Today in the Orthodox churches that follow the Byzantine rite is the Sunday of the Fathers of the Fourth Ecumenical Council. This was the Council that met in Chalcedon in the year 451.
The council met to elucidate the “orthodox” understanding of the two natures in Christ – in other words, how is it that Jesus Christ is both God and Man and how the divine and human natures coexist in the person of Jesus Christ, the incarnate Word of God. The Fathers of Chalcedon defined their faith in
… one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, only begotten, to be acknowledged in two natures, without confusion, without change, indivisibly, inseparably; (ἐν δύο φύσεσιν ἀσυγχύτως, ἀτρέπτως, ἀδιαιρέτως, ἀχωρίστως) the distinction of natures being by no means taken away by the union, but rather the property of each nature being preserved, and concurring in one Person (prosopon) and one Subsistence (hypostasis), not parted or divided into two persons, but one and the same Son, and only begotten God (μονογενῆ Θεόν), the Word, the Lord Jesus Christ…
Unfortunately, the Council of Chalcedon was politically divisive and only in recent decades have we realized that the divisions that resulted from this council were mostly due to misunderstandings. Unintentionally, the Epistle reading for today, Titus 3:8-15, might cause one to pause and question the reasons for the 5th-century controversy.
But we are not in the 5th century, we are in the 21st century and today’s Gospel reading, Matthew 5:14-19, is far more relevant to our own lives. It raises questions about the relationship of Jesus to the Mosaic Law and the place of legalism in our own lives.
What did Jesus think of the Law? “Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfill 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.” That seems clear enough – except it isn’t.
Until what is accomplished? The end of the world? Until the Law is accomplished somehow in the life of Christ? Or in his death and resurrection? Most Christians, including the Orthodox Church, have generally preferred the last interpretation. But the Orthodox tradition, with its strong emphasis on the incarnation, also sees the life of Christ as fulfilling the Law. For example, on January 1st, when we commemorate the circumcision of Christ on the eighth day after his birth, the church sees Christ’s submission to the Law of Moses as a fulfilling of the Law. As the main hymn of the day puts it, “by accepting circumcision in the flesh, you, O Christ, fulfilled the law.”
But what Jesus himself meant by “accomplished” is not clear. Not only are Jesus’ words ambiguous, but Jesus actually appears to contradict himself immediately after saying that he didn’t come to abolish the law:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also…. You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you…”(Matthew 5:38-39 & 43-44)
Clearly he negated the law (or at least the way the law was understood) in these declarations. More importantly, he repeatedly ignored or broke the sabbath law. And how about the incident with the adulterous woman (John 8:2-11)? The Pharisees and the scribes of the law were ready to stone the woman to death, as required by the Mosaic Law, but Jesus challenged them: “Let the one among you who is without sin cast the first stone.” They all walked away and left the woman alone. In this too, Jesus saw the Law differently than the religious leaders of his society.
In chapter 23 of Matthew, Jesus attacks the Pharisees and the scribes as hypocrites. At one point he says that “they tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them.” Jesus is here undoubtedly referring to the many human laws that were added over the centuries and which had become a burden hard to bear by most ordinary people. The same can be said of the many laws that have accumulated in the church tradition, especially under the influence of legalistic monks.
So what “law” does Jesus say he didn’t come to abolish? The Law God gave to Moses, or the hundreds of laws that were added to God’s Law? And here it should be noted that biblical scholars have proven that most of the laws in Leviticus and the other books of the Torah (the books attributed to Moses) came many centuries after Moses! Indeed, most of the laws attributed to Moses were actually added almost a thousand years later!
Is it possible that Jesus had a different understanding of the “law”? After all, he is the Word of God, he is the author of everything that comes from God. He is the lord of the Sabbath, as he repeatedly asserted. If there is a Law that was given to Moses by God, no one can know it better than the one who wrote it! And that person is the Word of God.
Perhaps this is the reason why Jesus said he didn’t come to abolish “the law and the prophets.” Here he is not thinking of prophets as predictors of the future, but rather in their primary mission as revealers of God’s will and judgments. For example, consider these two prophetic utterances:
Hosea 6:6 “For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.”
Micah 6:8 “He has told you what is good. And what does The Lord require of you, but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”
This is the same spirit in which Jesus spoke. Let’s not forget that Jesus summarized the entire law and prophets in the two commandments: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” Matthew 22:34-40
There are too many legalists in the churches. Too many people who easily quote Leviticus or some other book of the Bible to attack someone they don’t like or don’t agree with. But be careful how you quote Leviticus. Because the person you’re attacking might just be able to quote Leviticus back at you and have you stoned to death! I’m saying this tongue-in-cheek obviously, but it’s true. There are enough laws in the various books of the Bible to cover pretty much every one of us. So it’s best to avoid quoting Leviticus or any of the countless laws that legalists love. Jesus told us not to judge lest we be judged.
Stay clear of legalism. Legalism kills. It makes you judge people; and it makes you feel a failure, because you can never satisfy your own legalistic thinking. It’s better to stick to the two greatest commandments that Jesus gave that summarize the entire law and prophets. And let’s not forget the “new commandment” he gave that we should love one another (John 13:34-35). Add the words of the prophets into the mix, like the ones quoted above, and you can’t go wrong. And you won’t have to worry about how the law is fulfilled or when “all is accomplished.”
So was Jesus ambiguous in his statement about abolishing the law and the prophets? Yes, and ambiguity is safer than thinking that you have it all figured out. When you think you have it all figured out, that’s when you become a legalist, and legalism kills the spirit. But did Jesus contradict himself? Superficially it appears like he contradicted his own saying. But if you look more deeply into how Jesus saw the Law, he was very consistent.