The New Law Renovates the Old

Anthony Zimmerman
May 10, 2004
Reproduced with Permission

"Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfil them. For truly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Whoever then relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but he who does them and teaches them shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven (Matt 5:17-19).

We ask how Jesus could say truthfully that He has not come to abolish the law and the prophets, when He actually scolded the scribes and Pharisees for their teachings and declared them to be mistaken. The response is that Jesus did not abolish the commandments that God had promulgated of old, for He Himself was God who had established them. What Jesus invalidated was human teachings construed by rabbiŐs which they passed off as teachings of religion: "In vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the precepts of men" (Matt 15:9).

Jesus also asserted that He came to fulfill the law and prophets, which He did by replacing the type with reality, as when He replaced the Paschal Lamb with the Holy Eucharist. The temple and synagogue would yield to St. PeterŐs Basilica and the parish churches. To make more perfect what was imperfect before is to keep the old in place and to build on it, as a church spire rests on the infrastructure.

Finally, the Christian religion would eventually break out of its Jewish cultural cocoon, and emerge as the Religion of the Nations: Catholic. It is in this manner that Jesus explained His true mission: "Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfil them."

Matthew writes for a very special class of Jews, those namely like himself who found their way into the Church before the Church became predominantly gentile. They entered the Church in great numbers at first, once three thousand, then five thousand, and many more. "And the word of God increased; and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests were obedient to the faith" (Acts 6:7). They are not the Sadducees who had become practical atheists and made disbelief to be their religion of choice. Nor are they the people of the high priestly class and rulers who held on to their political power and simply refused to believe in Christ. They closed their eyes resolutely to blind themselves to the miracles that Christ wrought, and that Peter and the apostles wrought, in proof that Jesus is the true Messiah. They were scattered into the diaspora with the destruction of Jerusalem in the year 70 A.D.

Matthew's Jewish audience are believing converts of the Jewish nation who were the majority in the Church during the first decades of her existence. That was before Paul had opened the Church to the gentile nations, who then rapidly became a majority. The Jewish converts, in Palestine as well as in other nations, gradually became islands in a wider sea of Christianity. They still tended to identify Jewish culture as the proper setting for Christian belief.

Read between the lines of Matthew's Sermon on the Mount, how Christ was gently preparing His disciples to open their eyes to view a wider horizon than the Old Testament. Christ sought first of all for converts from among the Jews before Him, but prods them already to leave behind their clannish ways and join a new and horizon-spanning Civilization of Love. Later Christ will blame those who stubbornly choose to remain behind: "Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law, justice and mercy and faith; these you ought to have done, without neglecting the others. You blind guides, straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel! "Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for you cleanse the outside of the cup and of the plate, but inside they are full of extortion and rapacity" (Matt 23:23-24).

We may speak of three classes of people in Matthew's day: Jews who did not convert but hardened themselves in unbelief; non-Jews who became Christians without adopting Jewish ways of the Old Testament; finally Jewish converts who for the most part kept to their Jewish culture after conversion to Christianity. For some decades after Christ's Ascension and Pentecost they were in the majority, until gentile converts outnumbered them. Paul wrestled again and again with Jewish converts, who were still inclined to slip into ways of believing that their works of keeping the Jewish laws of the Old Testament was the way of salvation, rather than depending upon Christ as their true and only Savior. It was at Antioch where for the first time Jewish converts who kept Jewish laws, and gentile Christians who wanted nothing to do with Jewish laws, lived together in mixed Jewish-gentile communities. There were some hard times for both parties.

"You have heard of old. But I say to you"

1. Thrust anger out of your heart

Six times Jesus contrasts the poverty of the older moral standards with the richness of the new. He begins by re-stating the law "Thou shalt not kill," then adds that "Thou shalt not even wrong the neighbor by being angry at him." And He repeats each time that the new law that He now promulgates is more perfect than the old Law.

"You have heard that it was said to the men of old, 'You shall not kill; and whoever kills shall be liable to judgment.' But I say to you that every one who is angry with his brother shall be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother shall be liable to the council, and whoever says, 'You fool!' shall be liable to the hell of fire. So if you are offering your gift at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift (Matt 5:21-24).

It is not enough to outlaw murder, an act that can be seen. You must henceforth cultivate peace in your heart also, a peace that is real but that cannot be seen. You are to be seekers of brotherhood, are to make yourselves children of God who loves all the people whom He has created. You must radiate peace, must make it the fashion of civilization. Don't come to me without first making peace with your neighbor, outwardly first of all, then also in your heart. You must spurn anger, not harbor it, for it does not belong in the kingdom. You must forgive as God forgives. "Learn from me," Jesus will continue to teach, "for I am meek and humble of heart."

Is it wrong for Hutu mothers to tell their children to hate Tutsi tribals? Indeed so, because that feeds genocide pogroms. Is it wrong for Protestant parents to tell their children that Catholics have horns and are in league with the devil? And for Eastern Orthodox Catholics to nurture their ancient bile against Roman Catholics? And for Muslims to glorify war against Christians? And for Christians to hate Jews? And vice versa to all. Blessed are the peacemakers is not only a moral improvement of human behavior, it is becoming more and more a political necessity in our globalized village- earth. Governments need the help of Christianity to educate the world to "first be reconciled to your brother."

2. Guard purity

"You have heard that it was said, 'You shall not commit adultery.' But I say to you that every one who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.

Governments can make laws against adultery and rape, but they need the help of parents and teachers to teach chastity, to live chastely, and to educate the next generation to chastity. It is so wrong for governments to support Planned Parenthood to teach school children how to use condoms. Guarding purity of thought and desire is a duty for every boy and girl, for every man and woman, for all people of the earth whether in America, Europe, Asia, Africa or Australia. Unless we stop Planned Parenthood sex ed, unless we insist that the law of the land must fortify the Ten Commandments of God, we invite chaos and violence to eat up civilized life.

It was not many decades ago that governments made wise regulations to favor chaste family life. Where there is a will there is a way, also today. The pill and abortion industries can be taxed out of business. Collect $5000 in taxes from abortionists for every baby they kill, and collect $100 in taxes from pharmacists for every packet of condoms and of anti-baby pills they sell, and we will have a new world tomorrow. If you can do it, start this in your own county or town.

What does looking with lust mean? It is different than a casual glance. Saint John Chrysostom calls it "bringing in the wild beast":

For He said not simply, "whosoever shall desire," since it is possible for one to desire even when sitting in the mountains; but, "Whosoever shall look to lust;" that is to say, he who gathers in lust unto himself; he who, when nothing compels him, brings in the wild beast upon his thoughts when they are calm. For this comes no longer of nature, but of self-indulgence (Chrysostom Ser. 17).

Sirach gives timely warning to avoid the occasion of sin:

Turn away your eyes from a shapely woman, and do not look intently at beauty belonging to another; many have been misled by a woman's beauty, and by it passion is kindled like a fire. Never dine with another man's wife, nor revel with her at wine; lest your heart turn aside to her, and in blood you be plunged into destruction (Sirach 9:8-9).

That is surely sage advice today, just as it was over 2000 years ago when Sirach wrote it. Saint Chrysostom wrote in the decade of the 390's while in Antioch that it is most important to teach chastity to young people. In his book "On the Education of Children" he speaks out against the main vice of his city which was debauchery. We must protect the young from such serious vice by teaching the right way for parents to educate their sons and daughters, he wrote. The deepest root of all corruption, he wrote, is the lack of moral training of the future generation: "The corruption of the world remains unchecked because nobody guards his children, nobody speaks to them of chastity." He urged parents to regard the education of their children as the highest and holiest of tasks. They must train their boys and girls not for time but for eternity (see Quasten, Patrology III, 465-466).

Today, thanks to the Sermon on the Mount, a mighty army of over 450,000 priests and male religious practice consecrated celibacy for Jesus, following the example of the apostles; and almost twice that number of consecrated virgins do likewise. May the Lord be pleased, and may purity of heart and mind prevail in marriage as well as in the consecrated life.

3. Indissolubility of Marriage

"It was also said, 'Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.' But I say to you that every one who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, makes her an adulteress; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery (Matt 5:31-32).

Here Jesus corrects an abuse that had crept into the laws and culture of the Israelites. The apostles might have been astounded, because Jesus was not only improving on the Old Law, but correcting what Moses himself had allowed. He spoke now with unmistakable divine authority, for who but God can correct Moses. He did not say with words, "I am God" but He said it with deeds, with miracles that only God can perform. But the people also sensed that there was power in His very words, "for he taught them as one who had authority, and not as their scribes" (Matt 7:29).

They said to him, "Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce, and to put her away?" He said to them, "For your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for unchastity, and marries another, commits adultery" (Matt 19:7-9).

With good reason does Jesus forbade not only the act of divorce and re-marriage, but also thoughts that precede divorce and re-marriage. It is necessary to repel the thought, the temptation to divorce. In the Old Testament the wife was apt to be blamed rather than the husband. Men took privileges not equally granted to women. For example, the school of Hillel taught that if a man saw a woman more beautiful than his wife, that was sufficient reason to divorce his wife (see The International Bible Commentary, 1274). Christ placed man and woman on equal footing in this matter: neither the husband nor the wife is permitted to divorce and re-marry.

When we call to mind the divorce statistics of so-called "developed" nations of the world, we ask whether life-time marriage can long endure if governments do not obey God's law in this matter. The "No fault" divorce laws that were introduced in the United States and other nations during the 1970s and are being expanded today into other regions of the world have given rise to an industry that makes divorce its business, the more, the better. Judges, lawyers, court agents, police, social service employees, all in great numbers depend now upon a substantial part of their livelihood that is derived from divorce-related activities.

The campaign (for "no fault" divorce) was based on misleading information from the start. Laws advertised as allowing couples to divorce without legal grounds by mutual consent actually created involuntary or unilateral divorce, permitting one spouse to dissolve a marriage for any reason or no reason without incurring any liability for the consequences. "In all other areas of contract law, those who break a contract are expected to compensate their partner or partners," writes Robert Whelan, "hut under a system of 'no-fault' divorce, this essential element of contract law is abrogated. Divorce comes to be regarded as one of those things that just happens."3

In fact, the legal implications go further, since the courts do not remain neutral, but invariably side with the violator of the agreement to punish the faithful spouse. Attorney Steven Varnis points out that "the law generally supports the spouse seeking the divorce, even if that spouse was the wrongdoer, by granting divorces with little regard for a spouse who may not desire it"4 (Steven Baskerville, "Strengthening marriage through divorce and custody reform," The Family in America, May, 2004).

If a good number of Catholics and other Christians remain faithful to the law about marriage that Christ here renewed in the Sermon on the Mount, they will be the surviving groups that continue to populate the earth generation after generation.

Not a few priests and bishops gag at the rule that divorced and re-married Catholics should refrain from receiving Holy Communion when attending Mass. Hearts bleed. Yet no one knows better what is good for us than the God who created us. He knows what we can do, and what we must do. The Pope, supporting himself on Holy Scripture, articulated the rule: "The Church reaffirms her practice, which is based on Sacred Scripture, of not admitting to Eucharistic Communion divorced persons who have remarried" (Familiaris Consortio 87). Roma locuta, causa finita we say (when Rome has spoken, the case is settled). Then let it be so. We are proud that our Church does not cave in to trends but supports unerringly the law of God about marriage.

Is it difficult for man to follow the precepts of the Sermon on the Mount? Christ knows that every man and every woman can do so with His help, so He closes this section with an exhortation: "No matter what the cost, just do it!"

If your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and throw it away; it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell (Matt 5:29-30).