The lesson I would like to offer here is one of the most valuable, but also one of the hardest to communicate to modern and postmodern Western people. We are all descendants of the French and American Revolutions, which did not have much use for “old” containers or even “containment” of any sort. Americans call it “freedom,” but we are going to see Jesus making the case for a much older and biblical freedom than mere freedom from restraints.
God is like an electric wire. You get burned if you make direct contact, or even if you assume that you have made direct contact! I am speaking mythologically and psychologically here, where the pattern is rather clear and often repeated. Jails and mental hospitals are filled with people speaking directly for God, as are many churches for that matter.
When Moses effusively praises the “statutes and the decrees” that must be “observed,” that must “not slip from your memory, but be taught to your children’s children,” we educated and progressive types just roll our eyes and wait for the next reading. But then we have Jesus, who is seldom wrong but “might just be” in this case, saying that he has no intention of “abolishing the law, or even the smallest letter of the law”—“until its purpose is achieved.” What is going on here? We are not interested in going back to repressive and narrow notions of religion, are we? Maybe this can help:
Great Contents must be held by smaller holding tanks. There is really no other way, or we utterly inflate and destroy the human psyche and soul. It is only a very proud person, or a proud culture, who would think differently. You can only get Great Contents little by little, in stages and doses, when ready, and when you yourself are at the deeper levels. Otherwise, you always get burned! Laws, dogmas, even institutions, “statutes and decrees” are the necessary holding tanks, keeping you still and struggling in one place, until you can go deeper, and know what they really mean!
Or as Jesus says, “Until it has achieved its purpose” (in another translation, “until it all comes true”). Jesus knows that laws and dogmas are not goals or ends in themselves, and in that he disagrees with much immature religion, but they are a necessary beginning point and holding tank—but one will invariably know that only later—when it all comes true!—and after the necessary struggle. Great Things cannot fall into your little lap immediately, or they would not be Great Things.
Notice the word until. There is a point where many structures and verbalizations lose their importance, and even their helpfulness. As Paul will say later, they are only “nursemaids” (Galatians 3:24). I call them training wheels. Structures of various kinds are the wineskins, but are not the wine. They are the yeast, but not the dough. They are the first container, but not the final contents. But without the container, we invariably lose the essential contents.
“What other nation has statutes and decrees that are as just as our whole law, which I am setting before you today?” —Deuteronomy 4:8
“I have come not to abolish the laws, but to fulfill them [“complete them,” “bring them to perfection”]. . . . Not the smallest letter of the law shall be done away with until it all comes true.” —Matthew 5:17–18
“God of Law and God of Love, get me started, hold on fast to me, but also keep me going in the right direction, which is always toward you.”