BY FATHER DONALD DILGER
Thirty-First Sunday in Ordinary Time
First Reading: Deuteronomy 6:2-6; Response: Psalm 18:2-3, 3-4, 47, 51; Second Reading: Hebrews 7:23-28; Gospel: Mark 12:28b-34
The first reading is part of a discourse attributed to Moses by the authors/editors of the Scroll of Deuteronomy. They introduce the discourse as follows, “Moses called all of Israel together, and said to them . . . .” Moses takes over, “Hear, O Israel, the statutes and the laws which I speak to you today. You shall learn them and be careful to do them.” He reminds them of their awesome experience at Mt. Sinai and the covenant the Lord made with them. Next he recites the Ten Commandments but in greater detail than the Sisters made us memorize them. The authors and editors of Deuteronomy were members of the priestly Levites. They assembled their book or scroll in the sixth century B.C. There is much repetition in this discourse and in other discourses they attribute to Moses. The repetitions give the book a tone of a long and boring homily, not unknown even in our day. To put the fear of the Lord into his audience, Moses reminds them of the frightening phenomena of storm, fire, and earthquake at Mt. Sinai.
Having established motivation (fear) for his listeners, Moses says, “Fear the Lord, your God, and do throughout your whole life all his statutes and commandments which I enjoin on you today, so that you may have a long life.” The authors then repeat in similar words what Moses just said but with a promise that the Lord will give them a land flowing with milk and honey. (Israelis of today may wish that promise had included oil, as in surrounding nations.) The heart of the dis-course follows, “Hear, O Israel! The Lord, our God is one Lord. And you shall love the Lord, your God, with your whole heart, your whole soul, and all your strength.” This prayer or creed is called ‘the Shema,’ because that is the first word of this creed in Hebrew. Translated into English: “Hear” or Listen.” In the context of Deuteronomy with its concern about foreign gods, this creed proclaims the Lord God of Israel as the unique and only God and Lord of Israel in contrast to the ‘fake gods’ of other nations. The command to love the Lord God with one’s whole being is a response to what God had done for them as recalled in the discourse. The selection of this reading was determined because in today’s gospel Jesus quotes the Shema.
Psalm 18 continues the theme of love of the Lord. The people’s response summarizes, “I love you, Lord, my strength.” The Psalmist addresses God as “my Lord, my God, my strength, my rock, my fortress, my deliverer, my savior, my shield, my stronghold, the horn of my salvation.” What is this ‘horn?’ In this case, at least it, is not a wind instrument used in temple liturgies. Animals use their horns to dominate, to gain power over rivals. (For cartoon fans — Hagar the Horrible wears a pair of horns as a symbol of power.) Animal horns became symbols of even divine power. On the altar of sacrifice in the temple, a horn was attached on each of the four corners of the altar table. After all the above flattering titles spoken of him, the psalm closes with gratitude to the Lord for giving victory to his anointed king.
The reading from Hebrews compares the priests of the Old Covenant with the Priest of the New Covenant. The former priests had to be replaced because “death prevented them from remaining in office.” Their individual priesthood ended. Not so with our Priest. Because Jesus lives forever, his priesthood remains forever. His job description: “to make intercession for those who approach God through him.” The former high priests offered sacrifices of atonement for the sins of the people and for their own sins. They offered sacrifices daily. Our Priest, “holy, innocent, undefiled,” offered just one sacrifice, “once and for all.”
In the context of today’s gospel, Jesus, his disciples and a crowd of Passover pilgrims from Galilee arrived in Jerusalem. Jesus’ triumphal entry into the city, the cursing of the fruitless fig tree, the attack on business dealings in the temple, confrontation with the lords of the temple — all came in quick succession. After proclaiming a parable that indicted his lethal enemies, Jesus was first confronted with a trick question from some Pharisee scribes about paying taxes to Rome. He outwits them. Next, he is confronted by Sadducees who ridiculed the belief of the Pharisees in a resurrection of the dead. They, too, get their comeuppance. This brings us to today’s gospel. In Mark’s version of the story this is not a confrontation, just a friendly discussion. The subject of the discussion was a much-debated question among the scribes at the time of Jesus. “Which is the first (the most important) of all the commandments?” The question is not about the Ten Commandments, but about all 613 commandments scribes identified in the Torah. The Big Ten, also called ‘the Ten Words,’ are included in that number.
Jesus answers by quoting from Deuteronomy 6:4 the Shema described above in comments on the first reading. He adds a second commandment, this one from Leviticus 19:18. “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” The pleasant scribe fully agrees with Jesus’ answer, “You are right on both points.” He adds an interesting comment on love of neighbor. “To love your neighbor as yourself is worth more than all holocausts (offerings consumed completely by fire) and sacrifices.” The scribe has in mind Hosea 6:6, “I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than holocausts.” A similar thought occurs in 1 Samuel 15:22, but in this case, “to obey is better than sacrifice.” Jesus is impressed with the scribe’s answer and pays him a compliment, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” Mark adds a comment, “No one dared ask him anymore questions. But Christians look for an answer to this question, “Is love of neighbor even possible, since according to the gospel one must love even one’s enemies?” Jesus made easy the first step in that direction, “Do to others what you do not want done to yourself. This sums up the Torah and the Prophets.” See Matthew 7:12 and Romans 13:9-10.