“I have not come to abolish the law but to fulfill it.”
Jesus’ words in the Gospel cause two different reactions depending on the viewpoint you are starting with. Many people assume that Jesus’ example lends to the idea that Jesus’ way fulfilled the law and thus the law came to an end. Their viewpoint has validity. We don’t sacrifice animals and sprinkle their blood on people and we don’t perform temple ritual offerings. We also don’t wash ourselves clean every time we sin. If we did, there would be a lot of wet people around town. Thus, seeing these people see “fulfilling the law” as bringing the law to an end. Yet, Jesus was very clear in this teaching: “not a letter or the smallest part of the letter will pass before all things have taken place.” His words help and hinder. What are the “all things” that need to take place? Is that the final culmination of all things in Jesus or his Resurrection? The Gospel isn’t clear.
Even in its lack of clarity we have some way to find the truth of Jesus’ words. In the Letter to the Hebrews it writes “Jesus is the same yesterday, today, and forever.” Thus God’s laws are always in effect. Remember those 613 laws of the Old Testament, the ones that most of us cannot remember, these laws are part of God’s plan for humanity. They shall not pass away “until all things have taken place.” Since God doesn’t change and his laws are eternal, Jesus is reiterating this reality for those who think he is going to change the entire Jewish religion.
The primary way in which people assume that Jesus changes the laws is the Mass. The context of the Mass is deeply rooted in the Book of Leviticus, that book that no one likes to read. As I have been preparing for the Gospel of Matthew series that I lead, I have realized the gravity to which Jesus maintains the laws of the Old Testament. The sacrifices of the Old Testament were very specific. The person or people would bring an animal, usually a bull, goat, or sheep, to the priest. The priest would slaughter the animal and drain its blood. The priest takes the blood and sprinkles half of it on the altar and half on the people. Then the flesh of the animal was roasted or boiled and eaten by the people. Blood for blood. The damaged caused by sin was redeemed by the blood of the animal. As sin brought death to our bodies so does the death of an animal bring healing. This event sounds gruesome to us, but this is what we celebrate in the Mass. The people bring their gifts, the toil of their hands, to the priest. The priest takes their offering and presents it to the Lord was the sacrifice of the people. Then the priest consecrates the offering and gives it back to the people to eat. But the sacrifices of the people are not the same as the sacrifices of the Old Testament. Where the animal stood as the symbol of forgiveness and the object that brings forgiveness, our gifts are symbols of our contrite hearts and Jesus’ blood forgives sins. As we eat the sacrifice, the Body and Blood of Jesus, his blood restores our blood-loss caused by sin and his Body makes us partakers of the one complete sacrifice that can forgive sins. Thus the laws governing forgiveness of sins and the sacrifices of old are not ended but have reached their culmination in the one prefect sacrifice. We don’t end the laws governing proper worship, we conform them to the true worship that comes with the fulfillment of all things in Jesus.