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NOVEMBER 5, 2006: THIRTY-FIRST SUNDAY OF THE YEAR

Readings: 

Deuteronomy 6:2-6
Hebrews 7:23-28
Mark 12:28-34

Carroll Stuhlmueller once mentioned in class that prophets rarely say anything new. Their oracles revolve around ideas, beliefs and divine commands that have been present in a specific religion for centuries. The prophet simply rearranges the "spiritual geography." He or she pulls a concept from the perimeter of that religion and places it at its heart; at the same time, relegating what was front and center to its outskirts.

That's precisely what happened during the Second Vatican Council. Our bishops took beliefs and practices we hadn't focused on for a long time and put them directly in front of our eyes, enabling those who didn't welcome or refused to accept the council's reforms to get themselves off the theological hook by arguing that the church wasn't giving us anything new. It had always taught what the bishops were decreeing.

Often these council critics were correct. But they forgot to mention that such beliefs and practices were at the bottom of our "what to teach list," ignored, overlooked, or reserved for extra credit. The reforming bishops turned the list upside down.

That's also what Jesus, as prophet, tried to accomplish during his earthly ministry. Listen carefully to how he compliments the scribe for his insightful answer in today's gospel pericope. "You are not far," he says, "from the reign of God."

Regular readers of this column will immediately understand that Jesus isn't stating that the scribe is close to getting into heaven. The technical term "reign of God" refers to the ability to experience God working in our life here and now, long before we begin our eternal experience of God in heaven. That's why it's important to remember the scribe's original question. "Which is the first of all the commandments?" In other words, he's asking Jesus. "What, in your practice of Judaism, have you positioned directly in front of your eyes?"

Jesus responds as he believes any good Jew would respond. He begins his list by repeating the core of today's Deuteronomy passage, and then quickly adds what he regards as Leviticus' most important command. "This is the first: 'Hear O Israel! Yahweh our God is Lord alone! Therefore you shall love Yahweh, your God, with all your heart . . . soul . . . mind, and . . . strength.' This is the second, 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.' There is no other commandment greater than these."

According to Jesus, only those who pull these commands from the perimeter of their faith and position them at its center will be able to achieve what he achieved: experiencing God working in his daily life.

The author of our Hebrews selection dwells on the terrific effect Jesus has in the lives of Christians. He's our one priest, intercessor, and savior. The writer eventually reminds his readers that what others did in a partial, imperfect way before Jesus, he "made perfect forever." It's easy to understand why anyone so deeply changed by Jesus would eventually develop a faith in him.

Yet, from the picture Mark paints of Jesus in our gospel, it makes sense why Fr. Ed Hays constantly reminds us that Jesus' earliest followers imitated him long before they worshipped him. Instead of acquiring faith in Jesus, they tried to instill in themselves the faith of Jesus. Every day they worked at making Jesus' priorities their priorities. The religious "stuff" that cluttered their vision before they met and followed him probably would have gotten them into heaven. But it never excited their faith and fulfilled their lives like the ideas Jesus positioned in the center of their faith and lives. Only these newly centered ideas and practices helped them discover the God who is at the center of their faith and lives.