Fulfilling the Law
In the Gospel Reading Christ says that he has not come to do away with the law but to fulfill the law. In fact, no one will get into heaven unless his righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the law-observing scribes and the Pharisees.
The scribes and Pharisees thought that murderers and adulterers are shut out of heaven. As Christ explains it, just having sins in your heart, such as hatred or lust, will shut you out of heaven just as effectively.
This is a perplexing saying, isn’t it? Isn’t the law of the old covenant replaced by the new covenant of grace? What does Christ mean when he says that he has come to fulfill the law? What happened to salvation by faith and not by works?
And it’s a troubling saying, too, worrying enough to make a person groan out loud. Isn’t the burden of guilt for us heavy enough without Christ’s telling us that we will be excluded from heaven unless our righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees? The burden of the Law was great enough, wasn’t it? What happened to Christ’s saying, “Come unto me, all you who labor and are heavy-laden, and I will give you rest” (Mt.11:28)?
But think about heaven. Those in heaven have everlasting life. What would that everlasting life be like if Christ’s saying were false?
If it were false, a person who hated his brother or lusted after someone else’s wife could still have everlasting life in heaven. And now think about living forever in the psychic pain of surreptitious hatred or secret lust. How could anyone with such a psyche be in heaven? Anywhere a person like that goes ceases to be heaven just because he is there. His own unrighteousness will make him miserable. He carries the absence of heaven in his unrighteous heart.
And that is why no one can enter into heaven whose righteousness does not exceed the righteousness mandated in the law.
This is a very heavy burden indeed. What could anyone do to carry it?
The solution is to listen when Christ says, “Come to me, all you who labor and are heavy-laden, and I will give you rest.” The rest we want and the righteousness we need to get it comes to us only when we come to Christ.
Eleonore Stump is Professor of Philosophy, Saint Louis University
**From Saint Louis University