Jesus Christ, the Divine Lawgiver

Author: Pope John Paul II

In his General Audience on Wednesday, 14 October 1987, the Holy Father reflected on Jesus' power to “complete and interpret authoritatively or even propose the law of God in  a new way.”

In the Gospels we find another fact which demonstrates Jesus' awareness of his possession of divine power, and the conviction of the evangelists and the first Christian community about this authority. The Synoptics agree in saying that Jesus' hearers were astonished at his teaching, "for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes" (Mk 1:22; and Mt 7:29; Lk 4:32). This is a valuable item of information which Mark gives us at the beginning of his Gospel. It is a witness to us that the people immediately recognized the difference between Christ's teaching and that of the Israelite scribes, not only in manner but also in substance. The scribes based their teaching on the text of the Mosaic Law of which they were the interpreters and glossators. Jesus did not at all follow the method of a teacher or commentator of the old law, but he conducted himself as a lawgiver and, in the last analysis, as one who had authority over the law. It is to be noted that the hearers well knew that it was a matter of divine law, given by Moses in virtue of a power which God himself had granted him as his representative and mediator with the people of Israel.

The evangelists and the first Christian community who reflected on that remark of the hearers about Jesus' teaching, had a better realization of its full significance, because they could set it alongside Christ's entire later ministry. For the Synoptics and their readers the passage from the affirmation of a power over the Mosaic law and the entire Old Testament to the affirmation of a divine authority in Christ was therefore a logical step. It was not merely the authority of a divine envoy or legate as in the case of Moses. In claiming the power to complete and interpret authoritatively or even to propose the law of God in a new way, Christ showed his awareness of being "equal to God" (cf. Phil 2:6).

That the power claimed by Christ over the law implies divine authority is shown by the fact that he did not create another law by abolishing the old one. "Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets. I have come not to abolish but to fulfill" (Mt 5:17). It is clear that God could not abolish the law which he himself had given. He can, however, as Jesus Christ did, make clear its full significance. He explained its correct meaning, and corrected false interpretations and arbitrary applications, to which the people and even their teachers and rulers had subjected it, yielding to the weaknesses and limitations of the human condition.

For this reason Jesus announced, proclaimed and called for a righteousness surpassing that of the scribes and Pharisees (cf. Mt 5:20)—the righteousness which God himself proposed and demanded by the faithful observance of the law for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. The Son of Man acted as a God who re-establishes what God had willed and laid down once for all.

Speaking of the law of God, he proclaimed in particular, "Amen, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or the smallest part of a letter will pass from the law, until all things have taken place" (Mt 5:18). It is a drastic statement with which Jesus intended to affirm both the substantial immutability of the Mosaic law, and the messianic fulfillment which it receives in his word. It is a question of a fullness of the old law. Teaching "as one having authority" over the law, he indicated that it is manifested especially in the love of God and of one's neighbor. "The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments" (Mt 22:40). It is a case of a fulfillment corresponding to the spirit of the law, which already appears from the letter of the Old Testament. Jesus took that up, synthesized and propounded it with the authority of one who is Lord also of the law. The precepts of love and also of faith engendering hope in the messianic work, which he added to the old law by making explicit its content and by developing its hidden virtualities, are also a fulfillment.

His life was a model of this fulfillment. Jesus could say to his disciples not only and not merely, "Follow my law," but, "Follow me, imitate me, walk in the light which comes from me."

1.  Evangelical spirit of charity and sincerity

As recorded by Matthew, the Sermon on the Mount is the place in the New Testament where one sees the power over the law (which Israel had received from God as the foundation of the covenant) clearly affirmed and decisively exercised by Jesus. It is there, after having declared the perpetual validity of the law and the duty to observe it (Mt 5:18-19), that Jesus went on to affirm the necessity of a righteousness surpassing that of the scribes and Pharisees, or of an observance of the law animated by the new evangelical spirit of charity and sincerity.

The concrete examples are known. The first consists in the victory over anger, resentment and ill will, which easily nestle in the human heart, even with the outward observance of the Mosaic precepts, among which is that of not killing. "You have heard that it was said to your ancestors, 'You shall not kill; and whoever kills will be liable to judgment.' But I say to you, whoever is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment" (Mt 5:21-22). The same holds good in the case of one who has offended another with hurtful words, mockery and derision. It is the condemnation of all yielding to the instinct of aversion, which is potentially an act of injury and even of killing, at least spiritually, because it violates the economy of love in human relationships and causes harm to others. Jesus set out the law of charity which purifies and re-orders man in the most intimate feelings and movements of his spirit. Fidelity to this law is required by Jesus as an indispensable condition of religious practice itself. "Therefore, if you bring your gift to the altar, and there recall that your brother has anything against you, leave your gift there at the altar. Go first and be reconciled with your brother, and then come and offer your gift" (Mt 5:23-24). Since it is a matter of a law of love, it is even irrelevant who it is that has in his heart something against another. The love preached by Jesus equalizes and unifies all in willing what is good, in establishing or re-establishing harmony in relations with one's neighbors, and even in cases of judicial contentions and proceedings (cf. Mt 5:25).

Another example of bringing the law to perfection is that concerning the sixth commandment of the Decalogue in which Moses prohibited adultery. In hyperbolic and even paradoxical language suited to rivet the attention and shake the state of mind of his hearers, Jesus announced, "You have heard what was said, 'You shall not commit adultery'; but I say to you..." (Mt 5:27). He went on to also condemn impure looks and desires, while recommending flight from occasions of sin, the courage of mortification, the subordination of all acts and behavior to the demands of the salvation of the soul and of the whole person (cf. Mt 5:29-30).

To this case there is linked in a certain way another which Jesus took up immediately. "It was also said, 'Whoever divorces his wife must give her a bill of divorce.' But I say to you...." He declared as no longer valid the concession made by the old law to the people of Israel "because of the hardness of their hearts" (cf. Mt 19:8), by prohibiting even this form of the violation of the law of love in harmony with the re-establishment of the indissolubility of marriage (cf. Mt 19:9).

Similarly Jesus opposed to the ancient prohibition of perjury the precept of not swearing at all (cf. Mt 5:33-38). The reason which emerges sufficiently clearly is once again based on love. One should not be disbelieving or distrustful of one's neighbor when he is habitually candid and sincere. Rather, one should follow this fundamental law of speech and action, "Let your 'yes' mean 'yes' and your 'no' mean 'no.' Anything more is from the evil one" (Mt 5:37).

Again, "You have heard that it was said, 'An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.' But I say to you, offer no resistance to one who is evil..." (Mt 5:38-39). With metaphorical language Jesus teaches us to turn the other cheek, to hand over not only the tunic but also the cloak, not to respond with violence to the vexations of others, and above all, "Give to the one who asks of you, and do not turn your back on one who wants to borrow" (Mt 5:42). This is a radical exclusion of the law of retaliation in the personal life of Jesus' disciples—whatever be the right of society to defend its members from evildoers and to punish those guilty of violating the rights of citizens and of the state itself.

Then he teaches the ultimate step in the process of bringing to perfection, that in which all the others find their dynamic center, "You have heard that it was said, 'You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your heavenly Father, for he makes his sun rise on the bad and the good, and causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust..." (Mt 5:43-45). In opposition to the common interpretation of the old law which identified the neighbor with the Israelite, and indeed with the pious Israelite, Jesus set out the authentic interpretation of God's commandment. He added to it the religious dimension of reference to the clement and merciful heavenly Father who does good to all and is therefore the supreme exemplar of universal love.

Jesus concluded, "Be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect" (Mt 5:48). He asked of his followers the perfection of love. Love is the synthesis of the new law he brought. This love will enable man to overcome in his relations with others the classical opposition of friend-enemy. It will tend from within hearts to transform into corresponding forms of social, political and even institutionalized solidarity. Thus the irradiation of Jesus' new commandment will be very widespread in history.

At this point we are anxious above all to point out that in the important passages of the Sermon on the Mount, the contraposition is repeated, "You have heard that it was said.... But I say to you." This was not to abolish the divine law of the old covenant, but to indicate its perfect fulfillment, according to the sense intended by God the lawgiver. Jesus illumined this with a new light and explained it in all its value to achieve a new life, and as the generating principle of a new history. He did so by claiming for himself an authority identical with that of God the lawgiver. It can be said that in that expression repeated six times, "I say to you," there resounds the echo of God's self-definition, which Jesus also attributes to himself, "I Am" (cf. Gen 8:58).

Finally we must recall the reply given by Jesus to the Pharisees who rebuked his disciples for plucking the ears of corn from the fields to eat them on the sabbath, thereby transgressing the Mosaic law. Jesus began by citing the example of David and his companions who did not hesitate to eat the "bread of offering" when they were hungry, and that of the priests who did not observe the law of the sabbath rest because they had to carry out their functions in the Temple. Then he concluded with two peremptory affirmations, unheard of for the Pharisees, "I say to you, something greater than the Temple is here...." and "The Son of Man is Lord even of the sabbath" (Mt 12:6-8; cf. Mk 2:27-28). They are statements which clearly reveal Jesus' consciousness of his divine authority. His definition of himself as "one greater than the Temple" was a clear enough allusion to his divine transcendence. Then in proclaiming himself "Lord of the sabbath," or of a law given by God himself to Israel, he was openly proclaiming his own authority as head of the messianic kingdom and promulgator of the new law. So it was not a case of mere derogations from the Mosaic law, allowed also by the rabbis in very restricted cases, but of a re-integration, a complement and a renewal which Jesus announced as everlasting, "Heaven and earth will pass away but my words will not pass away" (Mt 24:35). What comes from God is eternal, just as God is eternal.