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Love of God and loving kindness towards one’s neighbour

October 28, 2018

Thirty-first Sunday in Ordinary Time – November 4, 2018

Today’s first reading from the Book of Deuteronomy (6:2-6) and the section from Mark’s Gospel (12:28-34) contain the fundamental prayer of the Shema, the Hebrew profession of faith: “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God is one Lord” (Deuteronomy 6:4). Just as we profess our faith with the Creed in Christian worship, the Jewish people profess their faith with the Shema in their synagogue services. The Shema is a summary of true religion: “Hear, O Israel: the Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.”
Central to the Hebrew profession of faith is this truth: there is only one God, the Creator of heaven and earth, who is thus the God of all. All other gods are not God, and the universe in which we live has its source in God and was created by him. This notion of creation is found elsewhere, yet only here does it become absolutely clear that it is not one god among many, but the one true God himself who is the source of all that exists. The entire whole world comes into existence by the power of his creative Word. 

The priesthood of Jesus Christ

In today’s second reading from Hebrews (7:23-28), we read of the former priests of the Old Covenant who though they were many, were prevented by death from remaining in office. We also hear of the priesthood of Jesus Christ, who, because he remains forever, has a priesthood that does not pass away. Jesus, the new high priest, guarantees the permanence of the New Covenant. Therefore, he is always able to save those who approach God through him, since he lives forever to make intercession for them. Jesus was not a priest after the Jewish tradition. He did not belong to the line of Aaron but to that of Judah, and thus the path of priesthood was legally closed to him. The person and activity of Jesus of Nazareth did not follow in the line of the ancient priests but in that of the tradition of the prophets of ancient Israel.
As Pope Benedict pointed out in his homily for the Solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ (Corpus Christi) in Rome on June 3, 2010: “Jesus distanced Himself from a ritualistic conception of religion, criticizing the approach that attributed value to human precepts associated with ritual purity rather than to the observance of God’s commandments; that is, to love for God and for neighbour, which ‘is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices’. ... Even His death, which we Christians rightly call ‘sacrifice’, was completely unlike the ancient sacrifices, it was quite the opposite: the execution of a death sentence of the most humiliating kind: crucifixion outside the walls of Jerusalem.” The priesthood of Christ involves suffering. Without this fundamental principle and vision, any of our efforts to form the Church of Jesus Christ are in vain.

An important teaching moment for Jesus

Jesus was a threat to the scribes, and they are often depicted as being hostile to him. Yet today’s Gospel story from Mark (12:28-34) presents us with a rather friendly conversation rather than the usual controversial discussion between Jesus and the scribes.
In order to fully grasp today’s Gospel passage, it is important to understand the role of the scribe in Judaism. The scribe was not a member of any Jewish sect or political party such as a Pharisee, Sadducee, Essene, or Zealot, even though many of the scribes were indeed Pharisees, who abided by a strict interpretation of the Law. Scribes were the scholars and intellectuals of Judaism. Their scholarship was the knowledge of the Law, which they regarded as the sum of wisdom and the only true learning. The position of scribe in the Jewish community was a respected place of leadership.
In today’s text, the scribe appears to be impressed with Jesus’ previous responses (24-27) to the question regarding the wife and seven husbands in the resurrection. The scribe approaches Jesus and wants to know more.
Today’s key question, “Which is the first of all the commandements?” offers Jesus an important teaching moment. The teachers of the Torah (scribes and rabbis) had always argued about the relative importance of the commandments in the Old Testament. In response, Jesus quotes Deuteronomy 6:4-5 (today’s first reading) and indicates the opening verses of the Shema, recited daily by the Jews. Even though Jesus is asked for one commandment, he provides two in his response. The second is this: You shall love your neighbour as yourself, from Leviticus 19:18, which was also not among the 613 commandments. What is remarkable is that the scribe expresses agreement with Jesus by paraphrasing him without any hint of hostility or irony.
In referring to heart, soul, mind, and strength (30), they do not refer to the various components of the person but are a way of stressing that the whole person should love God with everything the person has and is. The Deuteronomy text only lists heart, soul, and strength, while today’s Gospel cites heart, soul, mind, and strength (as does Matthew’s Gospel text 22:37). Jesus probably equated the mind (knowledge) with strength.
Today’s Gospel immediately calls to mind the story of the rich man who is close to the kingdom of heaven. The scribe’s correct understanding and humble openness to learn from Jesus is unique (Mark 10:13-16). The difference between the story of the rich man and the scribe is that, unlike with the rich man, Jesus doesn’t add that there is one more thing (Mark 10:21); because the scribe has understood, nothing impedes him from entering the kingdom.
Moses teaches in the Shema (cf. Deuteronomy 6:5; Leviticus 19:34) – and Jesus reaffirms in the Gospel (cf. Mark 12:19-31), that all of the Commandments are summed up in the love of God and in loving kindness towards one’s neighbour. Every time that Jews recite the “Shema Israel” and that Christians recall the first and second great commandments, we are, by God’s grace, brought closer to each other. Whenever we make the Sign of the Cross, we are tracing the Shema upon our bodies as we touch our head (soul), heart, and shoulders (strength) and pledge them to God’s service.

Lectio Divina: listening to the Word of God

Today’s readings invite us to a special kind of listening to God’s Word. This listening requires prolonged silence so that the Holy Spirit can reveal the intent and understanding of the Word of God and unite himself silently to our own spirit (cf. Romans 8:26-27). In this light I would like to make a few comments about the ancient art of Lectio Divina. Verbum Domini, the Apostolic Exhortation from the Synod on the Word of God in the Life and Mission of the Church offers Lectio Divina as a method of approaching, understanding, praying, and loving the Word of God.
Verbum Domini states:
The Synod frequently insisted on the need for a prayerful approach to the sacred text as a fundamental element in the spiritual life of every believer, in the various ministries and states in life, with particular reference to lectio divina. The word of God is at the basis of all authentic Christian spirituality. (#86)
In Verbum Domini, Pope Benedict describes in detail the method of Lectio Divina (#87):
I would like here to review the basic steps of this procedure. It opens with the reading (lectio) of a text, which leads to a desire to understand its true content: what does the biblical text say in itself? Without this, there is always a risk that the text will become a pretext for never moving beyond our own ideas.
Next comes meditation (meditatio), which asks: what does the biblical text say to us? Here, each person, individually but also as a member of the community, must let himself or herself be moved and challenged.
Following this comes prayer (oratio), which asks the question: what do we say to the Lord in response to his word? Prayer, as petition, intercession, thanksgiving and praise, is the primary way by which the word transforms us.
Finally, lectio divina concludes with contemplation (contemplatio), during which we take up, as a gift from God, his own way of seeing and judging reality, and ask ourselves what conversion of mind, heart and life is the Lord asking of us? In the Letter to the Romans, Saint Paul tells us: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” (12:2).
Contemplation aims at creating within us a truly wise and discerning vision of reality, as God sees it, and at forming within us “the mind of Christ” (1 Corinthians 2:16). The word of God appears here as a criterion for discernment: it is “living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and spirit, of joints and marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12). We do well also to remember that the process of lectio divina is not concluded until it arrives at action (actio), which moves the believer to make his or her life a gift for others in charity.
Thanks to this simple adherence to and humble respect for the whole biblical text, Lectio Divina is an exercise in total and unconditional obedience to God who is speaking to human beings who are listening attentively to the Word.
[The readings for this Sunday are: Deuteronomy 6:2-6 Hebrews 7:23-28 Mark 12:28-34]