Jesus said: I have not come to abolish the Law, but to fulfill it! Now, the law says “fulfill your oaths” I say don’t swear oaths at all. The Law says hate your enemy, but I say love your enemy. I have not come to abolish the Law, but to fulfill it. Now, maybe Jesus has an unusual definition of what it means to abolish something, but it sure looks like He is replacing the Law with an opposite teaching of His own devising. If that’s not abolishing the Law, I don’t know what is. And that’s a problem because the Law that Jesus was talking about, it was held in the highest Esteem. People believed that the Law was handed down from on high quite literally. The Law of God was said to have been written on stone tablets carved by the very finger of God, carried down from the top of a mountain by Moses himself. So when Jesus says “I have not come to abolish the Law, but to fulfill it!” He is grabbing on to high voltage stuff, especially since it very much looks like He is abolishing the Law.
Jesus doesn’t stick to polite topics of legal discourse either, He jumps straight into people’s marriage beds. “You have heard it said, whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce. But I say to you, anyone who divorces his wife, except on grounds of adultery, causes her to commit adultery, and anyone who marries a divorced woman commits adultery.” The common understanding of the letter of the Law at that time was that a man was more or less allowed to divorce his wife. But Jesus is, in no uncertain terms, teaching that divorce is not allowed. How is it reasonable to think that He is not abolishing the Law? And what’s wrong with divorce anyway?
To understand what was wrong, it is important to know a little bit about what the world was like for women back then. At that time of Jesus’ life, women were considered subservient to men almost to the point of being property, and they were utterly dependent upon finding a husband for economic viability. And even if a woman did find a husband, she was never secure in her economic position. Any wealth that she created would belong to her husband, and at any time her husband could decide that he could not or simply did not want to have her in the household anymore. He could cut her loose and put her out of the household. This could be for any reason or no reason at all and a woman thus badly-used would be left destitute, with nothing to her name. The threat of being abandoned was one of the most brutal tools of male economic domination of women.
Well, that’s what the world was like for women, so now on to the Law itself. The Law that Jesus is talking about, the one He claims that He is fulfilling by prohibiting divorce, it comes from the book of Deuteronomy. And like most of the Law, it’s written in the form of an example from real life with a judgment at the end about what is allowable and not allowable.
The real life example goes like this: say that a man divorces his wife, and writes her a certificate of divorce, puts it in her hand, and sends her away. And she then marries another man, and he also decides to divorce her and gives her a certificate of divorce. Now the first man, he is not permitted to take her as his wife again, that is abhorrent to the Lord.
That’s what the Law says. In a world where a woman would be left destitute if her husband abandoned her, the Law of God in Deuteronomy does two things. First, it prohibits men from simply divorcing women willy-nilly, being married to a woman one day, divorcing her the next, then taking her on again whenever he feels like it. Second, the Law requires that a man provide a woman with public documentation, a certificate of divorce, so that a woman who has been cast off by her husband is at least able to provide proof that she is eligible for marriage to someone else. This is hardly a fulsome set of legal protections for women, but the Law on divorce from Deuteronomy does curb the worst abuses of a system of marriage that was rigged against women. The Law did give women some minimal measure of protection from a system that degraded women and denied them agency over their economic future.
Taken from that point of view, Jesus is absolutely correct. He is not abolishing the law on divorce, He is fulfilling it. And the fulfillment of the law is that a man is not allowed to divorce his wife at all, unless she herself is unfaithful in the marriage. This is a fulfillment of the Law in Deuteronomy, an extension of the protections afforded to a woman under the Law. No more could a man divorce his wife and leave her in destitution simply because he felt like it. The only person whose actions can make a divorce allowable, is a woman herself. A woman’s economic future is in her own hands, her status a member of her household depends upon the decisions that she makes, no one else.
This is the fulfillment of God’s Law on divorce because it affirms the dignity of women and promotes the flourishing of the whole human family. And that is the standard not only for divorce, but for any aspect of marriage. The standard that the Law must meet under Jesus’ teaching is that it affirms human dignity and promotes the flourishing of the whole human family. Who can get married to one another? What is the proper relationship of power and authority between spouses? What is the proper way to order one’s sexual life? In all of these questions, the correct interpretation of the Law of God will be one in which human dignity is affirmed and the flourishing of the whole human family is supported.
And this is true not only of the Law as it pertains to marriage. Guarding human dignity and promoting the flourishing of the whole human family is the fulfillment of the Law of God in all cases. Jesus in this section of the Sermon on the Mount is providing us with an interpretive framework we can use to understand what the Law of God means. And when we approach any example of the law, if we keep that framework of human dignity in mind we will be able to find the true meaning of the Law.
This turns out to be true even of Jesus’ teachings about retribution. On the question of violent retribution Jesus claims that He is not abolishing the Law but fulfilling it: “You have heard it said, an eye for eye and a tooth for a tooth, but I say to you if someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.” The bare meaning of an eye for an eye is that if someone hurts me, I can hurt them back in equal measure. Turn the other cheek means that if someone hurts me, I am not supposed to retaliate at all. Say what you will about whether it is realistic to live according to an ethic of “turn the other cheek”, but it certainly doesn't seem to be the same thing as the justified retribution of “an eye for an eye”. How is it reasonable to think that he is not abolishing the Law?
Again, just as it was with divorce, when Jesus talks about the Law, He is not speaking in generalities. When Jesus is talking about the Law of “an eye for an eye” He is referring to passages from Exodus, Leviticus, Deuteronomy, and Numbers. That is to say, in every collection of laws in the Bible there is some version of “an eye for an eye”. And again, as with the law on divorce, the laws of “an eye for an eye” are written using examples from real life, with a judgment at the end about what is allowable. In Exodus, the example goes like this: say that two men are fighting and one accidentally knocks down a woman who is standing nearby; if the woman is wounded, the punishment shall be eye for eye, tooth for tooth, burn for burn and stripe for stripe. In Leviticus the example goes like this: say that an Israelite and a foreigner get into a fight, and the Israelite wounds the foreigner badly, but the foreigner survives; the punishment shall be eye for eye and tooth for tooth. The example from Numbers goes like this: say that a person has killed another; no monetary compensation can be given, but only life for life. Taken together, these laws establish that the life of a woman is equal to the life of a man—eye for eye—and that the life of a foreigner is equal to the life of an Israelite—tooth for tooth—and that there is no way to put monetarily compensate for any person’s death—life for life—because there is no ratio between dollars and cents and life and death.
Taken from that point of view, Jesus is absolutely correct. He is not abolishing the Law, He is fulfilling it. The Law of an eye for an eye was never about how retribution is good. An eye for an eye establishes that no one’s life is worth more than anyone else’s. An eye for an eye means that men’s lives and women’s lives, foreigners’ lives and our countrymen’s lives, all people are of equal worth. That is to say, human life is of immeasurable worth. And so when Jesus says that when someone strikes you on the cheek, you should not strike them back but turn the other cheek also, that is a challenging fulfillment of the Law. Because even someone who hurts me, even someone I justifiably count as an enemy, their life is of immeasurable value. Their life is of equal value to my own. Our enemies are still of sacred worth, because they are children of God, and it is wrong to harm and kill the children of God. Ever since Cain slew Abel, even the numb and dumb dirt of the ground knew enough to cry out against bloodshed.
That is the fulfillment of the Law of an eye for an eye. And the fulfillment is that human beings are not to hurt one another because all life is precious. It is an affirmation of human dignity and a guide for how to promote human flourishing. And this is true not only of retribution, guarding human dignity and promoting the flourishing of the whole human family is the fulfillment of the Law of God in all cases.
Jesus has given us the framework necessary for understanding and applying the Law of God and it is our responsibility as Christians to learn the bible and teach true things about the Law. When people are abusing the Law of God to deny the dignity of LGBT people, we must confront them: you have heard it said, “when a man lies with a man it is an abomination,” but I say to you, the fulfillment of the Law is that everyone who loves is born of God and knows God, for God is love. When people continue to deny women’s rights in this day and age, we must confront them: you have heard it said: “I will not suffer a woman to teach,” and “wives should submit to their husbands”, but I say to you that the fulfillment of the Law is this, in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, neither male nor female, for all are one in Christ Jesus. When people demonize the poor and seek to grind them into the dust, we must confront them: you have heard it said “the one who does not labor, neither shall he eat” but I say to you, the fulfillment of the Law is this: to give food to the hungry, and clothing to the cold, and to care for sick people, and to visit those in prison, because whenever you serve people, even if it is the least among the human family, you are serving Jesus himself. That is the fulfillment of the Law. And the Law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul; the commandment of the Lord is clear, enlightening the eyes; the ordinances of the Lord are true and righteous altogether. The fear of the Lord is pure enduring forever.
So Christians, read your bible, study the Law, and guard human dignity.