Commentary on Deuteronomy 6:2-6; Hebrews 7:23-28; Mark 12:28-34
WE ARE APPROACHING THE END of the Church year. And, in the gospels of these Sundays, we are looking at the final phase of Jesus’ life before his suffering, death and resurrection.
Last week we saw Jesus leaving Jericho on the last stage of his journey to Jerusalem. He healed the blind beggar, Bartimaeus, who, once he regained his sight, saw that the only thing he could do was to go with Jesus on that final journey.
Today’s story takes place in Jerusalem itself. The context of the story is important. "Sacrifice" is mentioned in both the Second Reading and the Gospel. There are clear links with the Temple, the Old Testament and Jewish Law.
A Scribe approaches Jesus. He is an expert in interpreting the Law. There were more than 600 laws, too many for an ordinary person to grasp. He asks a question which was much-debated among scholars of the day: Of all these many laws which was the most central, the most basic, the one that summed up all the others?
Unlike other occasions, there seems to be no sense of hostility or of a trap being set here. The man just wants to know Jesus’ opinion as a rabbi and teacher.
Note how Jesus receives the man. Usually Scribes and Pharisees are presented as hostile to Jesus. It would be natural for Jesus to be on the defensive, to react negatively. But Jesus always takes the person as he or she is. He does not indulge in stereotyping about "typical Scribes and Pharisees" and tarring all with the same brush. We do this so easily with classes, races, age groups (teenagers, older people). We use so many labels. We even stereotype individuals we know before they have opened their mouths, based on our previous experience with them.
Jesus accepts and responds to this person here and now as he is. An example which we can all follow and which would save a lot of wear and tear in our relations with people, if we did so.
A new development
To answer the man’s question Jesus quotes from the Jewish scripture, the Old Testament. In answering the question, Jesus begins from where the man is, in an area which will be both familiar and acceptable to him. But he takes two distinct texts and puts them together as one. This is a significant development and one that is absolutely central to the Christian vision.
In today’s First Reading from Deuteronomy, one of the books of the Jewish law, one can see that one is urged to love God with all one’s energy and to "keep all his laws and commandments". There is no mention here of the "neighbour". That appears in a separate text in a different book of the law (Leviticus 19:18).
The Scribe is obviously pleased with the answer. And he further adds that these two commands are far more important than any holocaust or sacrifice.
And it is this dual approach which makes Jesus the perfect priest mentioned in the Second Reading. The priests of the Law were men subject to weakness. "Death put an end to each one of them." While Christ, "because he remains for ever, can never lose his priesthood". Jesus is the "perfect" Priest and now the only Priest, because absolutely perfect in his love for the Father and in his love for us.
Like Jesus, we cannot separate our love of God from loving ALL those around us. Sometimes we see our sins just as offences against God, even when action is directed against another person. We may go to "confession", get forgiveness and feel the matter is finished. We go to God for forgiveness, when what is also needed is forgiveness from and reconciliation with the person we have hurt. If we cannot love the neighbour we can see, how can we love the God we cannot see? (cf. 1 John 4:20)
And who is my neighbour? For the people in Jesus’ time, it was a fellow-Jew. Others, even though physically near, were not. Following the teaching of Jesus, however, it is anyone who needs our love, our concern, or who shows love and concern for us, transcending all barriers and independent of like or dislike, approval or disapproval. But some of us can sympathise with the complaint of comic strip character, Charlie Brown: "I love humanity; it’s people I can’t stand!"
Loving others, loving ourselves
We are to love our neighbour as we love ourselves. That sounds very demanding. Actually it is often part of the problem. Many, if not most of us, do not love ourselves very much. Many, most would not like others to know us as we feel we really are. Our feelings are echoed in the title of two books by Jesuit John Powell: Why Am I Afraid to Tell You Who I Am? and Will the Real Me Stand Up?
We go to great lengths to hide our inadequacies, our weaknesses. We spend a lot of money on houses, cars, clothes, jewellery, cosmetics, dining out… Image is all. We need status symbols to prove we are "someone". Teenagers looking and sounding very "with-it" but actually hiding behind currently fashionable clothes-styles, hairstyles, language, being "cool" and "hip".
Very few people are really themselves in front of others. In computer jargon we say, "What you see is what you get [WYSWYG]". In other words, what appears on the screen will also appear on a print-out. For people it should be, "What you see is what there is."
This requires total self-acceptance (not the same as self-approval) and integrity, wholeness. Self-acceptance means that I fully acknowledge both my strengths and weaknesses and I am not ashamed of them and I don’t mind if other people know them. Because such a person knows that the key to being loved is to have one’s real self accessible to others.
God, others, self v. self, others, God
Conventionally we say we should first love God. Then, for his sake, we love others. Lastly, self should be denied, sacrifices should be made. We should not be self-ish, self-centred.
Actually it may surprise us to be told that we cannot not be self-centred. Everything we do is self-centred. We need to go the other way: learn to love and accept self fully. Then, and only then, are we free to look out and reach out to others in love non self-consciously. When I have nothing to hide, it is easy to be myself. And, if others do not like what they see, that is their problem, not mine.
And we will then discover that, when we have learnt to love genuinely and unconditionally, we will be loved in return – though not by all. We cannot be loved by all because there are many people out there who are not able to love; it is not because there is anything wrong with me. To want to be loved by everyone is simply unattainable.
And when we know what really loving and being loved is (by direct experience), then (and only then?) can we talk about really loving God. All this, says today’s Gospel, is more important than any ritual or sacrifice. It is no good being in church every hour of every day if I am not a loving person.
Jesus said the Scribe was "close to the Kingdom" because he had touched on the essence of living: loving God and loving others as a single but distinct reality. But he is not quite part of it yet. He was not and apparently did not become a full disciple of Jesus.
And what makes such a disciple? By this will all know that you are my disciples – that you love God? that you never miss Mass? that you have special devotion to Our Lady? No, none of these
by itself. What is essential and sufficient is to love God in loving others and to love others in loving God.
As Bob Geldof asked in a book he wrote, "Is that it?" Yes, that’s it.