Sometimes we encounter in Scripture statements that may appear contradictory. Saint Paul, in his letter to the Ephesians, says: “[Christ abolished] the law with its commandments and legal claims” (Eph 2:15). Jesus, in today’s gospel, declares: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets. I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.” So, who is right, the gospel or Paul? Did Jesus actually abolish the law or not? It is not a question of little account, because our life depends on the answer to this question: if the law is still in force, we are obliged to observe it; if Jesus has abolished it, we can feel free to behave according to our will. Today’s liturgy helps us to answer this question.
First of all, the book of Sirach reminds us that we are free: “[God] has set before you fire and water; to whichever you choose, stretch forth your hand.” The verse prior to today’s passage says: “When God, in the beginning created man, he made him subject to his own free choice” (Sir 15:14). This freedom is the condition for our responsibility: if one is not free, he cannot be considered responsible for his own actions. But this does not mean that it is irrelevant what we decide to do: “Before man are life and death, good and evil, whichever he chooses shall be given him.” Life and death, good and evil are not the same: we are free to choose either; but we must know that the result of our choice will be different. If we choose evil, we cannot complain if then we have to suffer the consequences of that. To the utmost, we could be excused if we did not know that what we did was evil. Precisely for this reason the law exists, to show us what is good and what is evil. There is a natural law written in the heart of each of us; but not always we are able to read it. That is why God made it explicit through the ten commandments given to Moses. Nobody could abolish them; and Jesus openly says in today’s gospel: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets.” Not only has Jesus not come to abolish the law, but he has not come to change it either. He says: “I have come not to abolish but to fulfill (Non veni solvere sed adimplere).” Why? Because he knows that even God’s law can be implemented in a wrong way, as the scribes and Pharisees did. They observed the law meticulously; and yet they did not accomplish it. It is exactly what Jesus does not want his disciples to do: their righteousness should surpass that of the scribes and Pharisees.
That is the reason why Jesus, in the Sermon on the Mount, makes a series of antitheses between what “was said to your ancestors” and what “I say to you.” We find four of these antitheses in today’s selection; we will read two more next Sunday. Notice: when Jesus quotes one of the ten commandments—as, for example, “You shall not kill” or “You shall not commit adultery”—he extends and deepens the meaning of the commandment: it is not enough to refrain from killing, we should not even be angry with others; it is not enough to refrain from committing adultery, we should not even desire. Instead, when Jesus quotes subsequent adaptations of the law—as, for instance, the rules about divorce or oaths—in these cases, he rejects them, because they are just human applications of the commandments, and goes back to the original intention of God: “Whoever divorces his wife … causes her to commit adultery;” “Do not swear at all … Let your ‘Yes’ mean ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No’ mean ‘No.’” Now we can understand what Paul means, when he says that “[Christ abolished] the law with its commandments and legal claims”. It is precisely all those rules, which had been added by men and had ended up overshadowing the real will of God, that Jesus came to abolish, not to allow us to do whatever we want, but just to help us to accomplish what God expects of us.