For a number of years, I committed a sin – a heresy, really. Although I was doing so mostly unconsciously and without ill intent, it still stood as an obstacle preventing a closer relationship with – and understanding of – God. I suspect it’s an incorrect line of thought shared by many Christians; if I’m right, I hope I can provide illumination and food for thought. But before I can confess my wrongness, I need to provide an analogy.
If you were to look at a timeline of photos from throughout my life, you would see many points when you’d wonder, “Who’s that?” An image of a chubby teenager with a bowl-like haircut and giant plastic-framed glasses would be next to a picture of a long-haired wire-rimmed college student who somewhat resembled a late-era John Lennon. That photo would be next to an older 20-something young man with a shaved head and a goatee. Nearby would be my wedding photo from me in my 30s, with bright red hair cut in a near-Shakespearian style, my baldness evident. Contrasted with a photo from today – a decade later – you would notice the hair is almost completely gray, and (for now) I sport a solid, bushy beard.
If you weren’t familiar with my history, you might look at those images and ask, “Who is that?” When I explained, “That’s me, from when I was younger,” you’d probably go, “Oh!” You might have some more questions about what I was thinking or doing at certain times, but you’d recognize that I’m still the same person I was (and am).
I was reminded of this today as I reflected upon today’s readings. The Gospel selection from Matthew reports on how Jesus said, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets. I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. Amen, I say to you . . . not the smallest letter or the smallest part of a letter will pass from the law, until all things have taken place.” This is one of the trickier bits of teaching delivered by Christ, because what it means in theory and practice has been a subject of intense scrutiny for centuries. Obviously we as Christians still honor the Ten Commandments, but we don’t adhere to kosher dietary laws. We don’t kill adulterers anymore, but we still believe strongly in the holy nature of marriage as proscribed by God. We don’t view circumcision as a necessary rite, but the Old Testament obligation to widows and orphans should still ring mightily in our ears.
The actual meaning of Matthew 5:17-19 to us Catholics is juuuust at the edge of my comprehension. Still, as I understand it, Jesus is saying that he is fulfilling the old ritual laws and obligations, replacing them with a new moral law: “I give you a new commandment: love one another. As I have loved you, so you also should love one another. This is how all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:34-35) In this way, the old moral laws are still in effect, and amplified by this new law. It’s not merely enough not to covet your neighbor’s stuff; you have to love them, and – in some sense – be willing to sacrifice of yourself to help ensure their well-being, as Jesus did for us. It’s not enough to avoid committing physical adultery; Jesus warns of adultery in our hearts (Matthew 5:28). And so on.
All of this is preamble to the sin I was guilty of, which carried over from the time before I came into the Catholic Church. Namely, I mentally divided the God of the Jews from the God of the New Testament. I’d say things like, “The God of the Old Testament was much more direct in His anger than the one in the New Testament.” Or, “The New Testament God was more focused on love than the Old Testament.” The heresy is, of course, that it’s all the same God.
Jesus’ teachings today remind us that God is, was, and always will be God – the same God. We can’t separate the Old Testament, its teachings, and its illumination on the relationship between God and humanity any more than you can look at a photo of me when I was in high school and say, “That person had terrible taste in glasses . . . not like you!”
It may seem like a subtle distinction, but it’s vitally important when thinking about God. In fact, my whole photograph analogy is pretty lousy, because – compared to my growth and development from childhood to today – God is unchanging. The differences in how we perceive God are related to us, in the growth and journey of humanity. In the same way a five-year-old might think his parents are cruel and unloving because they won’t let him play with a snake he found, yet that same child realizes his parents acted with love when he’s older, the way we understand and reflect on God has changed as humanity has grown. The teachings of Jesus simply would have been incomprehensible if they’d been revealed to the early Israelites. The notion of “an eye for an eye” (Exodus 21:24) was considerably kinder in its era than the previous notion of “death for an eye”; Jesus’ teachings of “turn the other cheek” would have seemed foolhardy and dismissible in comparison.
The entirety of the Old Testament lays the foundation for the New. The Old Testament informs the New, and the New fulfills the Old. If we separate the Old from the New – and think of God’s words and deeds from the Old Testament as somehow completely separate from the teachings and miracles of Christ – then we handicap our understanding of the faith as surely as if we’d said, “I’m only going to use the letters A through L from now on.” Half an alphabet is nonsensical, and relying on only half the Bible is to do a grave disservice to God’s full plan of salvation.
If you – like I did – find yourself saying, “the Old Testament God,” stop. Carefully consider what you’re saying and thinking. Make sure you fully realize that God the Father has always been “one God, the Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all things visible and invisible.”
If you – like some people of faith I know – find yourself avoiding the Old Testament, do what you can to broaden your understanding. Jesus came not to abolish but to fulfill; without a firm understanding of what he fulfilled and what that meant, we may miss the true depth of Jesus’ love and the fullness of our obligations of mind and spirit. And that would be as foolish as looking at six photos taken throughout my life and concluding I’m six different people. God has been with us from the beginning, he was here to teach us as the Son of Man, and the Spirit continues to guide and empower us. Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit. As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.