Jesus: Liberal Rabbi or Incarnate Messiah?

On the Readings for Sunday, February 16th

'Palestine. Sermon the Mount.' by Vasily Polenov (c. 1900;
'Palestine. Sermon the Mount.' by Vasily Polenov (c. 1900;

• Sir 15:15-20
• Ps 119:1-2, 4-5, 17-18, 33-34
• 1 Cor 2:6-10
• Mt 5:17-37

“Was Jesus in reality a liberal rabbi—a forerunner of Christian liberalism? Is the Christ of faith, an therefore the whole faith of the Church, just one big mistake?”

Those are fascinating questions, asked by Benedict XVI in his book, Jesus of Nazareth (Doubleday, 2007), in a lengthy chapter, “The Sermon on the Mount”. It is my favorite chapter of the book, filled with surprising insights into the greatest sermon ever given. But the Sermon on the Mount is more than just a “sermon”, as we normally think of that term, for as the Holy Father explains, it is “the Torah of the Messiah”—that is, the Law of Jesus Christ.

This Torah of the Messiah, writes Benedict XVI in a passage directly relating to today’s Gospel reading, “is totally new and different—but it is precisely by being such that fulfills the Torah of Moses”. And the “interpretative key” is a declaration by Jesus that has caused no small amount of confusion and consternation: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets. I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.”

Growing up as a fundamentalist Protestant, I recall hearing many times that Jesus had “done away” with the Law, having supposedly shown that it was no longer of any value or purpose. But that doesn’t make sense at all of Jesus’ strong statement: “Amen, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or the smallest part of a letter will pass from the law, until all things have taken place.”

This is, Benedict notes, a “statement that never ceases to surprise us.” That is the case, in part, because we often hear or assume a simple, but incorrect, contrast: The Law is bad, but Jesus is good. This often comes about through a misunderstanding of Paul’s writings about the Law. But neither Jesus nor Paul said the Law was bad, but that bad things happen when people try to make the Law into something it isn’t. It is as if someone took an airplane, which is made to fly, and tried to fly it to the moon. Keeping with the analogy, Jesus did not come to destroy the plane, but to transform the plane into something unimagined and impossible prior. This fulfillment, the Pope writes, “demands a surplus, not a deficit, of righteousness.” In other words, Jesus did not come to do away with a Law that was impossible to keep, but to provide the way and means for the Law to be radically fulfilled and lived.

This is made clear by the series of “You have heard that … but I say to you…” statements make by Jesus about murder, adultery, divorce, and oaths. This is not a case of “they said, he said”, as if two lawyers are arguing in court, but of authoritative interpretation, as when a judge renders a final ruling. But even that analogy limps, for Jesus makes it clear that he is “on the same exalted level as the Lawgiver—as God.” This is why Matthew writes, at the end of the Sermon: “And when Jesus finished these sayings, the crowds were astonished at his teaching, for he taught them as one who had authority, and not as their scribes” (Mt 7:28-29).

This could only mean one of two things: that Jesus was an imposter of immense proportion, or he was, in fact, the Son of God, the Messiah, giving the new Torah from the mountain.

It is ironic that fundamentalist and liberal Protestants generally agree that Jesus took on the legalistic Judaism of his day by rendering the Law void and unnecessary. This misses the authoritative nature of Jesus’ words in Matthew 5, and the fact that, as Benedict notes, “Jesus understands himself as the Torah.” Far from being a liberal rabbi abolishing the Law, Jesus is the Incarnate Word who is—in his very person—the new and everlasting Law.

(This “Opening the Word” column originally appeared in the February 13, 2011, issue of Our Sunday Visitor newspaper.)

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About Carl E. Olson 1220 Articles
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"?, co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the "Catholicism" and "Priest Prophet King" Study Guides for Bishop Robert Barron/Word on Fire. His recent books on Lent and Advent—Praying the Our Father in Lent (2021) and Prepare the Way of the Lord (2021)—are published by Catholic Truth Society. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, "The Imaginative Conservative", "The Catholic Herald", "National Catholic Register", "Chronicles", and other publications. Follow him on Twitter @carleolson.