I grew up the son of a State Trooper. I served as a Naval Officer. And I served as a reserve sheriff’s deputy. It is fair to say, I’ve always had a healthy respect for the law.
And, as a Christian, I — like so many others — have spent a great deal of time wrestling with God’s Law. What does it mean in contemporary society? How do we apply narrow readings of Scripture to real-life issues? And what does it mean when I can’t reconcile Old Testament Law with Christ’s New Testament command that I love my neighbor as He loves me — with grace and boundless forgiveness.
For the Jewish audience to which Jesus was speaking, these were incredibly more difficult questions. Mosaic Law included 613 individual laws. It was impossible to remember them all, and even more impossible to go through the course of your day — even for the most devout — without breaking one or another, or several of them.
People lived, birth to death, under the constant weight of laws they could not keep.
Jesus lifts this impossible weight from us in Matthew 5:17-19:
Jesus said, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.”
Notice this does not mean we can ignore the teachings and commands of the Old Testament. But, it does mean Jesus has fulfilled those old laws — he has made complete that which we could never complete.
To understand how Jesus fulfills the law, we need to understand who Jesus is, and why Christ chose to take on flesh for our sake.
St. John tells us in his First Epistle the nature of Christ that fulfills all the law: “Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love.” (1 John 4:8) And again, in the 16th verse: “So we have come to know and to believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and whoever abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him.”
God is love. And our way to God is through love. This is the fulfillment of the law.
Jesus lays this out for us in Matthew 22:36-40, when he’s asked which is the greatest commandment in the Law:
And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.”
He’s being asked this by a Pharisee, who’s trying to trip up Jesus over knowledge of Judaism’s 613 laws. Jesus turns the tables on him, and gives him the fulfillment of the Law: Love God more than all these laws, and love your neighbor as much as you love yourself. All the law and the prophets are fulfilled in this — Love.
Usually, when I write or talk about Love being the fulfillment of the law, and God being love, I get a response from someone who accuses me of advocating a cotton candy version of Christianity. “If it’s all about love, you’re just trying to make it easy,” they seem to say.
Far from it. This love we’re called to follow is no easy love. This love doesn’t look like cotton candy and sappy romance novels. This love looks like the hard wood of the cross. This love looks like the wounds of Christ and the yawning door of the tomb. It is a love that pours itself out, and in doing so, shatters the tomb and conquers death.
Jesus calls us to this love. And it is no easy path. We are called to love one another as Christ loves us. To love our enemies. To deny ourselves, to die to ourselves, take up our cross and follow Christ.
How then, do we realize the fulfillment of the Law? How do we read and apply Scripture? How do we walk in right pathways when we feel torn between interpretations of Scripture and the Real Presence of Christ in God’s children?
We must answer all these questions as Christ taught us — in love. We must keep before us the cross, and the love poured out there that fulfills all the law and the prophets. We must always see the world, see God’s children and read God’s word through the lens of the cross — through the lens of a love that pours out self for the sake of others.
As we continue this journey through Lent, then, let us dig into and examine ourselves through that lens. Do our personal interactions look like love poured out at the cross? Our business dealings? Our relationships with our loved ones? Our friends? Our enemies? What about how we treat ourselves? How do we view those in need? Do we see them through the lens of the cross?
I think a loving, but thorough and honest, inspection of ourselves through this lens will serve us well.
Do we look like Love? Are we fulfilling the law?
Lord Christ, help us to keep always before us your example at the cross. Let us see ourselves, our neighbors and You through the example you gave us of selfless, radical love. Let us transform ourselves on the hard wood of the cross, and give us the wisdom to always be guided by the Love that fulfills your Law. Amen.