Nov 4, 2018: 31st Sunday in Ordinary Time (B)

1st Reading – Deuteronomy 6:2-6

Moses spoke to the people, saying:
“Fear the LORD, your God,
and keep, throughout the days of your lives,
all his statutes and commandments which I enjoin on you,
and thus have long life.
Hear then, Israel, and be careful to observe them,
that you may grow and prosper the more,
in keeping with the promise of the LORD, the God of your fathers,
to give you a land flowing with milk and honey.

“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.”

In today’s reading, Moses is addressing a new generation of Israelites, all of those who would have been under the age of twenty when the exodus from Egypt began. He has just read the Ten Commandments to them, and now calls on them to remain faithful to the covenant of the Lord.

Moses spoke to the people saying: “Fear the LORD, your God, and keep, throughout the days of your lives, all his statutes and commandments which I enjoin on you, and thus have long life.

Obedience to God will ensure the blessings of long life and prosperity.

Hear then, Israel, and be careful to observe them, that you may grow and prosper the more, in keeping with the promise of the LORD, the God of your fathers, to give you a land flowing with milk and honey.

The promise made to Moses at the burning bush (Exodus 3:8).

“Hear, O Israel!

Literally, “Shema Yisrael!”  Shema, the exhortation to hear, lends itself as the name of the prayer that follows.

The LORD is our God, the LORD alone!

This is the Shema, perhaps the most significant prayer of the Israelite religion, which Jews recite daily.  It is a profession to faith in the one God to whom belongs Israel’s exclusive and undivided attention, commitment, and worship.

The prayer itself only contains four words, two of which are the personal name of God.  They are: “LORD,” “our God,” “LORD,” “one.”

Two testimonies are made in this short prayer: God is the patron deity of Israel, the God who drew them out of Egyptian bondage, led them through the perils of the wilderness, and brought them to the land of promise. He is not attached to a shrine or identified with a natural occurrence; he is literally with them in the Ark of the Covenant — “our God.”

God is also “one.”  All of the attributes of deity are found in him — there is no divided deity whose various characteristics are worshiped at various shrines.  He is the one true God; there is no other.

“Since God is one, it is ridiculous to suppose that there could be still another ‘Lord’ of
heaven and earth in addition to the Lord who is one. There is simply no room for a second Lord of all, if the one true God fills all things in the compass of heaven and earth” [Saint Athanasius (ca. A.D. 318), Treatise Against the Pagans, 6,4].

Therefore, you shall love the LORD, your God, with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength.

Although verse 2 references the various statutes and commandments of the Mosaic Law, they can all be summarized under the rubric, “Love the LORD, your God.”

This love for God must be complete. Obedience does not consist solely of external conformity to law — it must be a total commitment, including their innermost faculties.  This includes the heart, the seat of the mind and the will; the soul, the source of vitality; and all of their strength.

Take to heart these words which I enjoin on you today.”

Moses is at the end of his life, and the Israelites are about to cross into the Promised Land without him.  Throughout his final message, he repeatedly places extreme emphasis its importance of this, asking them to take it to heart.

2nd Reading – Hebrews 7:23-28

Brothers and sisters:
The levitical priests were many
because they were prevented by death from remaining in office,
but Jesus, because he remains forever,
has a priesthood that does not pass away.
Therefore, he is always able to save those who approach God through him,
since he lives forever to make intercession for them.

It was fitting that we should have such a high priest:
holy, innocent, undefiled, separated from sinners,
higher than the heavens.
He has no need, as did the high priests,
to offer sacrifice day after day,
first for his own sins and then for those of the people;
he did that once for all when he offered himself.
For the law appoints men subject to weakness to be high priests,
but the word of the oath, which was taken after the law,
appoints a son,
who has been made perfect forever.

Our reading today highlights three aspects of the extraordinary high priesthood of Jesus: the permanence of the office, the holiness of Jesus the high priest, and the legitimacy of the high priesthood.  The excellence of Jesus’ divine high office is contrasted with human office of the Levitical priesthood.

Brothers and sisters: The levitical priests were many because they were prevented by death from remaining in office, but he, because he remains forever, has a priesthood that does not pass away.

Recall from last week’s reading that Jesus is priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek, whose office was also perpetual.  Because Levitical priests were subject to death, hereditary transmission of the office was necessary for the priesthood to endure.

In contrast, Christ conquered death; his priesthood is inviolable and will not pass away.

Therefore, he is always able to save those who approach God through him, since he lives forever to make intercession for them.

The permanent nature of Jesus’ high priesthood enables him to intercede for others, as the Levitical priests did, but without interruption.  All can now approach God through him, forever.

It was fitting that we should have such a high priest: holy, innocent, undefiled, separated from sinners,

Holiness is the second attribute of Jesus that distinguishes his priesthood.  The four characteristics listed here correspond with the cultic purity required by the Levitical priests.  Jesus meets each of these requirements.

higher than the heavens.

Jesus is further described as being higher than the heavens.  This lifts the full set of requirements for the new priesthood out of the cultic realm and into one of moral rectitude and heavenly transcendence — requirements that no human priest can meet.

He has no need, as did the high priests, to offer sacrifice day after day, first for his own sins and then for those of the people; he did that once for all when he offered himself.

Jesus is the obedient firstborn Son of God — he has no need to offer sacrifice for his own sins, as humans do.

The excellence of his one sacrificial offering has made additional sacrifices unnecessary; he has accomplished once and for all what the continuous offerings of the Levitical priesthood could not accomplish.

For the law appoints men subject to weakness to be high priests,

The Levitical law established the priesthood through Aaron.  They were members of a distinguished priesthood, but they were sinners nonetheless.

but the word of the oath, which was taken after the law, appoints a son, who has been made perfect forever.

Jesus’ high priesthood cannot be traced back to the religious institution of the Levitical priesthood, as he was not a descendant of Aaron.  It must be legitimated another way.  This was done by identifying Jesus with Melchizedek, whose priesthood was established by a divine oath (Hebrews 7:20, Psalm 110:4).

The promise of the non-Levitical priesthood of Psalm 110 came long after the institution of
the Levitical priesthood. The high priest of the New Covenant has been consecrated forever.

Gospel – Mark 12:28-34

One of the scribes came to Jesus and asked him,
“Which is the first of all the commandments?”
Jesus replied, “The first is this:
Hear, O Israel!
The Lord our God is Lord alone!
You shall 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 shall love your neighbor as yourself.
There is no other commandment greater than these.”
The scribe said to him, “Well said, teacher.
You are right in saying,
‘He is One and there is no other than he.’
And ‘to love him with all your heart,
with all your understanding,
with all your strength,
and to love your neighbor as yourself’
is worth more than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.”
And when Jesus saw that he answered with understanding,
he said to him,
“You are not far from the kingdom of God.”
And no one dared to ask him any more questions.

All three synoptic gospels place this episode after Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem (Palm Sunday) and before his passion begins (Holy Thursday).

One of the scribes came to Jesus and asked him, “Which is the first of all the commandments?”

613 commandments had grown up surrounding the official biblical law.  Although all of them were considered binding, some were considered more important than others.  Presumably the scribe, whose very profession included the interpretation of the law, would have understood the relative prioritization of the commandments better than Jesus, who was not a scribe.

In the verses just prior to this reading (18-27), Jesus answers the question “In the resurrection, whose wife will a woman who has had seven husbands be?”  This scribe was impressed with his answer; it prompts him to pose this very significant question to Jesus.

Jesus replied, “The first is this: ‘Hear, O Israel! The Lord our God is Lord alone! You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.’

The Shema, which we heard in the first reading — a surprising answer because it is not one of the 613 commandments.

Note that Jesus adds “with all your mind,” to the quote from Deuteronomy, presumably to emphasize the complete engagement of the person.  The love of God must occupy one’s entire being.

When we make the sign of the cross, we are tracing the Shema upon ourselves, touching our forehead (mind), chest (heart), and shoulders (strength) and pledging them to God’s service.

The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”

Jesus is asked to identify one commandment, and he offers two.  The second is a quote from Leviticus 19:18, which is also not among the 613 commandments.

By bringing these admonitions together in this way, he shows that they are interrelated, their common theme being love.

“This is the summit of virtue, the foundation of all God’s commandments: to the love of God is joined also love of neighbor. One who loves God does not neglect his brother, nor esteem money more than a limb of his own, but shows him great generosity, mindful of him who has said, ‘Whoever did it to the least of my brothers did it to me.’ He is aware that the Lord of all considers as done to Himself what is done in generosity to the poor in giving relief. He does not take into consideration the lowly appearance of the poor, but the greatness of the One who has promised to accept as done to Himself what is given to the poor” [Saint John Chrysostom (A.D. 388), Homilies On Genesis, 55,12].

The scribe said to him, “Well said, teacher. You are right in saying, ‘He is One and there is no other than he.’

The scribe recognizes Jesus’ response as both accurate and profound.  He calls him “teacher,” which is a significant sign of respect coming from an official interpreter of the law.

Jesus was a threat to the influence of the scribes, which is why most New Testament references show them as hostile. This story is unique in that it portrays a friendly, non-controversial discussion between Jesus and a scribe.

And ‘to love him with all your heart, with all your understanding, with all your strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself’ is worth more than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.”

The scribe demonstrates his skills of interpretation by merging the two pronouncements of Jesus and further developing them by echoing Hosea 6:6 and 1 Samuel 15:22.

“My brothers, shun not only the holding, but even the hearing, of the judgment that bans mercy. For mercy is better than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices” [Pope Saint Callistus I (ca. A.D. 217), Second Epistle to All the Bishops of Gaul, 6].

And when Jesus saw that he answered with understanding, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.”

The scribe “gets it” — he sees through the complexity of the law.  He understands that true love, of God and of others, far surpasses any kind of cultic obligation.

Like the rich man in Mark Chapter 10, the scribe is on the threshold of the reign of God; however, unlike the rich man, Jesus doesn’t say “there is one more thing” (Mark 10:21).  The scribe has no impediments.

And no one dared to ask him any more questions.

This answer covered all other questions.  What else was there to ask?  What other answer could be given?

Connections and Themes

God’s covenant.  The central theme of this week’s readings is God’s covenant in the lives of the people.  The first reading tells us that the originator of the covenant is the one, holy God; the second reading establishes Jesus Christ as the mediator of the covenant, the high priest; the gospel tells us that the essence of the covenant is love.

Hear, O Israel.  Israel is called by God; God is the initiator.  To what was Israel called?  To what were Jesus’ disciples called?  To what are we called?  To a covenant relationship with the Lord.  We have been invited to an intimate personal relationship with the creator of the universe, the one who has numbered the very hairs on our head (Matthew 10:30).

We have heard this so often, it has become commonplace — we forget how profound it is.  The marvel of it has been lost because it has become part of our religious language.  It is good that once in a while we are shaken to our senses: “Hear, O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord alone!”

The great high priest.  God has not only created us, he has redeemed us.  As victim-priest Jesus has offered himself on our behalf.  He is the sacrifice that sealed the covenant; his blood was the expiation of our sins.  Try as we might, we will never be able to grasp the depth of Jesus’ willingness to give of himself to us.

Only one thing is asked of us in return: that we open ourselves to him and cling to the covenant, that we proclaim with all our being: “The Lord is our God, the Lord alone!”

Take to heart these words.  It has been said that falling in love with God is the central act of the religious person.  It is certainly the central act of the covenant — we are to love God and others with all our heart, all our soul, all our strength.  If we can fall in love with God, if we can see in each other the image that God loves so passionately, we too will be close to the reign of God.

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