Oct 31, 2021: 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 Deuteronomy, 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. In today’s reading, he has just finished teaching them the Ten Commandments and now calls on them to remain faithful to the covenant of the Lord.

This is a very moving text and one of special importance for the faith and life of the chosen people.

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.

Moses is instructing them on how they are to act once they cross the river and enter the Promised Land. Obedience to God will ensure the blessings of long life and prosperity.

“Long life” was initially understood as longevity, but in the New Testament, more emphasis is put on the reward of eternal life. This development in the biblical ethic should not be surprising: God takes account of time and grace to lead men to the fullness of truth.

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.

Moses reminds the people that there are obligations involved in their covenant relationship with God. God has made promises, and God will keep those promises. However, if the people are to prosper in their new land, they must obey God’s commandments.

“Hear, O Israel!

Literally, “Shema Yisrael!”

Shema, the exhortation to hear, became the name of the prayer that follows.

The LORD is our God, the LORD alone!

The Shema is 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.”

It is a clear, solemn profession of monotheism, which is a distinctive feature of Israel among the nations that neighbor it.

“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. 318 AD), Treatise Against the Pagans, 6,4].

Therefore, you shall love the LORD, your God, 

The various statutes and commandments of the Mosaic Law mentioned at the opening of this passage can all be summarized under the rubric, “Love the LORD, your God.”

Is love something that can be made the subject of a commandment? What God asks of Israel, and of each of us, is not a mere feeling which man cannot control; it is something that has to do with the will. It is an affection which can and should be cultivated by taking to heart, ever more profoundly, our filial relationship with our Father.

“In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the expiation of our sins. … We love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:10, 19).

with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength.

This love for God must be complete. This love does not consist solely of external conformity to law — it must be a total commitment, including our innermost faculties:

  • 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 knows that when the people enter Canaan they will be entering a land that worships many gods. So he emphasizes the absolute necessity that the people be faithful to the one true God.

Throughout this final message to the people at the end of his life, Moses repeatedly places extreme emphasis on the importance of this exhortation, asking them to take it to heart.

Nothing is more important.

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.

In our second reading today, the author of Hebrews continues his comparison between Jesus’ priesthood and the priesthood of the levitical priests, that is, the priests who were priests because they were born into the tribe of Levi.

In so doing, three aspects of the extraordinary high priesthood of Jesus are highlighted: the permanence of the office, the holiness of Jesus the high priest, and the legitimacy of the high 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.

The levitical priests had limited offices because they died, and once they died they were no longer able to function as priests. Hereditary transmission of the office was necessary for the priesthood to endure.

Jesus, on the other hand, rose from the dead and so is able to hold his priestly office forever.

Recall from last week’s reading that Jesus is priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek, whose office was also perpetual.

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 of holiness 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.

The levitical priests had to offer sacrifice day after day because none of the sacrifices they offered were perfect sacrifices. Jesus, by contrast, offered himself as a perfect sacrifice.

The excellence of this 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 is the obedient firstborn Son of God, who is without sin. He has no need to offer sacrifice for his own sins, as humans do. This is why the offering of himself is the perfect sacrifice.

Not only is Jesus the perfect sacrifice, he is the perfect high priest. By his perfect self-sacrifice, Jesus offers salvation to the whole human race.

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.

In today’s gospel reading, we move from the story of Bartimaeus at the end of chapter 10 of Mark’s gospel, to the middle of chapter 12. Chapter 11 told us about Jesus’ triumphal entrance into Jerusalem (Mark 11:1-11), his cursing the fig tree (Mark 11:12-14, 20-25), his cleansing of the temple (Mark 11:15-19), and the fact that “the chief priests, the scribes and the elders” are questioning Jesus’ authority (Mark 11:27-33). At the beginning of chapter 12, Jesus tells this antagonistic audience the parable of the tenants, after which they want to arrest him but are afraid of the crowd.

It is in this highly tense setting that we meet a very unusual scribe.

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

Jesus has every reason to be suspicious of this scribe and the question he poses. Jesus had just been verbally sparring with powerful people who were trying to get him to say something that would have him arrested. The scribes who most often appear in Mark’s gospel are legalistic people who are also trying to trap Jesus. Will this scribe be like the others?

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.’

Despite his frustration and anger with all that has happened, Jesus answers the scribe’s question thoroughly and in a manner that the scribe could accept; that is, he quotes the law.

The quote is from Deuteronomy 6:4-5, from our first reading. Jesus states that the Shema is the first of commandments.

Note that Jesus adds “with all your mind,” to the passage 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), 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.”

Although the scribe had asked only for the first of all the commandments, Jesus gives them a second. He quotes Leviticus 19:18.

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 (388 AD), 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.

Mark has established a clear pattern of behavior between Jesus and his interrogators. Their conversations have typically ended with the questioner being angry and wishing Jesus harm. Here, Mark breaks that pattern.

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. 217 AD), 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.”

Jesus immediately realizes that this scribe is not at all like his other questioners, who are trying to trap him. This 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). This 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?

Those pictured as overhearing the conversation are the Pharisees and Herodians who wanted to trap him (Mark 12:13). Rather than being ensnared, Jesus is continuing to teach with such insight and such fidelity to his own tradition that he is attracting even more followers.

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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