Francis once again shows his preferences, calling Jesus’ traitor a “poor, penitent man”.
He who perpetrated the most heinous crime of all history is now the object of the Supreme Pontiff’s compassion… Would the saying “Tell me who your friends are, and I will tell you who you are” fittingly apply to this case?
In reality, Judas’ worse malice did not lie in his actual betrayal, but in his rejection of divine mercy. He had been eye witness to the pardon Jesus had granted Mary Magdalene and His divine love for her. He had personally heard Our Lord uttering the words ‘There will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who have no need of repentance’ (Lk 15:7). If Judas had “recognized his crime” with true repentance, he would not have hesitated to give Our Lord this joy. If he really loved Him, he would have been eager to make up for his offence by humiliating himself and becoming the object of the same mercy he had so many times seen poured out for others. However, already accustomed to close his heart toward Our Lord, he ceded to the temptation to make one last affront, of the most violent kind, by despairing – by not believing that forgiveness could go that far.
And, why ever would the Pharisees have had compassion toward Judas? They were perfectly content with the deal they had closed. Moreover, what do the Pharisees and their attachment to Jewish customs have to do with the question of Judas’ despair? Why Judas would show the Pharisees his repentance, instead of Christ, the offended party, would be the more fitting question to ponder. After all, the Pharisees were entrenched in evil and were his accomplices in crime.
Saint Peter had also sinned grievously. Yet, what a difference between the repentance of the two…that is, if we could really call Judas’ sentiments ‘repentance’. Saint Peter gazed toward the Redeemer and opened himself to His mercy, crying bitterly, but sincerely contrite; while Judas fled from the only One who could save him. Who of the two was truly a “repentant man”? It could almost be affirmed that Leo XIII was referring to Francis’ words when he warned: “During the last months […] the last touch of shame was added in an attempt to rescue from the execration of ages the guilty name of him who was the very sign of perfidy, the betrayer of Christ” (Encyclical Iucunda Semper Expectatione, n. 16, September 8, 1894).
To better understand Francis’ words, take a careful look at what 2000 years of Church History has produced in doctrine regarding Judas’ the betrayal.
Enter the various parts of our study
II – Repentance or despair? The difference between Judas and Saint Peter…
III – Is Judas worthy of compassion? 2000 years of Church teaching responds in the negative
Doctrinal note 1: What is repentance (contrition)? What is despair?
Important note 2: The solution for everything is to abolish all law?
A– In fact, the Pharisees closed themselves in on their own human laws
B – The real problem was not that they turned to laws, but that they were not God’s laws
C — Therefore the problem is not in abolishing the laws, but rather in fulfilling or not the will of God
I – Judas, the traitor
Christ washed the feet of the traitor, the sacrilegious, the thief, and that close to the time of the betrayal, and incurable as he was, made him a partaker of His table; (Saint John Chrysostom. Homilies on the Gospel of Saint John, Homily 71)
Finally, Jesus knew that among the Twelve Apostles there was also one who did not believe: Judas. Judas could have gone away too, as did many of the disciples; indeed, perhaps if he had been honest he would have been bound to leave. Instead he stayed on with Jesus. He did not stay out of faith or out of love, but rather with the secret intention of taking revenge on the Teacher. Why? Because Judas felt let down by Jesus and decided that he, in his turn, would betray Jesus. Judas was a zealot and he wanted a victorious Messiah who would lead a revolt against the Romans. Jesus had not measured up to these expectations. The problem was that Judas did not go away and his greatest sin was his deceitfulness, which is the mark of the Devil. For this reason Jesus said to the Twelve: “One of you is a devil” (Jn 6:70). (Benedict XVI. Angelus, August 28, 2012)
Oh! How many good things, how much joy do we forsake without charity! Despising it, Judas abandoned the midst of the Apostles’ group. He strode into the darkness, throwing away the true Light of his own Master and having hatred toward his own brethren. On this account Peter, the Prince of the Apostles, affirms: ‘Judas prevaricated, going out to his own place’ (Acts 1:25). And in turn John the Theologian says: ‘He who hates his brother is in darkness, and walks in darkness, and does not know where he goes for the shadows have blinded his eyes’ (1 Jn 2:11). (Saint Ephraem of Nisibis. Hom. de charitate sive dilectone – Opera omnia (G. Vossio, Rome, 1589), vol. I, p. 12)
In fact, in today’s liturgy, the Evangelist Matthew presents for our meditation the brief dialogue between Jesus and Judas that took place in the Upper Room. ‘Is it I, Master?’ the traitor asked the divine Teacher, who had foretold: ‘Truly, I say to you, one of you will betray me’. The Lord’s answer was incisive: ‘You have said so’ (cf. Mt 26: 14-25). For his part, John concludes the narrative announcing Judas’ betrayal with a few portentous words: ‘It was night’ (Jn 13: 30). When the traitor left the Upper Room, thick darkness gathered in his heart. (Benedict XVI. General audience, April 4, 2007)
But His Heart was moved by a particularly intense love mingled with fear as He perceived the hour of His bitter torments drawing near and, expressing a natural repugnance for the approaching pains and death […] in love triumphant united to deepest grief, He addressed to him those words which seem to be the final invitation of His most merciful Heart to the friend who, obdurate in his wicked treachery, was about to hand Him over to His executioners: ‘Friend, whereto art thou come? Dost thou betray the Son of Man with a kiss?’ (Lk. 22-48) (Pius XII. Encyclical Haurietis aquas, no. 67, May 15, 1956)
He not only let his presence be felt at times, but was also at times seen in his form. Examining the facts with care, we observe that the Savior was seen eleven times by his apostles, and was then elevated to his Father. Why was this so? Because he had eleven disciples, since Judas has been expelled from the Apostolic College, and due to his nefarious treachery had lost his place and dignity. Thus, he appears eleven times to his disciples. And not to all at once, but in various ways: sometimes to these, and other times to those, as when he appeared to the disciples in the absence of Thomas, and then when he was present. (Saint John Chrysostom. Homily I on the Ascension of Our Lord)
II – Repentance or despair? The difference between Judas and Saint Peter…
Let us remember that Peter also wanted to oppose him and what awaited him at Jerusalem, but he received a very strong reproval: ‘You are not on the side of God, but of men’ (Mk 8:33)! After his fall Peter repented and found pardon and grace. Judas also repented, but his repentance degenerated into desperation and thus became self-destructive. (Benedict XVI. General audience, October18, 2006)
Now Peter did not dare to weep openly, lest he should be detected by his tears, but he went out and wept. He wept not because of punishment, but because he denied his beloved Lord, which was more galling than any punishment. (Saint John Chrysostom quoted by Saint Thomas Aquinas. Catena Aurea on Lk 22:54-62)
The perfidious Judas, inebriated with this venom [of avarice], reached the gibbet in the thirst of his greed. And he was so foolishly impious, that he came to the point of selling his Lord and Master for thirty coins. But while the Son of God offered himself to endure an iniquitous trial, the blessed apostle Peter, whose faith burned with such devotion that he was willing to suffer and to die with his Lord, let himself be intimidated by the calumny of a maid servant of the high priest and, out of weakness, fell when placed in danger of denying. It was, it seemed, a hesitation permitted so that the remedy of penitence might be founded in the head of the Church, and so that no one might dare trust in his own strength, when Saint Peter himself had not been able to escape the danger of inconstancy. But the Lord, whose sole body was in the midst of the congregation of the high priests, saw his disciple’s perturbation, outside, with his divine gaze. After looking upon him, he made the one who had trembled take heart, and incited in him the tears of repentance. Blessed are your tears, holy apostle, which, to wash away the guilt of your denial, had the power of holy baptism! (Leo I, the Great. Homily 9, 4; Migne 60, BAC 291, 249-250)
Let us go back to the second Beatitude: ‘Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted’ (Mt 5:4). Is it good to mourn and to declare mourning blessed? There are two kinds of mourning. The first is the kind that has lost hope, that has become mistrustful of love and of truth, and that therefore eats away and destroys man from within. But there is also the mourning occasioned by the shattering encounter with truth, which leads man to undergo conversion and to resist evil. This mourning heals, because it teaches man to hope and to love again. Judas is an example of the first kind of mourning: Struck with horror at his own fall, he no longer dares to hope and hangs himself in despair. Peter is an example of the second kind: Struck by the Lord’s gaze, he bursts into healing tears that plow up the soil of his soul. He begins anew and is himself renewed. (Benedict XVI. Jesus of Nazareth, Doubleday, 2011, Vol. II, pg. 206–207)
To this forgiveness the traitor Judas could not attain: for he, the son of perdition, at whose right the devil stood (Ps 108:6), gave himself up to despair before Christ accomplished the mystery of universal redemption. For in that the Lord died for sinners, perchance even he might have found salvation if he had not hastened to hang himself. But that evil heart, which was now given up to thievish frauds, and now busied with treacherous designs, had never entertained aught of the proofs of the Saviour’s mercy. Those wicked ears had heard the Lord’s words, when He said, ‘I came not to call the righteous but sinners,’ and ‘The Son of man came to seek and to save that which was lost’, but they conveyed not to his understanding the clemency of Christ, which not only healed bodily infirmities, but also cured the wounds of sick souls, saying to the paralytic man, ‘Son, be of good cheer, thy sins are forgiven thee saying also to the adulteress that was brought to Him, ‘neither will I condemn thee; go and sin no more,’ to show in all His works that He had come as the Saviour, not the Judge of the world. But the wicked traitor refused to understand this, and took measures against himself, not in the self-condemnation of repentance, but in the madness of perdition, and thus he who had sold the Author of life to His murderers, even in dying increased the amount of sin which condemned him. (Saint Leo I, the Great. Sermon LXII, On the Passion, XI, [PL 54])
For if it is not lawful to take the law into our own hands, and slay even a guilty person, whose death no public sentence has warranted, then certainly he who kills himself is a homicide […] Do we justly execrate the deed of Judas, and does truth itself pronounce that by hanging himself he rather aggravated than expiated the guilt of that most iniquitous betrayal, since, by despairing of God’s mercy in his sorrow that wrought death, he left to himself no place for a healing penitence? […] For Judas, when he killed himself, killed a wicked man; but he passed from this life chargeable not only with the death of Christ, but with his own: for though he killed himself on account of his crime, his killing himself was another crime. (Saint Augustine of Hippo. City of God, Book I, Ch. 17)
[God the Father:] Therefore, is this last sin graver to Me than all the other sins that the soul has committed. Wherefore the despair of Judas displeased Me more, and was more grave to My Son than was his betrayal of Him. So that they are reproved of this false judgment, which is to have held their sin to be greater than My mercy, and, on that account, are they punished with the devils, and eternally tortured with them. (Saint Catherine of Siena. The Dialogue, ch. 37)
Another cunning trick of the devil is the opposite of that described above. Instead of exalting the heart, he humiliates and discourages it to the point of driving it to despair. He recalls past sins, aggravating them as much as possible, so that the person, terrified and falling dismayed under such a heavy burden, is reduced to despair. So the devil acted with Judas. When he was at the point of committing his sin, the devil removed its gravity from his sight; afterward, he brought to his mind the gravity of his crime in having sold his Master at so low a Price and unto such a death. Thus, the devil blinded his eyes with the greatness of his sin and, having caught him in the snare, led him to hell (cf. Mt 27:3-5). (Saint John of Avila. Audi, filia — Listen, O daughter, Ch. 18 – (pg. 79)
But when the Devil leave any one, he watches his time for return, and having taken it, he leads him into a second sin, and then watches for opportunity for a third deceit. So the man who had married his father’s wife afterwards repented him of this sin, (1 Cor 5:1) but again the Devil resolved so to augment this very sorrow of repentance, that his sorrow being made too abundant might swallow up the sorrower. Something like this took place in Judas, who after his repentance did not preserve his own heart, but received that more abundant sorrow supplied to him by the Devil, who sought to swallow him up, as it follows, ‘And he went out, and hanged himself.’ But had he desired and looked for place and time for repentance, he would perhaps have found Him who has said, ‘I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked.’ (Ezek 33:11) (Origen quoted by Saint Thomas Aquinas. Catena Aurea in Mt 27:1–5)
III – Is Judas worthy of compassion? 2000 years of Church teaching responds in the negative
Woe to that man by whom the Son of Man is betrayed. It would be better for that man if he had never been born. (Mt 26: 24)
During the last months the very person of Our Divine Redeemer has not been spared. Such a depth of shameless indignity has been reached that Jesus Christ Himself has been dragged upon the stage of a theatre often contaminated with corruptions […] And the last touch of shame was added in an attempt to rescue from the execration of ages the guilty name of him who was the very sign of perfidy, the betrayer of Christ. (Leo XIII. Encyclical Iucunda semper expectatione, no. 9, September 8, 1894)
Already the very name of Judas raises among Christians an instinctive reaction of criticism and condemnation. The meaning of the name “Judas” is controversial: the more common explanation considers him as a “man from Kerioth”, referring to his village of origin situated near Hebron and mentioned twice in Sacred Scripture (cf. Gn 15: 25; Am 2: 2). Others interpret it as a variant of the term “hired assassin”, as if to allude to a warrior armed with a dagger, in Latin, sica. Lastly, there are those who see in the label a simple inscription of a Hebrew-Aramaic root meaning: ‘the one who is to hand him over’. This designation is found twice in the Gospel: after Peter’s confession of faith (cf. Jn 6: 71), and then in the course of the anointing at Bethany (cf. Jn 12: 4). (Benedict XVI. General audience, October 18, 2006)
In the case of Judas, we encountered the perennial danger that even those ‘who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have become partakers of the Holy Spirit’ (Heb 6:4) can perish spiritually through a series of seemingly small infidelities, ultimately passing from the light into the night, where they are no longer capable of conversion. In Peter we encounter another danger, that of a fall which is not definitive and which can therefore be healed through conversion. (Benedict XVI. Jesus of Nazareth, Doubleday, 2011, Vol. II, pg. 141–142)
When he says, ‘I have sinned, in that I have betrayed innocent blood,’ he persists in his wicked treachery, seeing that amid the last struggles of death he believed not Jesus to be the Son of God, but merely man of our rank; for had he not thus denied His omnipotence, he would have obtained His mercy. (Leo I, the Great quoted by Saint Thomas Aquinas. Catena Aurea on Mt 27:1–5)
See the many things that God offers us, making use of wicked men! Yet their recompense will not be calculated according to the benefits for us that their deeds operate, but rather according to their malice. Note for instance the benefits that we gained from that most enormous crime committed by the traitor Judas. Judas betrayed and handed the Son of God over to death. By His passion, the Son of God redeemed all peoples, and they obtained salvation. But the recompense that was given unto Judas was not measured by the salvation obtained by the peoples, but rather to him was imposed the penalty that his malice merited. Considering in fact the handing over of Christ to his enemies in itself and not the intention of the traitor, one should say that Judas did the same thing that the Father did, of which it is written: ‘He did not spare his own Son, but handed him over for us’ (Rom 8:32). Judas, moreover, would seem to have done the same thing that Our Lord did, for it is written that ‘Christ handed himself over for us as a victim and sacrifice to God in fragrant aroma’. And also; ‘Christ loved his Church and gave himself up for her’ (Eph 5:25). And yet we give thanks to God the Father who did not spare his own Son but immolated Him for us; we thank the Son for having let Himself be killed for us, fulfilling the Father’s will; but we detest what Judas did, even if by it God knew how to obtain the greatest of his benefits. And we have reason when we say that God repaid him according to his iniquity, and He destroyed him according to his evil. For he did not give Christ over to his enemies for love of us, but for money that he gained by his treachery, even though by the treason against Christ we were recuperated, and with the selling of Christ we were redeemed. (Saint Augustine of Hippo. Exposition on Psalm 93, no. 28)
Have you not heard or read in the Psalm, in which the damnable end of the traitor Judas is foretold, how the prophecy spoke of him, ‘Let his prayer be turned into sin?’ (Saint Augustine of Hippo. Sermon 6, no. 2)
In fact, in Christ what was to be accomplished was accomplished: that is, the passion, for which He came. And yet He punished him who led Him to suffer, that is Judas the traitor. Christ was crucified; He redeemed us with his blood. Nevertheless, he chastised Judas for his bargain. He [Judas] threw away the sum of money with which he had sold the Lord, and he did not know how to recognize the price by which he himself was bought by the Lord. And so it was with Judas. (Saint Augustine of Hippo. Sermon 68, no. 11)
Doctrinal note 1: What is repentance (contrition)? What is despair?
The first commandment is also concerned with sins against hope, namely, despair and presumption: By despair, man ceases to hope for his personal salvation from God, for help in attaining it or for the forgiveness of his sins. Despair is contrary to God’s goodness, to his justice – for the Lord is faithful to his promises – and to his mercy. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 2091)
Contrition, which has the first place among the aforementioned acts of the penitent, is a sorrow of the soul and a detestation of sin committed, with a determination of not sinning in the future. This feeling of contrition is, moreover, necessary at all times to obtain the forgiveness of sins, and thus for a person who has fallen after baptism it especially prepares for the remission of sins, if it is united with trust in divine mercy and with the desire of performing the other things required to receive this sacrament correctly. (Denzinger-Hünermann 1676. Council of Trent, Session XIV, ch. 4, Contrition, November 25, 1551)
While it is a false opinion that He refuses pardon to the repentant sinner, or that He does not turn sinners to Himself by sanctifying grace. Therefore, just as the movement of hope, which is in conformity with the true opinion, is praiseworthy and virtuous, so the contrary movement of despair, which is in conformity with the false opinion about God, is vicious and sinful. (Saint Thomas Aquinas. Summa Theologica II–II, q. 20, a.1)
Those sins which are contrary to the theological virtues are in themselves more grievous than others […] Now unbelief, despair and hatred of God are opposed to the theological virtues […] when hope is given up, men rush headlong into sin, and are drawn away from good works. Wherefore a gloss on Prov. 24:10: ‘If thou lose hope being weary in the day of distress, thy strength shall be diminished,’ says: ‘Nothing is more hateful than despair, for the man that has it loses his constancy both in the everyday toils of this life, and, what is worse, in the battle of faith.’ And Isidore says (De Sum. Bono II, 14): ‘To commit a crime is to kill the soul, but to despair is to fall into hell.’ (Saint Thomas Aquinas. Summa Theologica II–II, q. 20, a.3)
On the other hand, the fact that a man deems an arduous good impossible to obtain, either by himself or by another, is due to his being over downcast, because when this state of mind dominates his affections, it seems to him that he will never be able to rise to any good. And since sloth is a sadness that casts down the spirit, in this way despair is born of sloth. Now this is the proper object of hope — that the thing is possible, because the good and the arduous regard other passions also. Hence despair is born of sloth in a more special way: though it may arise from lust, for the reason given above. (Saint Thomas Aquinas. Summa Theologica II–II, q. 20, a.4)
[The prodigal son would] have undergone the most pitiable death: but since he repented, and did not despair, he was restored, even after such great corruption, to the same splendour as before, and was arrayed in the most beautiful robe, and enjoyed greater honours than his brother who had not fallen. (Saint John Chrysostom. Exhortation to Theodore I)
And so we must see that dejection is only useful to us in one case, when we yield to it either in penitence for sin, or through being inflamed with the desire of perfection, or the contemplation of future blessedness. And of this the blessed Apostle says: ‘The sorrow which is according to God works repentance steadfast unto salvation: but the sorrow of the world works death.’ (2 Cor 7:10) (Saint John Cassian. Institutes IX, ch. 10)
In effect, to become reconciled with God presupposes and includes detaching oneself consciously and with determination from the sin into which one has fallen. It presupposes and includes, therefore, doing penance in the fullest sense of the term: repenting, showing this repentance, adopting a real attitude of repentance —which is the attitude of the person who starts out on the road of return to the Father. This is a general law and one which each individual must follow in his or her particular situation. (John Paul II. Apostolic exhortation Reconcilicatio et paenitentia, no. 13, December 2, 1984)
In one case it is stressed that there is no forgiveness without the desire for forgiveness, without opening the heart to forgiveness; here it is highlighted that only divine forgiveness and divine love received with an open and sincere heart give us the strength to resist evil and ‘to sin no more’, to let ourselves be struck by God’s love so that it becomes our strength. (Benedict XVI. Homily during visit to the Roman Parish of Saint Felicity and her children, martyrs, March 25, 2007)
Important note: The solution for everything is to abolish all law?
A – In fact, the Pharisees closed themselves in on their own human laws
Jesus’ words against the scribes and Pharisees in today’s Gospel should therefore be food for thought for us as well. Jesus makes his own the very words of the Prophet Isaiah: ‘This People honours me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the precepts of men’ (Mk 7:6–7; cf. Is 29:13). And he then concludes: ‘You leave the commandment of God, and hold fast the tradition of men’ (Mk 7:8). (Benedict XVI. Angelus, September 2, 2012)
It is quite a different kind of observance from what we encounter in the Pharisees of the Gospel, who had made it into an exteriorized and enslaving system. (Benedict XVI. Mass with the members of the “Ratzinger Schulerkreis”, the Pope’s former students, August 30, 1999)
B – The real problem was not that they turned to laws, but that these laws were not God’s laws
As also Isaiah says: ‘This people honours Me with their lips, but their heart is far from Me: howbeit in vain do they worship Me, teaching the doctrines and the commandments of men.’ (Is 29:13) He does not call the law given by Moses commandments of men, but the traditions of the elders themselves which they had invented, and in upholding which they made the law of God of none effect, and were on this account also not subject to His Word. For this is what Paul says concerning these men: ‘For they, being ignorant of God’s righteousness, and going about to establish their own righteousness, have not submitted themselves to the righteousness of God. For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone that believes.’ (Rom 10:3–4) And how is Christ the end of the law, if He be not also the final cause of it? For He who has brought in the end has Himself also wrought the beginning; and it is He who does Himself say to Moses, ‘I have surely seen the affliction of my people which is in Egypt, and I have come down to deliver them;’ (Ex 3:7-8) it being customary from the beginning with the Word of God to ascend and descend for the purpose of saving those who were in affliction. (Saint Irenaeus of Lyons. Against heresies, Book IV, 2.4)
Thus religion loses its authentic meaning, which is to live listening to God in order to do his will — that is the truth of our being — and thus we live well, in true freedom, and it is reduced to practicing secondary customs which instead satisfy the human need to feel in God’s place. This is a serious threat to every religion which Jesus encountered in his time. (Benedict XVI. Angelus, September 2, 2012)
Observe, how they are taken in their own question. They say not, ‘Why do they transgress the Law of Moses?’ but, ‘the tradition of the elders;’ whence it is manifest that the Priests had introduced many new things, although Moses had said, ‘Ye shall not add ought to the word which I set before you this day, neither shall ye take ought away from it;’ (Deut 4:2) and when they ought to have been set free from observances, then they bound themselves by many more; fearing lest any should take away their rule and power, they sought to increase the awe in which they were held, by setting themselves forth as legislators. (Saint John Chrysostom quoted by Saint Thomas Aquinas. Catena Aurea on Mt 15:1-6)
C — Therefore the central question does not lie in abolishing laws, but rather in fulfilling or not the will of God
‘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, 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. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do so will be called least in the kingdom of heaven. But whoever obeys and teaches these commandments will be called greatest in the kingdom of heaven. I tell you, unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter into the kingdom of heaven. (Mt 5, 17–20)
And that the Lord did not abrogate the natural [precepts] of the law, by which man is justified, which also those who were justified by faith, and who pleased God, did observe previous to the giving of the law, but that He extended and fulfilled them, is shown from His words. ‘For,’ He remarks, ‘it has been said to them of old time, Do not commit adultery. But I say unto you, that everyone who has looked upon a woman to lust after her, has committed adultery with her already in his heart’ (Mt 5:27–28). And again: ‘It has been said, You shall not kill. But I say unto you, Everyone who is angry with his brother without a cause, shall be in danger of the judgment’ (Mt 5:21–22). And, ‘It has been said, You shall not forswear yourself. But I say unto you, Swear not at all; but let your conversation be, Yea, yea, and Nay, nay.’ (Mt 5:33), etc. And other statements of a like nature. (Saint Irenaeus of Lyon. Against Heresies. Book IV, ch. 13)
The same Word of God that had resounded on Mount Sinai to give the written Law to Moses, made itself heard anew on the Mount of the Beatitudes. Jesus did not abolish the Law but fulfilled it by giving its ultimate interpretation in a divine way: ‘You have heard that it was said to the men of old…But I say to you…’ (Mt 5:33–34) With this same divine authority, he disavowed certain human traditions of the Pharisees that were ‘making void the word of God’. (Mk 7:13) (Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 581)
Let’s place ourselves in the situation of the listeners present during the Sermon on the Mount, those who actually heard the words of Christ. They are sons and daughters of the chosen people – people who had received the law from God – Yahweh himself. These people had also received the prophets. Repeatedly throughout the centuries, the prophets had reprimanded the people’s behavior regarding this commandment, and the way in which it was continually broken. Christ also speaks of similar transgressions. But he speaks more precisely about a certain human interpretation of the law, which negates and does away with the correct meaning of right and wrong as specified by the will of the divine legislator. Above all, the law is a means—an indispensable means if ‘justice is to abound’ (Mt 5:20). Christ desires such justice to be ‘superior to that of the scribes and Pharisees.’ He does not accept the interpretation they gave to the authentic content of the law through the centuries. In a certain way, this interpretation subjected this content, or rather the purpose and will of the legislator, to the varied weaknesses and limits of human willpower deriving precisely from the threefold concupiscence. This was a casuistic interpretation which was superimposed on the original version of right and wrong connected with the law of the Decalogue. If Christ tends to transform the ethos, he does so mainly to recover the fundamental clarity of the interpretation: ‘Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have not come to abolish but to fulfill’ (Mt 5:17). Fulfillment is conditioned by a correct understanding, and this also implies, among other things, to the commandment: ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ (John Paul II. General audience, August 13, 1980)
But the servants would then have been proved false, and not sent by the Lord, if Christ on His advent, by being found exactly such as He was previously announced, had not fulfilled their words. Wherefore He said, ‘Think not that I have come to destroy the law or the prophets; I came not to destroy, but to fulfil. For verily I say unto you, until heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle shall not pass from the law and the prophets till all come to pass’ (Mt 5:17–18). For by His advent He Himself fulfilled all things, and does still fulfil in the Church the new covenant foretold by the law, onwards to the consummation [of all things]. To this effect also Paul, His apostle, says in the Epistle to the Romans, ‘But now without the law, has the righteousness of God been manifested, being witnessed by the law and the prophets; for the just shall live by faith’ (Rom 1:17). But this fact, that the just shall live by faith, had been previously announced (Hab 2:4) by the prophets. (Saint Irenaeus of Lyons. Against heresies, Book IV, ch. 34)