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The Spirit of the Law

An address by Fr John Slater

27 July 2003 11:00 | Fr John Slater

Today’s Gospel reading comes from St Matthew’s Gospel and is part of the Sermon on the Mount. If any of you have ever seen Passolini’s film, The Gospel according to St Matthew, you may remember just how long the Sermon on the Mount seems when you hear it all together. You may have heard me refer to the three Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke as the synoptic Gospels. They are called this by New Testament scholars because you can look at all three together and see how closely they are related to each other. The dominant theory about the origins of the Gospels is that Mark’s Gospel is the earliest, and that both Matthew and Luke wrote their Gospels as expanded versions of Mark.

Luke’s Gospel is aimed at a gentile readership and is dedicated to someone called Theophilus, a Greek name meaning one who loves God. But Matthew’s Gospel seems to have a Jewish readership in mind; perhaps the Gospel was written in a community of Jewish converts to Christianity. In the earliest Christian worship, reading scripture meant reading what we call the Old Testament. Only slowly did letters such as those by St Paul or a Gospel such as Mark’s come to be regarded as sacred scripture.

And the most sacred part of Jewish scripture was the Torah or what we sometimes call the Pentateuch - the first five books of the Old Testament which make up the Law of Moses. What gives Matthew’s Gospel away as aimed at a Christian readership with a Jewish background is the way the teaching of Jesus is divided into five major sections, just like the Law of Moses. Jesus is being presented by Matthew as a new Moses and the Sermon on the Mount is the first of these major teaching sections.

There was a saying at the time of Jesus that if one Jew could keep the whole of the Law of Moses for one day, then it would be fulfilled for all time and no one else need struggle to keep it. But Jesus does not make the law easier to keep; he makes it even more demanding. He isn’t content to say Thou shalt not kill; he goes further and says we must not even be angry with our brother.

When Jesus was asked which is the greatest commandment in the Law of Moses, he replied by quoting another famous Rabbi - called Hillel. He said that the first commandment is to love God with heart and soul and mind and strength, and that the second is that we should love our neighbour as ourself. Hillel said that these two commandments sum up the entire Law of Moses - the rest, he said, is commentary. These two great commandments belong together because, as St John will put it later in the New Testament, we cannot love God, whom we have not seen, if we do not love our brother whom we have seen.

This surely is the point of what Jesus says about someone who brings a gift to the altar - a gift for God - and there remembers that he is not at peace with his brother. Until he is reconciled with his brother it is not appropriate to offer his gift to God.

We come to the altar to offer to God our worship and praise and thanksgiving - but first we are invited to confess our failures against both God and neighbour. Only after this act of reconciliation do we bring to the altar our gifts of bread and wine and money.

St Paul says that when we celebrate the Eucharist, we show forth the Lord’s death until he comes again. We remember the night when he was betrayed and we remember his death on the cross as the moment when he finally fulfilled the law of Moses. But it isn’t the letter of the Law which Jesus fulfils by his obedience to the Father - it is the inner spirit of the law. It isn’t the letter of the Law of Moses that Christians must obey but the spirit of the Law. A lot of people seem to have been quoting the strict letter of the Old Testament Law in our newspapers recently, but without much care for its inner spirit. We come closest to touching the spirit of the Law when we recognise that love for God is simply not possible without love for our neighbour also.
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