Today’s gospel is the last piece of a section in Mark’s gospel in which we see Jesus engaged in some very tough question and answer sessions with hostile questioners. So, for example, in the material just before our text, the “chief priests and the scribes and the elders” (11 : 27) have challenged Jesus concerning his authority, some “Pharisees and Herodians” have tried to “entrap him” concerning the payment of taxes to Caesar (12 : 13), while Sadducees have mocked the idea of the resurrection by spinning out that grotesque story of the woman who is married by one brother after another until finally, she dies, too (12 : 18-23) ! In this boxing match, Jesus counters each verbal punch and lands a few of his own into the bargain ; by the end of the round, his opponents are leaning on the ropes and breathing heavily. Mark’s scorecard tells the tale : Jesus 3, Opponents 0.
It should have been a moment for Jesus’ enemies to cut their losses and head home. Anyone who’s read the gospels, however, knows that there seems to have been no shortage of people in Palestine who wanted to mix it up with Jesus. And so we might think it’s going to be more of the same when a scribe arrives, sizes up the situation, and without further ado asks Jesus : "Which is the first of all the commandments ?" Here we go again !
But this questioner is different. Asking a learned teacher to summarize the Law was a common practice in the Judaism of Jesus’ day, as we see from the well known story about the famous Rabbi Hillel : a young gentile says that he will convert to Judaism if Hillel can sum up the Law in the amount of time that he can stand on one foot. Hillel says : “What you hate for yourself, do not do to your neighbor. This is the whole law ; the rest is commentary. Go and learn.”
So this question in posed in a different key from those that have preceded it, and Jesus picks that up at once. In a marked departure from the heavy irony, not to say sarcasm, which he’s used against his other questioners, Jesus gets interested in the question and goes deep into the sacred scripture for his answer. He quotes the words from Deuteronomy prayed twice daily by every devout Jew, beginning with the Shema —
“Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one”– and continuing with the actual commandment : You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength” (Deut 6 : 4).
Loving God in this way is not about activating four parts of yourself but rather about bringing your whole self to the act of love. The same idea is true for the “second” : “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Mk 12 : 31). This kind of wholeness makes true love – whether of God or neighbor – possible.
What’s beautiful here is that the scribe responds so positively to this teaching, echoing the words of Jesus and of Deuteronomy once more. This little scene, played out after that series of angry, testing, or mocking questions, offers us a moment to breathe ; it has a kind of wholeness itself. Here is the Law : it is Love. No more, no less. Our task is to find the way to live that love from deep within, with our whole self.
As disciples of Jesus rather than scribes, elders, Pharisees, Herodians, or Sadducees, we know that “Way” most concretely in Him, Love came down to earth. Each time we celebrate the Eucharist, Love invites us to love the Lord our God with our whole self, with no division into the “good” me or the “bad” me, the strong me or the weak me –just with the whole me. In the words of the English poet George Herbert (1593-1632),
LOVE bade me welcome ; yet my soul drew back,
Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning 5
If I lack’d anything.
’A guest,’ I answer’d, ’worthy to be here :’
Love said, ’You shall be he.’
’I, the unkind, ungrateful ? Ah, my dear,
I cannot look on Thee.’ 10
Love took my hand and smiling did reply,
’Who made the eyes but I ?’
’Truth, Lord ; but I have marr’d them : let my shame
Go where it doth deserve.’
’And know you not,’ says Love, ’Who bore the blame ?’ 15
’My dear, then I will serve.’
’You must sit down,’ says Love, ’and taste my meat.’
So I did sit and eat
This Sunday, let us sit and eat, and by that act, let Love bring us – heart, soul, mind and strength — to Love’s own self. Amen !
Sr. Nuala Cotter, ra