Lectio: 31st Sunday of ordinary time (B)
When appearances take revenge on love…
The greatest commandment: love of God and of neighbor
1. Opening prayer
Lord Jesus, send Your Spirit to help us to read the Scriptures with the same mind that You read them to the disciples on the way to Emmaus. In the light of the Word, written in the bible, You helped them to discover the presence of God in the disturbing events of Your sentence and death. Thus, the cross that seemed to be the end of all hope became for them the source of life and of resurrection.
Create in us silence so that we may listen to Your voice in creation and in the scriptures, in events and in people, above all in the poor and suffering. May Your word guide us so that we too, like the two disciples on the way to Emmaus, may experience the force of Your resurrection and witness to others that You are alive in our midst as source of fraternity, justice and peace. We ask this of You, Jesus, son of Mary, who revealed to us the Father and sent us Your Spirit. Amen.
a) A key to the reading:
In this Sunday’s Gospel one of the doctors of the law, who were responsible for the teaching of religion, wants to know from Jesus, which commandment is the greatest. Today, many people want to know what is most important in religion. Some say it is baptism, others going to Mass or some other Sunday liturgy, others say to love one’s neighbor! Some are only worried about externals or positions in the Church. Before reading Jesus’ reply, try to look into yourself and ask: “For me, what is the most important thing in religion and life?”
The text gives us the conversation between Jesus and the doctor of the law. As you read, try to focus on the following: “What does Jesus praise in the doctors of the law and what does He criticize in them?”
b) A division of the text to help with the reading:
Mark 12:28: The doctor of the law’s question concerning the greatest commandment
Mark 12:29-31: Jesus’ reply
Mark 12:32-33: The doctor approves Jesus’ reply
Mark 12:34: Jesus confirms the doctor
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.
3. A moment of prayerful silence
so that the Word of God may penetrate and enlighten our life.
4. Some questions
to help us in our personal reflection.
a) What struck you most in the text? Why?
b) What did Jesus criticize in the doctor of the law and what did He praise?
c) How should our love of God be according to verses 29 and 30? What do the following words mean in these verses: “heart, mind, strength”? Do all these words point to the same thing?
d) What is the relationship between the first and second commandments? Why?
e) Are we closer or further away from the Kingdom of God today than the doctor who was praised by Jesus? What do you think?
5. For those who wish to go deeper into the theme
a) The context:
i) When Jesus began His missionary activity, the doctors in Jerusalem even went to Galilee to observe Him (Mk 3:22; 7:1). They were disturbed by Jesus’ preaching and already accepted the disparagement that said He was possessed by the devil (Mk 3:22). Now, in Jerusalem, they again start arguing with Jesus.
ii) In the 70’s, when Mark was writing his Gospel, there were many changes and persecutions, so the life of the Christian communities was precarious. In times of change and uncertainty there is always the risk or temptation to seek security, not to trust in the goodness of God towards us, but rather, to trust in the rigorous observance of the law. Faced with this kind of thinking, Jesus insists on the practice of love that softens the observance of the law and gives it its true meaning.
b) A commentary on the text:
Mark 12:28: The doctor of the law’s question
Just before the doctors put the question to Jesus, Jesus had had a discussion with the Sadducees on the matter of faith in the resurrection (Mk 12:18-27). The doctor of the law, who was present at the discussion, liked Jesus’ reply, and realized that He was someone very intelligent, so he makes most of the occasion and asks a question of his own for clarification: “Which is the greatest of all the commandments?” In those days, the Jews had very many laws to regulate the practice of the observance of the Ten Commandments of the Law of God. Some said, “All these laws carry the same weight, because they come from God. It is not up to us to make distinctions in the things of God.” Others replied, “No! Some laws are more important than others and so are more binding!” The doctor wants to know Jesus’ opinion: “Which is the first of all the commandments?” This matter was hotly debated in those days.
Mark 12:29-31: Jesus’ reply
Jesus replies by quoting from the Bible, which says the first commandment is “you must love God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your strength!” (Dt 6:4-5). These words formed part of a prayer called the Shemá. In Jesus’ days, the Jews recited this prayer twice a day: in the morning and in the evening. It was as well known to them as the Our Father is to us today. Then Jesus adds, still quoting the bible: “The second is this: ‘You will love your neighbor as yourself’ (Lev 19:18). There is no commandment greater than these.” A short and very deep answer! It is a summary of all that Jesus taught about God and life (Mt 7:12).
Mark 12:32-33: The doctor of the law’s reply
The doctor agrees with Jesus and concludes, “Yes! To love Him with all your heart, with all your understanding and strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself, this is far more important than any burnt offering or sacrifice”. In other words, the commandment of love is more important than all the commandments that have to do with cult or sacrifices in the Temple. This statement comes from the prophets of the Old Testament (Hos 6:6; Ps 40:6-8; Ps 51:16-17). Today we would say: the practice of love is more important than novenas, vows, Masses, prayers and processions. Or rather, novenas, vows, Masses, prayers and processions must be the result of the practice of love and must lead to love. This a fine and subtle distinction, and worthy of reflection.
Mark 12:34: A summary of the Kingdom
Jesus affirms the conclusion drawn by the doctor and says, “You are not far from the Kingdom!” Indeed, the Kingdom of God consists in recognizing that the love of God and neighbor are the most important things. If God is Father, then we all are brothers and sisters and we must show this in practice by living as a community. “On these two commandments hang the law and the Prophets!” (Mt 22:40) Jesus’ disciples must engrave this great law on their memory, their intellect, their heart: only thus can we attain God in the total gift of self to the neighbor!
Mark 12:35-37: Jesus criticizes the teaching of the doctors of the law on the Messiah
The official propaganda of the state and of the doctors of the law stated that the messiah would come as Son of David. This was meant to teach that the messiah would be a glorious, strong and dominating king. This is what the crowd shouted on Palm Sunday: "Blessed is the coming kingdom of David, our Father!" (Mk 11:10). The blind man from Jericho also cried out: “Jesus, Son of David, have pity on me!” (Mk 10:47). But here Jesus questions this teaching of the doctors. He quotes a psalm of David: “The Lord said to my lord, take your seat at my right, till I make your enemies your footstool!” (Ps 110:1) Then Jesus goes on, “If David himself says my Lord, how can the Messiah be his son?” This means that Jesus did not agree with the idea of a glorious king Messiah, who would come to dominate and impose his reign on all his enemies. Jesus prefers being the servant Messiah proclaimed by Isaiah (Is 42:1-9). He says: “The Son of Man Himself came not to be served but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many” (Mk 10:45).
Mark 12:38-40: Jesus criticizes the doctors of the Law
Jesus then draws the disciples’ attention to the one-sided and hypocritical attitude of some of the doctors of the law. These doctors liked to walk about in squares wearing long tunics, being greeted by people, taking first place in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets. They liked going into the homes of widows and preaching long sermons so as to get money! Then Jesus ends by saying, “The more severe will be the sentence they receive!” It would be good for us also to make an examination of conscience based on this text to see whether we can see ourselves mirrored in there! Jesus has harsh words for those who mislead others (Mt 18:6, 23:3-5), and so we should be careful how our actions and words influence and lead others.
C) Further information:
The greatest commandment
The greatest and first commandment is and ever will be “love God with all your heart, with all your mind and with all your strength” (Mk 12:30). At the times when the people of God, throughout the centuries, deepened their understanding of and gave importance to the love of God, then they became aware that the love of God would be real only when it becomes concrete in the love of neighbor. That is why the second commandment, to love the neighbor, is similar to the first, to love God (Mt 22:39; Mk 12:31). “Anyone who says “I love God’ and hates his brother, is a liar” (1 Jn 4:20). “On these two commandments hang the whole Law, and the Prophets too” (Mt 22:40). At first, it was not clear what the love of neighbor entailed. Concerning this point, there was an evolution in three stages in the history of the people of God:
1st Stage: “Neighbor” is kindred of the same race
The Old Testament already taught the obligation to “love your neighbor as yourself!” (Lev 19:18). In those long distant days, the word neighbor was synonymous with kindred. They felt obliged to love all those who were members of the same family, clan, tribe and people. As for foreigners, that is, people who did not belong to the Jewish people, Deuteronomy says, “You may exact remission of debt from foreigners, but you must remit whatever claim you have on your brother (kindred, neighbor)!” (Dt 15:3).
2nd Stage: “Neighbor is anyone I approach or who approaches me
Gradually, the concept of neighbor grew. Thus, in Jesus’ time there was a great discussion as to “who is my neighbor?” Some doctors said that the concept of neighbor had to be extended beyond the limits of race. Others, however, would not hear of this. That is why a doctor went to Jesus with the debated question: “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus replied with the parable of the Good Samaritan (Lk 10:29-37), where the neighbor was not a relative, nor a friend, nor a nobleman, but the one who approached you, independent of religion, color, race, sex or language. You must love him!
3rd Stage: The measure of our love of “neighbor” is to love as Jesus loves us
Jesus had said to the doctor of the Law: "You are not far from the kingdom of God!" (Mk 12:34). The doctor was already close to the Kingdom because in fact the Kingdom consists in uniting the love of God with the love of neighbor, as the doctor had solemnly declared in Jesus’ presence (Mk 12:33). But to enter the Kingdom he still needed one more step. The criterion for loving the neighbor as taught in the Old Testament was “as yourself”. Jesus stretches this criterion and says: “This is My commandment: love one another as I have loved you! No one can have greater love than to lay down his life for his friends!” (Jn 15:12-13). The criterion in the New Testament then is: “To love one’s neighbor as Jesus has loved us!”. Jesus gave the true interpretation of the Word of God and showed the sure way to attain a more just and fraternal way of life.
6. Praying with Psalm 46 (45)
God, revealed in Jesus, is our strength!
God is both refuge and strength for us,
a help always ready in trouble;
so we shall not be afraid though the earth be in turmoil,
though mountains tumble into the depths of the sea,
and its waters roar and seethe,
and the mountains totter as it heaves.
There is a river whose streams bring joy to God's city,
it sanctifies the dwelling of the Most High.
God is in the city, it cannot fall;
at break of day God comes to its rescue.
Nations are in uproar, kingdoms are tumbling,
when He raises His voice the earth crumbles away.
Yahweh Sabaoth is with us,
our citadel, the God of Jacob.
Come, consider the wonders of Yahweh,
the astounding deeds He has done on the earth;
He puts an end to wars over the whole wide world,
He breaks the bow,
He snaps the spear,
the shields He burns in the fire.
“Be still and acknowledge that I am God,
supreme over nations, supreme over the world.”
Yahweh Sabaoth is with us,
our citadel, the God of Jacob.
7. Final Prayer
Lord Jesus, we thank You for the word that has enabled us to understand better the will of the Father. May Your Spirit enlighten our actions and grant us the strength to practice that which Your Word has revealed to us. May we, like Mary, Your mother, not only listen to but also practice the Word. You who live and reign with the Father in the unity of the Holy Spirit forever and ever. Amen.