Saint Mary of the Angels homilies and reflections

Homily, February 16, 2014, Fulfilling the Law, Fr. Grégoire Catta SJ


Matt 5:17-37 / Sir 15:15-20 /1 Cor 2:6-10
SMA – Sunday Feb. 16, 2014

Sometimes, as Christians, we are tempted to oppose the Old Testament and the New Testament, the Old law of the Jews and the New Law of Jesus, the old vision of God that people have in the books of the Old Testament, God leading Israel’s army to defeat the enemies and the new vision brought about by Jesus, God loving us and asking us to love one another. We should resist strongly this temptation! As we hear in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus tells us: "Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets. I have come not to abolish but to fulfill." This does not mean that Jesus does not bring anything new. After all he is proclaiming the Good News. But he makes it clear that Good News does not mean rejection of the past, rejection of what is written in the Bible of the Jews. This invites us to reflect about the old and the new in our faith. We know that when it comes to matters of faith, of religion, of church there is a variety of feelings regarding the old and the new. Some are always worried about novelty and change because it seems to put in danger the lifelong faith. On the contrary others are always worried about maintaining old teachings and practices because it impedes the spirit to blow and they long for changes! So what can we take from Today’s Gospel? How Jesus articulates the old and the new?

The key, Jesus’ key, is the idea of fulfillment. "I have come not to abolish but to fulfill," says Jesus, talking about the law. Not to abolish the law but to fulfill the law. What does this mean? First we need to understand well what ‘law’ means here. When we think of the law today, we think of all the rules we have to respect in order not to be fined or to be put in prison: "Yield to pedestrians! This is a State Law in Massachusetts." "Stop at the red traffic light!" "pay your taxes!" etc… But in the Bible, the law, the law of God is not first a set of rules or commandments. The law of God, the Torah, refers to a covenant between God and Israel. It expresses this particular relationship between God and Israel, God who has liberated Israel from Egypt and constituted them into a people, and the people who finds in God its identity, its source of life. In the first reading form the book of Sirach, we heard that, by keeping the commandments, "they will save you," "if you trust in God, you shall live." Of course the law of God in the Old testament, finds its expression in concrete commandments – do this, do not do that – but it is much more than a set of commandments, it is primarily the expression of the special relationship between God and his people, a relationship that is the source of life.

So when Jesus says that he comes not to abolish but to fulfill the law, this means fulfilling this relationship of love, of lifegiving, between God and humanity. This means keeping the commandments but always deepening their meaning, coming back to their true purpose. When Jesus says: "you have heard….But I say to you" he is not setting oppositions, he is getting in depth, to the profound meaning of the commandment.

For example, you have heard you shall not kill. Killing is suppressing life, killing is breaking forever the relationship that you have with this brother or sister of yours in humanity. And so it is the same thing, although at a lesser degree, that is at stake if you allow yourself to be angry at your brother or sister in humanity. So do not be angry!

Fulfilling the "law of God." I think we can keep this in mind when considering what is happening in the Church today. We have a new pope. He has a new way of speaking which a lot of people enjoy. He has convoked a synod in order to talk about family and a lot of vexing topics will come to the front: marriage, divorce, birth control, same-sex couples etc… And we very often hear in the media, and also in our communities, the question: is he going to change the doctrine? And some are longing for him to do so and others are longing for him not to do so. Having heard the Gospel today, I think the question is wrongly formulated. Actually we should refuse the question to be framed like this. The question is not: Are we going to change the doctrine, or is it a good thing to change it or not? The question is: how are we going to fulfill the law of God expressed through a certain group of teachings? How are we going to retrieve the heart, the core, of the meaning of the teachings that is behind the formulation of commandments? Just like Jesus did in today’s gospel.

I think Pope Francis gave us a powerful example of this, two days ago, on Valentine’s day, when addressing thousands of young couples recently engaged. He talked to them positively about marriage. He talked about the difficulty of engaging "for ever" in the "throwaway" culture we live in, but he stresses the beauty and the fruitfulness of this "for ever." He talked about a way of articulating married life around three words: "Please, thank you and sorry." If you’re interested, go for it on the web! This looks like a great catechesis about marriage which does not avoid the challenges of our times, without throwing away past teachings.

Today, Jesus invites us to move forward by fulfilling and not abolishing, to articulate the old and the new in terms of fulfillment of what I would call, "the eternal Law of God’s love for us." Let us allow this idea of fulfillment to shape our thoughts, our prayers, but also our discussions and debates in our church.

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