Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfil. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.
I once heard a lawyer say in defence of a patently unjust decision by a judge, “The courts are not courts of justice, they are courts of law.” One wonders then what they are for. What justifies the existence of a law, if not that it should be in the service of justice? But justice is a difficult search, and life has to go on quickly, so we settle for law.
“We have a law, and according to that law he ought to die” (Jn 19:7). It was this same law that Jesus said he came to fulfil! What could he have meant by “fulfilling the law”? Not its observance to the letter: he defiantly broke the law on many occasions – as it was understood in his time. The scribes and Pharisees adhered to the letter of the Law, yet he accused them of “setting aside the commands of God and clinging to human traditions” (Mk 7:8). By fulfilling the law he meant fulfilling the purpose for which it was made: that is, justice (or “righteousness,” as the Scriptures call it – a word that includes a just relationship with God). He may have been thinking of the text in Isaiah (55:11), “My word that goes out from my mouth shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.”
But why then does he say that “not the smallest letter or stroke of the law will change until all is fulfilled”? It is not the law that is wrong, but its separation from justice. Clever people can even make the law an instrument of injustice. This happens daily in the wide world, and sadly, also in the Church.
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