by Br Julian McDonald cfc

“Listen, Israel, the Lord our God is the one Lord, and you must 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 must love your neighbour as yourself.”
Mark 12, 28-34

Human beings were created for love. We know we were loved into life by a woman and man whose love for one another mirrored something of the love of God for every human being. Moreover, we know deep within that we are most fully human when we express with authenticity the loved planted in our own human heart.

While the scribe, who asked Jesus to identify “the first of all the commandments”, was probably out to demonstrate his own astuteness at framing trick questions, it seems as though he was also trying to trap Jesus into saying something that would further alienate him from the Pharisees and other religious authorities. Jesus, however, was more than equal to the task, for he selected two commandments from the Torah and joined them into one. Twice each day, devout Jews still pray the shema, the prayer given to them by Moses and contained in today’s first reading from Deuteronomy: “Listen, Israel: The Lord our God is one Lord. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength. Let these words I urge on you today be written on your heart.” Every Jew knows this prayer by heart, just as every Christian knows the Our Father. Jesus demonstrated the deftness of his skill by linking that commandment with an injunction found in Leviticus about the moral obligation placed on every Jew to care for one’s neighbour: “Don’t seek revenge or carry a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbour as yourself. I am the Lord.” (Lev 19, 18)

Jesus makes it clear that love of God is inseparable from love of neighbour. In fact, the only way to measure the quality of one’s love for God is to look at the quality of the love one extends to one’s neighbour. Yet it’s worth noting that humanity hasn’t yet produced an instruction manual on how to love. It is something that emanates from within and it’s an experience for which we are equipped with in-built detectors. We know innately what it is to love another. And we also know when we are expressing love and when we are withholding it. We also know the pain associated with being deprived of love and the cost of loving another without conditions.

The Russian novelist, Dostoevsky understood what it means to love our neighbour as we love ourselves. In his novel The Brothers Karamazov, he writes: “Avoid being scornful both to others and to yourself. Avoid fear, too, though fear is only the consequence of every sort of falsehood. Never be frightened of your own faint-heartedness in attaining love. Don’t be frightened overmuch even of your evil actions. I am sorry I can say nothing more consoling to you, for love in action is a harsh and dreadful thing compared to love in dreams. Love in dreams is greedy for immediate action… But active love is labour and fortitude.” (Fyodor, Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, Ch. 4)

Victor Hugo also had a profound insight into the mystery of love when he wrote towards the end of his novel, Les Miserables: “To love another person is to see the face of God.”

It is a happy coincidence that we read this gospel just a few days after we celebrate the feast of All Saints – the celebration of all those people who have reflected to us something of the love God has for us. And, the truth is, we all know people who have learned to love whole-heartedly. Most of us don’t need to look beyond our parents, who put our needs ahead of their own. Their love was expressed day in and day out as they cared for us in very practical ways, looking after us when we were sick, keeping us well-nourished and clothed, making sure we had opportunity for the kind of education that was not available to them. In the process, they reflected to us, in very practical ways, the goodness and love of God.

Closer to our own time, the great German theologian, Karl Rahner (1904-1984) understood the human person as one who is created for the self-communication of God. He believed that the first way that we human beings experience God is simply through the mystery that each of us is. He spoke of a mysticism of everyday life, a recognition that we find God through the often boring and monotonous grind of everyday life. He went on to say that we reach our full human potential when we grow into a willingness to give ourselves away, as we reach out to others, expressing selflessly the love deep in our hearts. (See Mary Steinmetz, Thoughts on the Experience of God in the Theology of Karl Rahner, Lumen et Vita, Vol 2, 2012 and Karl Rahner, The Mystical Way in Everyday Life, trans. Annemarie Kidder, Maryknoll, NY Orbis Books, 2010, p.173)

Jesus clearly got it right when he equated love of God with love of neighbour, whether that neighbour is a family member, a co-worker, a refugee begging on our streets or the family next door. Some writers and theologians and many ordinary people down through the ages have understood what Jesus says about love in today’s gospel.

The bottom line of all this is that we have to grow into the realization that the best possible way of honouring the God who loved us into life is to honour, respect and reach out to all those around us who, like us, have been created in God’s image.

There are just two more challenges for us in this gospel. There’s a big hurdle for all of us in Jesus’ statement: “You must love your neighbour as yourself. It’s a long journey to get to the point of really loving ourselves. We only come to love ourselves when we are convinced that God loves us unconditionally, exactly as we are, with all our warts and imperfections, with all our past mistakes and failures. That also means coming to accept that God’s love is not something to be earned, not something purchased by good behaviour. When we come to that realization, we understand that God also loves everyone around us, with his/her personal history, her/his prejudices, his/her brokenness and her/his mistakes.

Finally, if we care to look, we will see that there have been “scribes” throughout history. There are even “scribes” all around us. They’re the people who are so wedded to causes, so taken up with criticizing government or Church authorities or priests who depart from what’s in the book or ranting about pre-marital sex or the ignorance of youth that they can’t hear the Jesus who in today’s gospel is asking them how they treat their family, how they welcome refugees, how they get along with the neighbours, how they reach out with compassion and forgiveness to those whom they criticise.

Today’s gospel offers us all a moment of truth that has the potential to change our lives. If we can find the courage to let go of our pet prejudices and vested interests, we, too, might be able to hear what Jesus said to the particular scribe who set out to trick him and ended by opening himself to the wisdom Jesus offered. His humility led Jesus to say to him: “You are not far from the reign of God.” Are there any words more encouraging than those?