NOVEMBER 4TH, 2018: THIRTY-FIRST SUNDAY OF THE YEAR
Moses spoke to the people, saying:
"Fear the LORD, your God,
and keep, throughout the days of your lives,
all his statutes and commandments which I enjoin on you,
and thus have long life.
Hear then, Israel, and be careful to observe them,
that you may grow and prosper the more,
in keeping with the promise of the LORD, the God of your fathers,
to give you a land flowing with milk and honey.
"Hear, O Israel! The LORD is our God, the LORD alone!
Therefore, you shall love the LORD, your God,
with all your heart,
and with all your soul,
and with all your strength.
Take to heart these words which I enjoin on you today."
Brothers and sisters:
The levitical priests were many
because they were prevented by death from remaining in office,
but Jesus, because he remains forever,
has a priesthood that does not pass away.
Therefore, he is always able to save those who approach God through him,
since he lives forever to make intercession for them.
It was fitting that we should have such a high priest:
holy, innocent, undefiled, separated from sinners,
higher than the heavens.
He has no need, as did the high priests,
to offer sacrifice day after day,
first for his own sins and then for those of the people;
he did that once for all when he offered himself.
For the law appoints men subject to weakness to be high priests,
but the word of the oath, which was taken after the law,
appoints a son,
who has been made perfect forever.
One of the scribes came to Jesus and asked him,
"Which is the first of all the commandments?"
Jesus replied, "The first is this:
Hear, O Israel!
The Lord our God is Lord alone!
You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart,
with all your soul,
with all your mind,
and with all your strength.
The second is this:
You shall love your neighbor as yourself.
There is no other commandment greater than these."
The scribe said to him, "Well said, teacher.
You are right in saying,
'He is One and there is no other than he.'
And 'to love him with all your heart,
with all your understanding,
with all your strength,
and to love your neighbor as yourself'
is worth more than all burnt offerings and sacrifices."
And when Jesus saw that he answered with understanding,
he said to him,
"You are not far from the kingdom of God."
And no one dared to ask him any more questions.
Mark packs a lot in Jesus’ last five days of his life. He’s not only in constant conflict with his enemies, he delivers some of his most important teachings. Today’s pericope is a well-known example of the latter.
With 613 laws to choose from, Jewish scholars often debated which one should be at the top of the list. As a conscientious Pharisee, Jesus’ response surprised none of those experts. He would have raised a few eyebrows only by combining numbers one and two. Everyone agrees a dedication to Yahweh must be the beginning of our relationship with Yahweh. But by joining the Deuteronomy 6 command to give oneself completely over to Yahweh with the Leviticus 19 law to love our neighbors as ourselves, Jesus is insisting his followers “concretize” their love of God in the people they daily encounter around them.
Both the historical and risen Jesus would find it difficult to defend our church’s insistence we keep our eyes cast down and our faces looking straight ahead when we come back from receiving communion, never to be distracted by the people in our pew who would sinfully break our concentration on the Jesus now inside us. I presume the gospel Jesus would expect us to be looking all around especially at that time, checking on how God is now personified in everyone in front, beside and behind us.
Probably the most important word in our Deuteronomy reading is “grow.” Our sacred author takes for granted our dedication to God is an ongoing process. With that in mind, I presume most of our gawking around as children after receiving the Eucharist could legitimately be classified as a distraction. At that young age we’re probably unable to experience the risen Christ in anyone occupying our pew, including ourselves.
We frequently need to be reminded that Christianity is a faith for adults, not children. Being another Christ demands a certain amount of maturity. (A priest friend often points out, “The historical Jesus played with children and taught adults; but today we Catholics usually teach children and play with adults!”) We shouldn’t think we’re failures if some of our “youth” don’t get it. As long as we’re teaching the faith of Jesus correctly they’ll eventually understand. I presume we adults don’t appreciate our faith today in the same way we appreciated it twenty years ago.
But it’s important to understand that our “prospering” also evolves. What gives us life and fulfillment constantly changes. Our values – and our rewards - are always on the move. A local radio personality frequently reminded his listeners that few fathers, on their deathbeds, wish they’d spent more time at the office. As time goes on, people – and our relationships with them – eventually become more important than things.
Perhaps that’s why the author of Hebrews reflects on the permanence of Jesus offering himself for us. No matter what happens in our lifetime, his gift of himself is a constant. Unlike the Jewish priests he encountered during his earthly ministry, once Jesus engaged in sacrificing himself for us, he didn’t have to do it over and over again. It’s good for all people at all times. But because we’ve yet to share in his perfection, we’re constantly expected to offer ourselves for others, every day of our imperfect lives.
Teilhard de Chardin discovered that the only thing on this planet that doesn’t change is change. That’s why we’d best listen to today’s gospel pericope as often, and as intently as possible. No matter what changes in and around us, we can be certain today’s two laws aren’t part of that change. They guarantee our evolution will always go in the right direction. Keeping them is the only way to eventually achieve perfection.