The Law gets a bad reputation, but perhaps unfairly so. The Law can include the Ten Commandments, more minor ordinances, or just be shorthand in our minds for “God’s authority to tell us what to do.” It can feel oppressive or judgmental to we who are already burdened enough by the judgment of this world and ourselves. But if Jesus is, as he says, a fulfillment of the Law, then God giving us Law is an act of love. The Law of God is meant to give us order, the safe parameters in which all people can thrive. We cannot thrive if we are constantly caught in the back-and -forth of being victims or oppressors in dangerous power dynamics. The Law shows us not only how to live with one another, but how to live in relationship with God. When we are confronted with the commandments, for example, we know that we are not capable of keeping them. We realize that God is worthy of awe and gratitude for creating, redeeming and loving us, when we clearly are not able to do any of those things for ourselves.
“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets,” Jesus says, “I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.”
So what might it mean to us, that Jesus became one of us in order to fulfill the commands of the Law and the warnings and promises of the prophets? I don’t think it is that awful paying-the-price-to-an-angry-God-in-place-of-us “atonement” theory; because that is not the kind of God Jesus embodies in any thing he does on this earth. That doesn’t seem to be how Israelites saw sacrifices either. In Leviticus, for example, Aaron was commanded to give a sin offering and a burnt offering of atonement for himself and the people. But listen, the command is given with these words: “so that the glory of the Lord may appear to you.” Sacrifices were not a way to appease or manipulate the God of Abraham into forgiveness or a better mood – as if human beings have that kind of influence. They were to orient us towards God so we could see God’s glory. The Law does not demand a sacrifice in order for God to love you. God is already there. The Law is another expression of that love.
So, how does he do it? Jesus fulfills the Law and prophets, by interpreting them, showing that they are not dead words to be followed by habit, but living words to engage with as we relate to other people. He interpreted them in his teachings, in his public acts of protest and healing, and even in how he faced own death. Jesus constantly pushed the boundaries of what was clean or unclean, allowed on the sabbath, or with whom you should eat. He often taught in parables, tricky stories that could be seen from multiple angles, and in fact need to be wrestled with to get meaning out of them. He made his hearers engage with God’s messages, instead of just memorize by rote. He was living testimony that a dead, flat interpretation of Scripture is not what God desires. Jesus modeled a flexible engagement with the Words of God that we must interpret for our own time and situations. This is how he fulfills the Law, by taking it into his life in all its meaning, and history and reverence for God, with the real life people surrounding him as a major factor in how he interprets the Law and Prophets.
In our Old Testament reading from Isaiah today, the Lord God is irate over people doing thoughtless fasting, presumably because that is what the written Law prescribes for how to act righteous. “As if they were a nation that practiced righteousness and did not forsake the ordinance of their God.” God doesn’t want those fasts. God wants us to fast from injustice, to cut out of our lives the exploitation of others, until the void it leaves aches like a hunger. “Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?” What does that look like today? What would we be fasting from, if we were going to painfully cut out exploiting others? Interpret the Law in your own context, and live it out to the extreme, exhorts the prophet!
“Then your light shall break forth like the dawn” Isaiah promises. And Jesus repeats, but changes the verb tense: “You are the light of the world. You are the salt of the earth.” Not in the past tense: “Back in the day, people were faithful, had integrity, cared for each other. They were the salt of the earth, light of the world.” Nope. Neither does Jesus say it in the conditional tense: “Do this, and then you could be the light of the world” Nope. He is declaring the truth in the present to those listening: “You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world.”
You, interpreters of God’s Word in your own lives, responding to injustice and sharing what you have, you are here to enliven the whole earth. To change the flavor of the conversation, to show people there is way more to see than ominous shadows when looking towards God. You change the equation, with your saltiness and your shining a light from different angles and into neglected corners. It is our Christ-like job to re-interpret how God’s love stretches to the margins, in fact, it is a fulfillment of the Law. Interpret away; it’s what Jesus would do.