Thirty-First Sunday in Ordinary Time – a reflection on the Sunday readings

by Br Julian McDonald cfc

‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind and with all your strength…’ ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself…There is no other commandment greater than this.’” Mark 12, 28-34
Today’s gospel-reading is an account of one of the few amicable encounters which Jesus had with the religious teachers of his day. In fact, Jesus was so impressed with the response the scribe gave to the answer Jesus had given to his question that he gave the man the highest of compliments: “You are not far from the kingdom of God”   (Mark 12, 34).

In his Gospel, Mark details how a variety of scribes, Pharisees, Jewish elders and those who saw themselves as defenders of the letter of the Law set out to trap Jesus into making a statement that could be interpreted as either heretical or blasphemous. Occasionally, a well-intentioned seeker of truth came to him in search of guidance or wisdom. One such was the rich man who came looking for the best way to go about inheriting eternal life. The answer he was given amounted to something he just couldn’t bring himself to do. Most of Jesus’ interrogators posed questions, the answers to which they thought they already knew. Jesus was so skilled in dealing with their questions that there was nothing meaningful or intelligent left for them to say.

The unnamed scribe who features in today’s gospel-reading asks a question, the answer to which is embodied in the Shema – a prayer which every observant Jew knew by heart, a prayer on the lips of every Jew throughout history, a prayer they prayed at least twice each day, one they continue to pray and will pray into the future. It’s a prayer as familiar to Jews as the Our Father and Hail Mary are to us Catholics. Moreover, the words of the Shema are inscribed on the mezuzah – a narrow, roughly rectangular little box that is affixed to the doorpost of every Jewish household in adherence to the command in Deuteronomy to “write the words of God on the gates and doorposts of your house” (Deuteronomy 6:9). The words of the Shema are proclaimed in full in today’s first reading: “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. Drill them into your children. Speak of them at home and abroad, whether you are busy or at rest. Bind them on your wrist as a sign and let them be as a pendant on your forehead. Write them on the doorposts of your houses and on your gates” (Deuteronomy 6, 4-9).   The genius in Jesus’ response to the scribe was that he combined these words from Deuteronomy with a directive from Leviticus about caring for one’s neighbours: “Don’t just stand by when your neighbour’s life is in danger. I am God. Don’t secretly hate your neighbour. If you have something against him, get it out into the open. Otherwise, you are an accomplice in his guilt. Don’t seek revenge or carry a grudge against any of your people. Love your neighbour as yourself. I am God” (Leviticus 19, 16-18).

Jesus was sensitive enough to recognise that the scribe who posed the question about the Shema, the central commandment of Judaism, was both open to learn and vulnerable. In responding to him, he recognised the scribe’s goodness and responded gently to him, pointing out that the only practical and authentic way to demonstrate one’s love for God is to treat one’s neighbour with dignity, care, kindness and compassion.

In the time of Jesus, one of the favourite occupations of educated and observant Jews was to discuss and debate all the codicils and by-laws that had multiplied around the central commandment to love God with all one’s heart and soul. That was a practice with which the scribe of today’s gospel reading would have been familiar. And Jesus, too, was no stranger to it. Even in our own contemporary Church, we encounter people whose attention is taken up with adherence to rules and rubrics. As a result, fundamentalism takes over their lives, and respect, care and compassion for their sisters and brothers are somehow blotted out of their consciousness. Their obsession with the letter of the law makes a casualty of the spirit of the law.

To guard against that, the Shema’s opening call to the people of Israel is: “Hear, listen, pay attention!” In his long dissertation in which Moses spells out God’s law to the people of Israel, he repeatedly reminds them to listen, to open their ears and their hearts to listen. Before doing or avoiding anything, they are to focus on listening, on absorbing the significance of what is being presented to them. If they were to focus on listening, they would come to realise that they were being invited to love the God who had loved them into existence, who had guided them, protected them and cared for them. This is all about coming to ponder and appreciate the story of God’s love for them. And that has nothing to do with being afraid of God or being bound up by rules and regulations. Law is all about breathing freedom into the lives of people and understanding the importance of treating themselves and others with dignity and respect. It is that which moved Jesus to link to the Shema the logical corollary of loving one’s neighbour. In a world in which we are constantly interacting with one another, the only practical way of demonstrating our love for God is to love and respect everyone else who has within them a spark of the divine, who, like us, have been loved into life by God.

Therein lies the crunch for all of us. It’s easy to love the elderly woman who lives across the street. She’s always pleasant and never seems to have a bad word for anybody. But the grumpy man next door is a different kettle of fish. He is constantly complaining about the teenagers in the street. In his mind they are selfish, lazy and up to their ears in drugs and sex. We give him the occasional nod of recognition and quietly thank God that he’s not in charge of the Police Department. But what about the North Korean Leader, Kim Jong Un, whom we are inclined to label as brainless and dangerous? And Donald Trump who insists that he was robbed in the Presidential Election? Add to them, the Military Junta in Myanmar whose members seem intent on exterminating the Rohingya Muslims. We can all make our own lists to include those who are the targets of our prejudices and biases – the Taliban, the parking attendant who gave me a fine last week, business managers who are taking advantage of Covid 19 victims. Am I supposed to love them? The short answer is “Yes!” That is the imperative of the Gospel of Jesus, who not once said that loving others would be easy. If we are honest we will catch ourselves thinking and even saying that this doesn’t make sense. But, in the long-run, that’s the only way to lasting peace in our own hearts, in the hearts of others and in our world. Fostering thoughts of revenge, of locking away child-abusers and throwing away the key gives those we hate and want to punish control over us. If we don’t try to forgive, to accept that they are our sisters and brothers, we cannot claim to be walking in the footsteps of Jesus. The key is in doing our best to make the effort.