Matthew’s Gospel is the longest of the four, but its distinct message is all there in verse 17 from Chapter 5 in today’s reading where Jesus defined his mission. He said, “Do not think I have come to abolish the law or the prophets, I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.”
Let me run through some history starting in 68 A.D. when rebels with daggers were holed up in Jerusalem, venturing out to ambush Roman patrols. All patience gone, Rome decided that the only way to stop the rebels was for it to destroy Jerusalem. With orders from Rome’s senate, General Vespasian began digging trenches and setting up catapults around the city. In late 69 A.D. Vespasian was elected emperor, so he turned the final destruction of Jerusalem over to his son General Titus.
Meanwhile, within the city, the rebels were killing off their old enemies the Pharisees. The Pharisees, in turn, bribed Titus to let them escape the doomed city. Coming out with their families, the Pharisees settled at a place called Jamnia on the coast. They there began asking themselves what they had to keep them Jewish, when they no longer had the temple worship that had been the core of their Religion.
The Pharisee survivors in Jamnia turned to saying that what kept people Jewish was their fidelity to all the kosher rules they had added to the Law of Moses over the centuries. They were calling those rules “The Traditions of the Elders,” and looking around, they saw that the Christian Jews were following Jesus in eating with sinners and in nursing the sick on the Sabbath.
Those Pharisees began telling Christian Jews they could not remain Jewish if they followed Jesus in disregarding the law and the prophets.