Matthew, Jesus, and Law

I had a professor friend who used to say (maybe he still does) that every controversy of the first couple centuries of the church’s life was over the (dis)continuity of the Old Testament and the life/faith of the church.

We see on the pages of the New Testament that questions about circumcision, food laws, and law-keeping in general were pressing pastoral questions. Later the question arose as to whether this world that we live in, which seems like it’s a disaster, could have possibly been created by the good God whom we worship through the work of Jesus.

The point of this post isn’t to argue that historical claim, but there’s sufficient grain of truth in it to suggest that any time we get into questions of (dis)continuity between Jesus and what came before that we are on ground that has been well traversed but often with little consensus.

In other words, three quarters of you who read what follows will probably disagree, but here it goes, anyway.

The Law in particular, and the whole Old Testament in general was of crucial importance for the writer of Matthew. “Don’t think I’ve come to abolish the law, I haven’t come to abolish but to fulfill… Not one jot or tittle will fall away from the law until all things have come to be.”

Moreover, there’s that marvelous little parable in which Jesus says that every scribe trained in the kingdom is like a householder bringing out of his storehouse treasures old and new.

Scribe: expert in the writings.

So obviously law-keeping as such is important to Jesus, as Matthew presents him. Right?

Not so fast.

The law that Matthew’s Jesus upholds as the standard of righteousness is not the Moses-given Torah, but the law and instruction and refracted through the life and teaching of Jesus.

Immediately after saying that he doesn’t come to abolish but to fulfill, Matthew’s Jesus holds up various commandments and says, “You have heard that it was said… but I say to you…”

Even if you translate this “and I say to you,” the point is largely the same: if you want to “fulfill what is written” it is not enough to keep Torah, you have to keep the words of Jesus. Knowing what you are to do is not to be had from Torah alone, but through Jesus’ teaching.

The end of the Sermon on the Mount reinforces this idea.

In 7:21-23 we get the warning that not everyone who says to Jesus, “Lord, Lord” will get into the Kingdom; those who do “get in” are those who obey God’s will, which is the same set of people whom Jesus knows.

What is perhaps oblique in this paragraph of Matthew is made explicit in the next one: Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and does them is like a person who builds his house on a rock.

Jesus’ words are what must be obeyed, not Torah itself.

The crowd’s reaction bears this out. They were amazed at Jesus’ teaching because he was teaching like one having authority. This doesn’t mean he was a compelling speaker. It means that he was speaking by standing on his own calling to speak for God, not as one passing on a tradition whose authority is vested elsewhere (such as the giving of the law itself or the line of teachers).

Finally, when Jesus sends out the eleven after his resurrection, he commands them to make disciples by teaching them to obey everything that he himself has taught.

For Matthew, discipleship is a matter of following this teacher. The Law and the Prophets are essential, but they are essential inasmuch as they have been given a Christological refraction and fulfillment.

There is a paradox entailed here: for Matthew, Law is more important than it seems to be for the other Gospel writers; but, in weaving the Law so prominently through the story, I believe he creates a Jesus who is less acceptable to a non-Christian Judaism, to a people defined by keeping Torah.

Matthew brings the law in closer, but in so doing brings it into such contact with Jesus that it no longer stands as such. The defining activities of the people of God are no longer found in the Law, but in the teachings of this particular teacher of the way of righteousness.

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