THIRTY-FIRST SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME (2021)
Readings:Deuteronomy 6:2-6Psalms 18:2-4, 47, 51Hebrews 7:23-28Mark 12:28-34
Oliver Twist, in the 1968 movie musical “Oliver,” plaintively sings: “Where is love? Does it fall from skies above?…. Who can say where she may hide? Must I travel far and wide?…. Where, where is love?” We might be tempted to echo Oliver’s song as we look around the world we live in, a world which sometimes seems to be overwhelmed with hatred and division. Mass murders seldom surprise us, violence is de rigueur on the streets of most large American cities, and common ground seems increasingly difficult to find. Threats of violence abound for the mere reason of doing one’s job, and falsehoods and untruths are more popular than the truth. It is enough to make us wonder “where is love?”
In theory, we shouldn’t have to travel “far and wide” to find examples of love. Indeed, not that anyone has a monopoly on love, but over thirty percent of the world’s population is Christian, some 2.382 billion people profess faith in Jesus Christ whose essential teaching centered on the concept of love. Not a wish-washy simply romantic kind of love, but a genuine love which is selfless, obedient, kind, compassionate, generous, and good to all people who are children of one God. With so many Christians living in our world one might be tempted to think that the world would manifest itself as more loving!
Oliver was close to the truth when he pondered whether love “fell from skies above,” for most of us still operate with an outdated, but firmly implanted, spatial notion that heaven is up, and hell is down. The celebration of Jesus’ nativity speaks frequently when referring to Jesus of “love coming down” to a waiting world.
Our liturgy today, like so many others, is all about love. Our first reading from Deuteronomy shares one of the most important passages in all of Hebrew Scriptures, the Schema: “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.” The First Testament, wrongly noted as being less than loving, speaks of loving frequently, as it does in the psalm response to the first reading: “I love you, O Lord, my strength, O Lord, my rock, my fortress, my deliverer.” The Israelites’ love for the one God, who chose them as His special people, was meant to be complete and total, and while it was meant to involve their “heart, soul, and strength,” which meant of course that it was personal, it wasn’t so personal that it did not extend to children and widows, to the aliens and foreigners who lived in their lands. It is Jesus’ merging of the Schema with another passage from Leviticus which makes the love of God and the love of neighbor inseparable.
The Scribe who approaches Jesus in today’s gospel may not have possessed the most pure of intentions. We are getting close to the end of Mark’s gospel, and more than once the gospel will highlight the rising tensions with the Scribes and the Pharisees which form the prelude to Jesus’ crucifixion. The Scribe might very well have wanted Jesus to pick one commandment to the exclusion of others, causing an unneeded tension or embarrassment. But Jesus manages to skirt the Scribe’s possible deception by taking the texts from Deuteronomy [the Schema] and the text from Leviticus, combining them into one commandment: “there is no greater commandment than these,” Jesus tells him, and his elaborate confirmation of what Jesus says goes further to confirm that the Scribe has a deep understanding of the truth Jesus speaks.
The full meaning of what Jesus teaches the Scribe will unfold in the pages of Scripture, especially in John’s gospel and letters, but the Scribe’s remarkable reiteration of what Jesus did by combining two passages of Scripture leaves us with no doubt that the love of God and the love of neighbor are inextricably intertwined, “worth more than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.” Indeed, Jesus is no ordinary high priest who has a need to offer “sacrifice day after day,” for Jesus’ sacrifice of His very life on the cross supersedes any sacrifice that could be done in this world. Our worship of God is rather simple (compared to the 613 precepts of the Law) – love God completely and fully with your heart, soul, and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself.
If those who call themselves Christian are truly loving God as Jesus intended, then why is our world plagued with such upset and division, violence and strife, poverty and want? Why do some people not enjoy the most fundamental of freedoms, go to bed hungry at night, have no access to clean drinking water? Why do some people foment discord by speaking untruths, relaying mindless gossip, or outright lying? Why are people mistakingly clamoring for abortion and euthanasia? Cannot 2.3 billion people (Christians) make a difference in our world?
Perhaps the key to understanding why there is so much disagreement in the world is the extent of our love of God – “fully with your heart, soul, and strength.” During His brief earthly life Jesus attempted to teach us what truly loving God means, in word and in deed, but many of those who self-identify as Christians seldom make the effort to examine all of the implications of what genuine love of God is all about. The Scriptures remind us that the person who has seen one’s neighbor and dislikes that person, mistreats that person, deprives that person, curtails the opportunities of that person, threatens that person, cannot possibly love the God they have not seen. The brilliant permanent tying of the love of God with the love of neighbor provides people with built-in checks and balances on just how genuine our love of God is. Our prisons are full of people we would never be attracted to, but we are meant to love them. Our borders are crammed with people seeking better opportunities for their families, but they might take our son or daughter’s job – we are meant to love them. The “other” political party is filled with individuals struggling to do the right thing, just like us, and we are never meant to wish them harm, and, more importantly, we are meant to love them. Love is never as easy as it appears to be in a Hallmark movie! Jesus knew that, and He counts on us to make the effort to insure that our love for God and our neighbor is all He knows it could be.