[Jesus said:] “You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot. “You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.
“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven. (NIV)
The law mandates behavior. It says nothing about attitudes. And yet, because behavior shapes attitudes as much as attitudes shape behavior, changing the law will change the way people act which in the long run will lead to changes in attitude. It is a slow way to bring about change, but effective. Both behavior and attitudes have a common foundation in our values and priorities. Changes based in new values and re-sorted priorities will be lasting changes.
Jewish law or Torah (the Torah is the first five books of the Hebrew scripture and the giving of the law is the essence of the Torah, including the narratives of the Hebrew pre-histories of Genesis) are the revelation of God’s character. In the Torah, God becomes known as the God who hears those who cry out after being oppressed. (God hears Abel’s blood cry out from the soil when he’s been killed by Cain. God hears the cries of the Hebrews enslaved in Egypt, as two examples.) God becomes known as the God who gives when God gives the ram to Abraham in the place of his son Isaac. Over and over God commands fairness, harmony, cooperation and honorable behavior toward one another.
While the Torah was given to reveal God’s character, the Prophets were called to maintain God’s authority; to remind a wayward people that there is value in following God and loss results from rejecting God. The prophets reinforce the truths revealed in the Torah; that God’s character is mercy even as God’s power is absolute. God could wipe the people out, as in the days of Noah, but God would rather be merciful and forgive a repentant people. God could destroy them all, but would rather use a foreign power to take them into exile for three generations to give them time to have a collective change of heart. God is happy to return them to Jerusalem once they yearn for God again.
Matthew’s community is in turmoil. The followers of Jesus have been accused of sweeping away all that is previously understood about God and what is good. The eat with Gentiles. They worship on the first day of the week. Gentile believers don’t even have to be circumcised! Matthew had to emphasize that Jesus taught, not to subvert the Torah, but to reinforce its meaning and significance; not to countermand the Prophets but to underscore their message. God is the great creator, law giver, justice keeper, and quick to forgive and renew, not just for the Jews but for all people everywhere.
Matthew has continually associated Jesus with Moses and as the fulfillment of the prophecies of old, and yet is not caught or contained in the past. Jesus is not disconnected with the past but builds on the foundation set by the Law and the Prophets. He has come to fulfill the law. His life will be the expression of Torah. Torah is healing and feeding and lovingly forgiving. Torah is what Jesus does. And we are called to live as Jesus lived, love as Jesus loved. We are called to be the body of Christ in the world today. We are called to live Torah, to fulfill the law. We live the law not to earn our salvation but as a result of it. Because God is merciful to us, we are called to be compassionate to our neighbors. As Martin Luther said, “God doesn’t need our good works, but our neighbor does.” Indeed. Our neighbors need us to live the Torah like Jesus did. In doing so, the poor in spirit will be strengthened, the mourners will be comforted, the meek will be emboldened, and the kingdom of heaven will come into being. Praise be to God.
Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV® Copyright ©1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.® Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.