Commentary on Matthew 5:17-19
Sermon on the Mount (cont’d):
We have said that Matthew’s gospel is primarily directed at a readership with a Jewish background. It is clear that their Jewish background and traditions were things which it was not easy for Christian converts to give up. Both Paul and Matthew go out of their way to assure Jewish converts that Christianity is not a rejection of Judaism but its natural development. It is everything that Judaism is and more.
So, in today’s passage which continues the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus solemnly assures his readers, “Do not imagine that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets. I have come not to abolish but to complete them.” Jesus has not come not to terminate the Law but to bring it to a higher level. (In a rough simile, it is like the upgrading of a computer by e.g. increasing its memory. It is still the same computer doing the same things, only better and faster.) The vision of Jesus helps us to see the Law in a new light.
So Jesus says that the Law is still to be observed. Of course, we will see very clearly in the following days exactly what Jesus means. He is not saying that every single injunction of the Law (some of which seem very strange to us) has to be literally observed but rather that the spirit behind those injunctions is still in force. His words are meant to console but they are also a challenge, as we shall see. The New Law does not mean simply the addition of new elements. There is what we would call now a ‘paradigm shift’ to a Way which goes beyond laws to the Law of Love.
In our Church, too, we need to be ready to move forward creatively to new ways of understanding our faith and living it out. The traditions of the past are still valid but we must never get bogged down in them to the extent that we do not respond to the clear signs of the times. Tradition can be understood in two ways: either as a fundamental belief that has existed from the very beginning or simply a way of doing or understanding things which has been around for a long time.
When will the Church stop changing? we hear some people ask. The answer is, Hopefully never. The day we close ourselves to change is the day we die, as Paul warns us in the Second Letter to the Corinthians. To quote Cardinal Newman, To live is to change; to be perfect is to have changed often. He knew about change. He made radical changes in his own understanding of the Christian faith, changes which he saw as unavoidable although they involved great sacrifices on his part and led him from the Anglican to the Catholic Church.