Toward the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says: “Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfil them” (Mt 5:17). When one understands that different sections of the Old Testament fall under the categories of “Law” and “Prophets,” this statement means more than just the Ten Commandments or the Books of Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, etc. “The law and the prophets” can be interpreted as practically the entire Old Testament. In other words, all of it points to Jesus, and all of it finds its completion and most profound meaning in him. He is its culmination.
Throughout the Old Testament God is showing Himself to humankind in order to bring persons into a life of communion with him. Communion happens through worship and a life lived according to the commandments of God and the obedience of faith. One might ask, “why does God bother to reach out to us?” A simple answer might be that he thought we would like it. In his goodness, he knows that we will have the greatest happiness if we are in communion with him, and so he made it possible.
This approach toward human beings on the part of God begins with Adam and extends to Abraham and his children. It becomes clear, however, that physical bonds are not the most important factor of being a member of Abraham’s family. Instead, it is faith. Those who share in the faith of Abraham are his “seed.” St. Paul recognized that and preached adamantly about the Gentiles being grafted onto Israel through faith. It was clear to him that Israel had been chosen not in order to exclude the rest of humanity from God, but so that through them the greatest possible communion with God might be given. That happened with the Incarnation, the coming of the Son of God as a man, to live among us — namely, Jesus of Nazareth.
As at other times when God approached near to human beings in order to lead them to a greater communion with Himself, Jesus came preaching the Kingdom of God. He himself was the Kingdom present among the people. Also as at other times, human beings for the most part rejected God’s gift, a relationship of friendship with himself. Jesus was rejected by the Jewish leaders and crucified for his claims of being God’s Son. He died, but God did not allow him to remain in death. Instead, God raised him on the third day, and Jesus now is alive forever. It is still possible for us to have a relationship with him, a true friendship with God.
Why, then, do not more people live in this friendship with Him? Take Christmas, for instance. It might seem like that feast of the Incarnation of the Son of God, from the natural point of view, is a failed project. After centuries of preparation, after all the revelation contained in the Law and the Prophets, God finally came to earth Himself, in the flesh. But humankind rejected him yet again. And, clearly, His coming to us as a man did not end war and violence, sin and destruction, by imposing divine order from the outside.
So, why did Jesus come to fulfill the Law and the Prophets? All throughout the age of the Old Testament, God is inviting His people to look at him, to fix their eyes on him, because he is the only way through the mire of sin, death and confusion that we experience day in and day out. Over and over again, Israel turns away. God’s ways are too difficult. His paths are too circuitous. He demands too much. Finally, in Jesus of Nazareth, the God of the Old Testament comes among his people and says: “Learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart. Take my yoke upon you, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” In doing so, he showed his love for us in an astounding way. All our hopes for change and restoration, for renewal and “getting it right this time” depend on this love that God has for us and this communion that God makes possible for each and every person. Jesus came to save every person and bring each one to communion with God. It is only through each individual human heart that God desires to end war and violence, sin and destruction. He desires that his salvation occur within each man and woman, and so have its effects without. Only he can enter into our lives in such a way as to make them whole, to “fulfill them.” He has said it, and he will do it.
Sister Anna Marie McGuan, RSM, is director of Christian formation in the Diocese of Knoxville. Read more from the Bible 101 series here.