Matthew writes about a statement by Jesus that might well have astonished the Jewish people: “Do not think that I have come to destroy the law and the prophets. I have not come to destroy them but to fulfill them … As long as heaven and earth last, not the smallest letter or stroke of the law will change until all is fulfilled.”
Matthew in his Gospel was addressing Jewish-Christians. He had a difficult row to hoe. On one hand he had to show that Jesus’ teaching and behavior were in continuity with the Sacred Scripture of the Jews. On the other hand he had to be faithful to what Jesus taught; he had to show Jesus radically reinterpreting the Scriptures. With his reinterpretation Jesus was in fact drawing from the law the full truth, goodness and beauty that always lay within it. He was, as he says in today’s Gospel, fulfilling the law, bringing it to completion.
Over and over again Jesus violated the laws of the Pharisees, and defended his disciples when they were accused of disregarding them. Jesus, for instance, paid no attention to the laws prescribing ritual washing of hands before meals; he also healed sick people on the Sabbath although this was clearly forbidden by the law.
Following today’s Gospel passage are six citations drawn from the Mosaic law. These are set in contrast to the same laws as interpreted by Jesus. Jesus abandons the narrow, legalistic approach of the Pharisees and calls for an internalization of values and traditions. His approach to law flows from his vision of God who is love, relating to the human person who is made in God’s image.
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