31st SUNDAY (B) October 31, 2021

Deuteronomy 6: 2-6; Psalm 18; Hebrews 7: 23-28; Mark 12: 28b-34

By: Jude Siciliano, OP

Dear Preachers:

There is a wonderful moment of mutual accord in today’s gospel. A scribe asks Jesus, "Which is the first of all the commandments?" Jesus gives his reply and the scribe gives his approval, "Well said, teacher...." At that moment there is a great meeting and agreement between the best of the Jewish and Christian traditions: that love of God has precedence over all other religious requirements, observances and loyalties. This love of God requires the giving of our entire self and when it is given, love of neighbor will be the necessary and visible manifestation of our love for God. Love of God is shown to be authentic when it is made visible in love of neighbor, for God comes to us concretely in the presence of our sisters and brothers. The first lectionary reading and today’s gospel show these close parallels.

In the Deuteronomy reading, Moses has gathered the Israelites on the banks of the Jordan. The people are about to take possession of the Promise Land, but Moses will not go with them, he will die before they cross the river. He gives his final address to the people and reminds them that they have only one God and that they are to love God with all their being. That’s our first reading of the text – the clear narrative piece. But the Book of Deuteronomy was written long after the narrated event, when the nation was prosperous and well ensconced in the land. So, there is another setting for today’s reading and another application.

The people were settled and secure and, in such situations, a nation and a religion can become complacent and rely on their own strengths and notions. Thus, in presenting Moses’ guiding words, Deuteronomy is calling the people to turn from self reliance back to God. The authority and prestige of Moses is used to remind them that their first loyalty is to the God who liberated them from slavery. When the nation collapses and is taken off to captivity, the exiles will look back on their foolishness in relying on political and military power while ignoring God their Creator and Sustainer. Perhaps the defeated and humbled exiles will hear the echo of Moses’ ancient advice to the incipient nation and realize a moment of rebirth, by once again turning to God and loving God with all their, "...heart...soul and...strength."

Moses’ words may find us worshipers in different places in our lives. For those who are constant in their piety, today is a chance to affirm their decision to serve God and be nourished at this Eucharist so they can continue to be faithful servants. Others, aware of their self reliance and "independent spirits," may be reminded that their primary loyalty and dependence is on God, all else is secondary and can easily be taken away. Finally, there may be some in the congregation who, like the exiles, have seen their world shaken and collapse and need to be renewed in hope. They hear Moses’ reminder that we are called to love God totally because that is what God has first done for us – loved us with full "heart, soul and strength." Such a God will come to the help of the broken and displaced because that’s just God’s nature.

We want to be careful today not to preach a message that is solely a command to love God and neighbor. The command to love God so completely doesn’t come as an offer from a dictator God who wishes slave-like docility and complete dedication. You can’t demand such love by issuing a decree from on-high. Moses calls the people to such love because they have been freely chosen by God. For forty years they have wandered the desert and come to know their God as a God of love. Moses is asking them to respond from their "heart, soul and strength," already touched and transformed by God’s love.

The transformation caused by God’s love is so profound that it flows from us towards God and is expressed in love of neighbor. Like Moses, Jesus calls us to love God with our entire being because his life and death are a manifestation of God’s love for each of us. He reminds us that God is the center and abiding presence in our lives by quoting the "Shema," Israel’s great affirmation of faith and love of God. One imagines that the words taken from Deuteronomy come quickly to Jesus’ consciousness and lips because, as a devout Jew, he would have prayed the prayer each morning and evening, "Hear, O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord alone!" Jesus speaks the spirit of the Torah, his response to the scribe draws on Deuteronomy and confesses that love of God is our primary desire and goal.

The rabbis could count 613 commandments of the Torah. Of these, 248 were positive in form and 365 negative. The religious teachers debated which were

"heavy" commandments and which were "light." So, in religious circles a point of discussion would be: which of these commandments was "first" or most important. Hence the setting for the question the scribe asks Jesus. In his response Jesus quotes two commands from the Hebrew scriptures and, in doing that, suggests that no one commandment can adequately answer the scribe’s question. By putting the two together Jesus also suggests that the two constitute one great commandment. Jesus wouldn’t have been perceived by devout Jews as abrogating the rest of the Torah. What they would have heard was Jesus’ way of simplifying the Law to help in its observance.

The second commandment, from Leviticus (19:18), assumes that people love themselves; that they protect, care for and tend to their own concerns. Jesus’ challenge is that we show this love to others. In the Old Testament context there is a narrow sense of who the "neighbor" is; it would be family members, or those belonging to the nation. In Jesus’ teachings, especially in the parable of the Good Samaritan, he extends the sense of "neighbor" beyond any ethnic or religious confines. For him, love of God and neighbor are not "first" and "second" – they constitute one commandment greater than all the others.

The scribe understands and agrees with Jesus. He states that the law of love of God and neighbor is greater than any of the religious observances and laws concerning sacrifices. Revered Temple worship and sacrifice must take second place to the observance and sacrifice that comes with loving God and neighbor. Jesus says that the scribe has answered wisely about the superiority of love over any sacrifice and then says to him, "You are not far from the kingdom of God." But the scribe has shown wisdom and is in agreement with Jesus, what more could he lack?

He will need to receive the kingdom as a child, as Jesus has taught. He will have to acknowledge he cannot earn entrance into the kingdom by any deed or observance; that he is totally dependent on God for the gift of membership in the kingdom. Then, as a member of the kingdom, he must live the commandment Jesus has taught about loving God and neighbor. Remember that Mark’s gospel began with a promise by John the Baptist that the one who was coming after him was mightier and would baptize with the Holy Spirit (1:7-8). The new life Jesus gives is the gift of the Spirit and enables recipients to fulfill the law of love he has articulated for the scribe. The scribe is, "not far from the kingdom of God." But he can only enter it through the gift God gives.

Click here for a link to this Sunday’s readings: