The Dispatch: More from CWR...

Jesus: Liberal rabbi or incarnate Messiah?

On the Readings for Sunday, February 12, 2023

Detail from "Palestine. Sermon on the Mount." (c. 1900) by Vasily Polenov []

• 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, and 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 Benedict explains, it is “the Torah of the Messiah”—that is, the Law of Jesus Christ.

This Torah of the Messiah, writes Benedict 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, Benedict 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 made 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.)

If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!

Click here for more information on donating to CWR. Click here to sign up for our newsletter.

About Carl E. Olson 1233 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.


  1. Rather than obeisance to difficult rules the insight given here is that Christ the living Word of God is the Torah, the Law. As incorporated in a Person Christ we’re drawn to live the Word. The Holy Eucharist then is the sacrament through which we become incorporated with him becoming like Him deepening our awareness of His infinite good. The Torah becomes an interior desire to live this law of love rather than simple obedience to external rules.

  2. “The Law is bad, but Jesus is good. This often comes about through a misunderstanding of Paul’s writings about the Law.”

    A Protestant once posted that in his third year of the seminary he asked his professor when they were going to finally start studying Jesus’ Gospels. They had gone over Corinthians (written by St. Paul) word by word, multiple times, but had not yet even touched Jesus’ Gospels. When I confronted a Protestant minister on how the Protestants throw out Jesus in favor of St. Paul, he told me that after Jesus died everything changed. Where Jesus taught pre-Resurrection, after Jesus died and Resurrected, now St. Paul teaches post-Resurrection.

    2 Peter 3:14 Preparation for the Coming.
    Consider that our Lord’s patience is directed toward salvation. Paul, our beloved brother, wrote you this in the spirit of wisdom that is his, dealing with these matters as he does in all his letters. There are certain passages in them hard to understand. The ignorant and the unstable distort them (just as they do the rest of Scripture) to their own ruin. You are forewarned, beloved brothers. Be on your guard lest you be led astray by the error of the wicked, and forfeit the security you enjoy.

    St. Paul says,
    Galatians 2:15
    We, who are Jews by nature and not sinners from among the Gentiles, (yet) who know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified.

    Jesus says,
    Matthew 19:16
    “Teacher, what good must I do to possess everlasting life?” He answered, “Why do you question me about what is good? There is One who is good. If you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments.” “Which ones?” he asked. Jesus replied “You shall not kill”; ‘You shall not commit adultery’; ‘You shall not steal’; ‘You shall not bear false witness’; ‘Honor your father and mother’; and ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.'”

    John 5:27
    “The Father has given over to him power to pass judgment because he is Son of Man; no need for you to be surprised at this, for an hour is coming in which all those in their tombs shall hear his voice and come forth. Those who have done right shall rise to live; the evildoers shall rise to be damned.”

    John 15:10
    “You will live in my love if you keep my commandments, even as I have kept my Father’s commandments, and live in his love.”

    Possessing Faith in Jesus great enough to Move Mountains, Yet Jesus burns them in hell as Evildoers.

    Matthew 7:21 The True Disciple.
    Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord’, will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven. When that day comes, many will plead with me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ have we not prophesied in your name? have we not exorcized demons by its power? Did we not do many miracles in your name as well? Then I will declare to them solemnly, I never knew you. Out of my sight, you evildoers!

  3. “Jesus understands himself as the Torah”. His gospel the Torah of divine love and law.
    “The Torah becomes an interior desire to live this law of love rather than simple obedience to external rules.” (Fr. Peter Morello). The Jewish Torah has hundreds of rules and regulations and the self-righteous Pharisee appeared to be in love with himself and not with God; yet, they knew the carnal law: to love God with all your heart, strength and being. Whatever good deeds we accomplish, without love all is naught and we cannot advance to the intimacy with God. Commenting on St. John of the Cross, Edith Stein writes in the Science of the Cross about the surrender of the soul unreservedly to the love of God: In the bridal union God surrounds the soul with such love that the most tender love of a mother cannot compare with it. ….he reveals his secrets to her (the soul) and gives her the sweet knowledge of mystical theology, the secret knowledge of God.” (chapter 21, The bridal symbol of the Cross, page 263). “To know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.” (Eph 3:20)

  4. The seduction of the false (and disintegrating) choice: Obedience to the rigid law, or freedom with Jesus.

    I recall a moment of revelation that came at a Dad’s weekend retreat at my daughters’ Catholic high school. One dad responded to the question by honestly voicing that he always had trouble with this question, feeling that following Christ wasn’t liberating, wasn’t “setting him free.”

    When he spoke, the answer came at once to me, that no matter what we choose in life, every choice involves a submission, every man is “yoked” to something in his life.

    “Come to me all you who are weary and heavy-laden, and you will find rest, for my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

    We can be yoked to Christ, or alternatively, to “other gods.”

    We are all yoked to a power greater than us, and all follow the law of their master.

    No matter what we choose in life, we are always yoked.

    The freedom extends to the choices.

  5. The Christian St. Irenaeus remarks: “From the beginning, God had implanted in the heart of man the precepts of the natural law. Then he was content to remind him of them. This was the Decalogue” (Cited in Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, On the Way to Jesus Christ, Ignatius, 2005).

    By “the Law” which Christ fulfills is meant the Commandments, released from the rest of the 613 “laws” of Judaism. Balthasar offers a direct link to Islam: “…the Old Testament and a fortiori of Islam (which remains essentially in the enclosure of the religion of Israel)…” (My Life in Retrospect, 1993).

    Within Islam, then, we find the concept of “fitrah,” which is defined as “the original knowledge of God,” and as a “natural disposition, constitution, temperament, e.g., what is in a man at his creation, a sound nature, natural religion (and) the germ of Islam.” Is “the germ of Islam” actually a blurred recollection of what in Western thought is distinguished from supernatural Revelation or the Incarnation, as inborn natural law (yet with some differences)? Not parallel to revelation as in any possibly implied equivalence or pluralism of religions?

    Would it have been well if the Second Vatican Council, in its Decree on Ecumenism, had simply added a clarifying footnote on the crucial distinction between natural law and supernatural revelation when it restored a bridge to/from Judaism and then (in somewhat of an afterthought?) also added language on the (natural) religions of Islam and Hinduism?

3 Trackbacks / Pingbacks

  1. Jesus: Liberal rabbi or incarnate Messiah? | Newsessentials Blog
  2. Jesus: Liberal rabbi or incarnate Messiah? | Passionists Missionaries Kenya, Vice Province of St. Charles Lwanga, Fathers & Brothers
  3. Jesus: Liberal rabbi or incarnate Messiah? | Franciscan Sisters of St Joseph (FSJ) , Asumbi Sisters Kenya

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

All comments posted at Catholic World Report are moderated. While vigorous debate is welcome and encouraged, please note that in the interest of maintaining a civilized and helpful level of discussion, comments containing obscene language or personal attacks—or those that are deemed by the editors to be needlessly combative or inflammatory—will not be published. Thank you.