Jesus really fulfill the law

Published 2:34 pm Friday, August 28, 2009

I know a family in California whose members treasure the memory of their deceased aunt—they will call her Aunt Mary.

She was a single woman who had a very basic education. During years of hard work and frugal living, she was able to put some money aside. She was generous throughout her lifetime with her savings. She helped many family members: The newly married who needed money for a mortgage; a nephew struggling to pay for law school; a widowed sister who needed help with the rent, etc.

She was known in her family for her generosity, which she did without fanfare and many times anonymously.

Email newsletter signup

Aunt Mary was generous outside her family as well, giving to people she heard about who had need. During her lifetime her generosity was admired by and a challenge to, those who did know about it. Her reputation for generosity lived on after she died.

One of her nieces once said, “I’ll always remember what Aunt Mary said, ‘If you have money how can you not give it to someone who doesn’t?'”

Aunt Mary left a legacy and it wasn’t just the money she gave to those who needed it. Her example and words became a model and challenge for others.

“If you have, how can you not give to someone who doesn’t?”

It wasn’t a commandment the family had to follow, it was something they wanted to do to honor a beloved family member—practice generosity the way Aunt Mary did.

The Deuteronomy passage (4,1-8) is another family story. Moses is talking to the Israelites on the plains of Moab. The whole book of Deuteronomy is a sermon he delivers to them. The Israelites have just completed their long journey through the desert with its daily and long hardships on the road to freedom. Moses is giving them advice before they enter the Promise Land: they are to, “hear the statutes and decrees.”

It’s what we expect from a religious leader, isn’t it—rules of behavior, ways to please the Divine?

But that’s not what Moses is teaching; we don’t keep commandments to win God’s favor and please God. Moses is saying that God is like Aunt Mary, who loved and helped her family when they were too young to return the love or too broke to pay back the gifts.

The Israelites had received gifts from God—freedom from slavery, daily nourishment and protection along their escape route—out of God’s generosity and love. God did these wonderful deeds because of God’s love for the Israelites, not because they deserved it, but because God wanted to do good things for them.

The Israelites didn’t look at commandments as onerous, something they were pressured to do. Rather, God was like Aunt Mary who said, “If you have something, how could you not share it with someone who doesn’t?”

Those in Aunt Mary’s family who benefited from her generosity were inspired by her spirit and wanted to reflect it in their lives. That’s the way it is with God.

We don’t always live up to who we are and who we want to be; we don’t always reflect the God who stood by us with forgiveness and generosity in hard times (Mark 7,1-23).

But Jesus did. He was the image and likeness of our generous God who rescued the Israelites from slavery—and who, through Jesus, delivers us from our slavery and addictions. Jesus lived in the way God wants us all to live. As the Bible tells us, he “fulfilled the Law.”

If the Pharisees and scribes who challenged Jesus about his disciples’ non-observance of the eating rituals, had been in Aunt Mary’s family, they would have wanted rules and regulations about how much each family member was to donate to those in need.

They would have made lists of givers and receivers; determined who was to receive how much and they would have determined the percentage of a family member’s resources that would go to charity. They would have been very thorough. And if they had the authority, they probably would have enforced the regulations. That’s just the way it is when some people are in control.

The pressured family members might have observed the rules of giving, but the process would have killed the spirit of Aunt Mary. In truth, Mary’s family members imitated her generosity, not because there were rules about it, but because she touched their lives and they caught her spirit. They gifted others freely, in “the spirit of Aunt Mary.”

Which is what some of the Pharisees and scribes failed to do in observing and pressuring others to follow the Mosaic Law. The Pharisees get a bad reputation in the Gospels and are often caricatured. But their intentions were good: to protect and preserve the integrity of the Law, applying it to daily life. In the process some got carried away and misplaced the spirit of the Law and, as in today’s gospel, became preoccupied about externals.

Jesus attacks their misplaced emphasis and their way of structuring life.

Today’s passage comes between two multiplication stories, which manifested his overflowing concern for people.  The Pharisees, on the other hand, have a restrictive view, showing a preoccupation with minutia—washing hands and utensils for eating. The Pharisees got sidetracked as they tried to be the holy people God called them to be.

No one can deny Jesus’ desire to form a holy people; but he says that has nothing to do with exterior legal observances.  The interior of a person must be transformed first, then the proper exterior practices will flow naturally—the way, I suppose, Aunt Mary’s family was affected and changed by her generosity.

It’s the grace that comes to those who believe in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus that effects real transformation in a person.

Touched by that grace and accepting the new life it brings, makes a person say something like Aunt Mary’s family said. How can we not forgive and be generous to others, when in Jesus, God has been so forgiving and generous towards us?