31st Ordinary Sunday (Year B)
First Reading: Deuteronomy 6:2-6 Second Reading: Hebrews 7:23-28 Gospel Reading: Mark: 12:28b-34
"Shema, Israel ... Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might."
A few years ago, a radio station ran a contest. Disc jockeys invited their listeners to tune in their clock radios. "Just for fun," they said, "when you wake up to the sound of FM-106, call and tell us the first words you spoke when you rolled out of bed. If you're the third caller, you'll win $106."
It didn't take long for the contest to grow in enthusiasm. The first morning, a buoyant disc jockey said, "Caller number three, what did you say when you rolled out of bed this morning?" A groggy voice said, "Do I smell coffee burning?" Another day, a sleepy clerical worker said, "Oh no, I'm late for work." Somebody else said her first words were, "Honey, did I put out the dog last night?" A muffled curse was immediately heard in the background, and then a man was heard to say, "No, you didn't." It was a funny contest and drew a considerable audience.
One morning, however, the third caller said something unusual. The station phone rang. "Good morning, this is FM-106. You're on the air. What did you say when you rolled out of bed this morning?" A voice with a Bronx accent replied, "You want to know my first words in the morning?" The bubbly DJ said, "Yes, sir! Tell us what you said." The Bronx voice responded, "Shema, Israel ... Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might." There was a moment of embarrassed silence. Then the radio announcer said, "Sorry, wrong number," and cut to a commercial.
Try to remember. What did you say when you rolled out of bed today? Chances are, those words set the tone for the rest of the day. For the pious Jew the first words of each morning are always the same, and they are the words spoken that morning on FM-106, and they are the words which we hear in the First Reading of today from the Book of Deuteronomy: "Shema, Israel ... Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might." This primary obligatory prayer is as dear to every good Jew today as it was to Jesus himself and all the apostles. It is a statement of belief in the one true God. They were first spoken by Moses, who said, "Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Teach them to your children and talk about them when you lie down and when you rise." (Deuteronomy 6:6-7) And Moses urged his people to keep all of God's commandments.
In the Gospel Reading of today from St. Mark, one of the Scribes comes & asks Jesus - “Which is the first of all the commandments.” Throughout Jesus' ministry, his experiences have been characterized by conflict: he is challenged or questioned in a hostile manner by the Pharisees & Temple authorities and he responds harshly to them. However, there seems to be no sense of hostility or of a trap set here. The man isn't there to score points; he just wants to know the opinion of Jesus as a rabbi and teacher.
It is also interesting to see that Jesus' reply does not come from any of the actual laws themselves - not even from the Ten Commandments. Instead, it comes from before the law, the opening of the daily Jewish prayer found in Deuteronomy 6:4-5: "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength," which we hear in the First Reading of today. The second commandment in turn comes from Leviticus 19:18: "You shall love your neighbor as yourself." These are two trajectories of love – one pointed vertically to God, toward the heavens; and the other pointed horizontally to humanity, toward our neighbor.
We now call this the First and the Greatest Commandment. This is the FIRST Commandment – the first for antiquity, for this is older than even the Ten Commandments of the written law, and also for dignity, for it deals with God the Almighty who takes precedence over every other. It is the GREATEST Commandment – the greatest, for it contains in its bowels every other. It is the greatest commandment, then, for its comprehensiveness, and it is the greatest command for the immense demand which it makes upon us. It demands all our mind, all our soul, all our heart, and all our strength.
This is the most distinctive dimension of Jesus' interpretation of the law that he combined the two commandments into one. The significance of this in its context is that Jesus neither neglected the love of God nor the love of neighbor. In Jesus' teaching, the love of God is intimately connected with the love of neighbor and vice versa. They are inseparable, since we cannot really love God and despise our fellowmen. And we cannot adequately love our fellowmen without grounding anchor of love for God. We love God by loving our neighbor as we love ourselves. The proof and measure of how we love God is shown in how much we love others.
The heart and soul of the Gospel is LOVE and all the rest is commentary. Whatever else we may perceive religion to be, we are wrong—for true religion is love in action - 'God’s love for us and our love for God and for our neighbors.' Again, love for God in isolation from love for the neighbor is empty piety, a mere theoretical form of religion that makes no difference in this world God loves so passionately. This is the same message Jesus wishes to tell us in the Gospel passage for the day.
Moreover, the two-fold commandment of love is the resume, condensation and fulfillment of the ten Commandments. The first four commandments have to do with our relationship with God, and the remaining six have to do with our relationship with others. So, Jesus sums it up — 'Love God, love your neighbor.' It is as simple, and as profound, as that. In it all the other commandments are included and made one. These two commandments do constitute a central focus of our attention and are worthy of our memory, our prayer, and our action. Indeed, charity expresses all, contains all, and crowns all.
Let us also think as well about the Scribe's response to Jesus' reply. About how the Scribe affirms Jesus and the truth of God by saying: "You are right teacher.... this is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices" and how then Jesus recognizes the grace and wisdom of the scribe and says to him: "You are not far from the kingdom of God." What interesting words these are... It just goes to show that there is wisdom in the law of God and that those who study it - can find the truth within it - the truth that love is more important than sacrifice and that mercy is more important than burnt offerings, and that these are the things from which flow all laws worthy of the name.
Today's Gospel passage is probably the most inspiring passage in the Bible. It tells us how we should live our life and gives us the desire to do so. We didn't get this life to serve ourselves and our desires, but to use those desires to love the one that gave us this life. This is also a passage to think about everyday, because it is so difficult to understand the depth of what Jesus is saying.
Finally, the Second Reading of today from the Letter to the Hebrews continues the teaching on Jesus the eternal High Priest. Unlike the priests of the Old Testament, whose priesthood died with them, Jesus lives forever to intercede for us. He continually offers to the Father the perfect sacrifice of himself, which is the proof of his magnanimous and everlasting love for us - “No greater love a man can have than to lay down his life for his friend.” And before he died, Jesus gave his disciples and us, a new commandment - “I give you a new commandment: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you should love one another. This is how all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” In every Eucharistic celebration, we share in Jesus' eternal sacrifice and remember his great and eternal self-giving love for us. Let us thenfollow his example and take part in this Eucharistic celebration with deep faith, hope and love for God and one another.