The spirit of the law

In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus teaches us about anger, adultery and the taking of false oaths. In each case, Jesus goes beyond what was prescribed by the Mosaic Law by teaching us the deeper meaning of these commandments. And in doing so, Jesus teaches us to observe not only the letter of the law but more importantly, the spirit of the law. When one follows the letter of the law, one follows only the literal interpretation of the words; but when one follows the spirit of the law, one follows the intent, or the will, of the author of the law. Hence, it is only when one obeys the spirit of the Ten Commandments that one obeys its author, who is God.

The fifth commandment: “Thou shalt not kill.” (Exodus 20:13) The spirit of the law: the fifth commandment extends to anger, hatred, resentment and cursing others. One of the things we must realize about anger is that it starts out as an emotion, and as such, is not sinful in itself. However, it is what one does with anger that could lead to sin. Feeling the emotion is one thing, but consenting to it is another because consent presupposes that one realizes that the act is evil and yet freely engages in it.

The sixth commandment: “Thou shalt not commit adultery.” (Exodus 20:14) The spirit of the law: the sixth commandment extends to fornication, licentiousness, pornography, impure thoughts, words and actions. With regards to the prohibition of adultery in the sixth commandment, Jesus teaches us that willful looking, imagining and having impure thoughts are also sinful. The willful looking at pornography is sinful because, it violates the dignity of the human person, which is created in the image of God, by utilizing a human person’s body as a means for one’s own gratification.

The Mosaic Law also prohibited perjury or the violation of oaths. The Book of Leviticus, God said to Moses: “You shall not swear falsely by my name, thus profaning the name of your God.” (Leviticus 19:12) Oath-taking was so abused at the time of Christ that while so many oaths were taken for trivial reasons, there were also the ridiculous justifications for breaking them. The spirit of the law means that no one should take an oath or swear on trivial things, because it takes the name of the Lord in vain. Jesus said to the people: “But I say to you, do not swear at all; not by heaven, for it is God’s throne; nor by the earth, for it is his footstool; nor by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. Do not swear by your head, for you cannot make a single hair white or black.” (Matthew 5:34-36) Instead of swearing, Jesus tells us to let our “yes” mean yes, and our “no” mean no.

Jesus said to his disciples: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets. I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.” This fulfillment not only confirms the Old Testament, since God’s Word is one just as He is one, it also shows us the fullness of the New Testament, in which God reveals Himself most fully in Jesus Christ. As St. Paul tells the Galatians: “No one is justified in God’s sight by the law, for the just man lives by faith; the law does not depend on faith, for its terms are that whoever follows the law shall live by them.” We are made just and holy not by observing the letter of the law, but by observing the spirit of the law which expresses our faith in Jesus Christ.