremendous patience and precision in the writing, revisions, and edits of a record that’s anything but arbitrary, neat, and concise. We constantly need to be reminded of this by revisiting our predecessors’ lives if we’re to make sense of our own.
Conflation especially hounds me in certain Gospel passages, where the writers merge material to help organize our thoughts, hold our attention, and spare us the ordeal of sifting for essentials and consistency of message. For example, it appears Matthew’s detailed transcription of The Sermon on the Mount (chapters 5-7) conflates a number of Jesus’s sermons into one record. Shards of it pepper Mark’s gospel, while Luke 6.17-49 offers an abbreviated version (curiously set “on a level place,” not a mount) with a few omitted sayings turning up elsewhere. While one supposes Matthew gets points for crystallizing Jesus’s basic doctrine into one easily found passage, he also loses them by suggesting His message appeared fully formed, all at once, and free of social, political and religious immediacy.
In other words, the conflation invites us to read the Sermon as a collection of platitudes akin to Confucius’s Analects or Gibran’s Prophet. Easily found doesn’t translate into easily read or understood, unfortunately. One minute Jesus talks about our roles as the salt and light of the world. The next, He’s onto legal issues like slander, adultery, perjury, and retribution. That’s chapter 5. Chapter 6 runs a gamut that includes helping the needy, prayer, fasting, materialism, and trust in divine provision. In 7 we hear admonition not to judge, the Golden Rule, and resisting human wisdom. And while The Beatitudes at the top of the Sermon set an immensely useful tone, they offer little guidance regarding how and why these seemingly random comments hang together. That we find in Matthew 5.17—one of the Sermon’s least quoted, most misunderstood, and habitually abused verses: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.” It’s the pivot on which everything else turns.
Convention, Custom, and Etiquette
Whether Jesus does, in fact, deliver The Sermon on the Mount in one sitting or spreads it over three-and-a-half years of ministry, the problem He addresses is the same. With few exceptions, His primary audience consists of everyday people whose values, thoughts, and behaviors are steeped in rigidly religious, proudly devout cultural tradition. Mosaic laws and customs are so profoundly imbedded in first-century Jewish culture that Rome treats Palestine as a case apart. Unlike other conquests, the Jews’ religious and legal systems remain intact, with Roman ideology of Caesar’s divinity and absolute power existing in uneasy parallel, like a shadow government beside the majority regime. This endows Jewish religious leaders, teachers, and lawyers with final authority over every aspect of daily life. In the interest of protecting Jewish identity and beliefs at all costs, they effectively turn Palestine into a police state, closely monitoring each citizen’s activities. Scofflaws, non-conformists, and social liabilities are banned from a community ironically founded on principles that adamantly promote tolerance, justice, and compassion. During previous periods of independence and foreign oppression, prophets arose to oppose trends forsaking these values. But given the delicate balance of power shared by Romans and Jews, any rabbi who advocates adherence to principle over legal compliance is a threat to Palestine’s stability and survival. Jesus—by far, the most radical Upholder of principle—may be a big hit with His followers. But He’s an even bigger menace to those charged with protecting Jewish interests.
Jesus knows this. He’s astutely aware His mission to restore divine principle flies in the face of contemporary obsession with behavior. Oddly enough, the establishment’s heavy-handed enforcement results in what may be the most law-abiding period in Jewish history. Rampant idolatry, violence, and carnality seen throughout the Old Testament aren’t consistent with Jesus’s day. (Who knew it would take Caesar, a self-proclaimed god, to drive Jews to embrace God’s edicts?) Yet in their compliance Jesus finds something worse than flagrant immorality. He sees self-delusion. Conformity minus principle equals unprincipled behavior. He looks at a people doing the right thing without right reasons. When He testifies, “I’m not here to abolish the law and prophets, but to fulfill them,” He’s urging His listeners to do the right thing right. The problem isn’t the law and prophets. It’s their reduction to code for convention, custom, and etiquette.
The dynamic at the root of Jesus’s concerns hasn’t changed. The Church exists in uneasy parallel with secular governments and cultures that oppose principles of our faith. Religious leaders, teachers, and legalists assume responsibility for protecting Christian identity and beliefs at all costs. In the process, many forsake principle to obsess with behavior. That’s what those outside the faith find most confusing. They can’t perceive how so many of us can become overly exercised about rules at the expense of principles they’re meant to reinforce. “Where are tolerance, justice, and compassion?” they ask. It’s a question that rarely crosses the legalist’s mind. All that matters is doing the right thing, with no consideration that the right thing can be done the wrong way.
Christ’s laws and instruction aren’t the problem. Reducing them to code for convention, custom, and etiquette is where we err. Misreading Jesus’s insistence He came to fulfill the law and prophets to mean blind compliance to Biblical directives somehow honors His purpose will lead us astray every time. Jesus commands us to do the right thing right—to live the principles of the law, not leverage the law to enforce conformity. It goes beyond practicing what we preach. Fulfillment of Christ’s laws is about preaching the practice of principles.