Deuteronomy 6:2-6 Hebrews 7:23-28 Mark 12:28b-34
Today’s Gospel narrative is one of a number in which Jesus teaches and expounds on what Christians have come to call The Love Commandment. Too often, people casually assert that the Gospel teaches us to be nice. Indeed, civil behavior is generally a positive and constructive way of life. But, nice is not a Gospel virtue by itself. The Love Command is a challenging and labor intensive approach to life. Oversimplifying this imperative which Jesus borrowed from Moses serves only to dilute the Gospel and reduce it to superficial religious dabbling. The Gospel is not about such shallow or merely cultural religion. It is about thoughtful, responsible, intelligent, wise and profound theological faith. To love God so thoughtfully and deeply as both Moses and Jesus require necessitates a dedicated way of life rather than merely the occasional appearance at a worship service and polite public behavior.
The text from Deuteronomy is something of a constitution for ancient Judaism. The Book of Deuteronomy (the name itself means “a Second Version of the Law”) attempts to provide something of a systematic approach to the various commands, rules, practices, values, and insights in the Books of Exodus and Leviticus. It is the fifth and final of the Five Books of Moses (aka the Pentateuch [for Five Scrolls] in Greek OR the Torah [The Law] in Hebrew). It contains the final exhortation from today’s passage which is so familiar and important as to have a title to itself, the Sh’ma (the Hebrew word for “Hear!” as in “Hear, O Israel!...” It is recited thoughtfully and conscientiously by observant Jews on a daily basis much like Christians recite the Lord’s Prayer. And it is an imperative, not merely a suggestion, and certainly not an optional belief! Without just such conscientious thoughtfulness and conviction, the Jewish faith would be superficial and magical as were the pagan religions which surrounded them. Describing how the good Jewish believer must love the God of Israel was then and is now as difficult as for a modern married person trying to describe his or her love for the spouse’s wife or husband. Indeed, it is nearly impossible and certainly a never-ending endeavor. So, too, is this exhortation from Moses to the Israelites as they moved towards their arrival in the Land of Promise. In the next book, the Book of Joshua, they would enter into the Land, and Joshua would reiterate the Torah, including the exhortation to Love God and be completely faithful as a people. He will demand that the whole people recommit to the covenant which Moses engaged on their behalf a generation before. Today’s text is the Torah’s own summary of all the wonder and power demonstrated by the God of Salvation for the Israelites in their epic journey from cruel slavery to responsible freedom, and from an ethnic religion not much different from all other Ancient Near Eastern religions to a profoundly new and different (i.e.,“holy”) religious covenant engagement with the one, saving God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
Something which Christians too easily overlook is Jesus’ Jewishness. He was a very observant and reflective Jew who kept the Law faithfully, but critically, i.e., with a discerning eye to asking “Why?” about everything the Law required. This approach (always posing critical questions) is how believers foster an ever-evolving and wise religious faith. Without such critical thinking every (!) religious tradition is doomed to stagnation, over-simplification, and reduction to superstition. This is still true today in the 21st Christian Century, both in primitive religions and in all the various traditions of Christianity and its offshoots. Jesus was impressed with the man’s reply to his teaching: “he [Jesus] saw that he [the man] responded with understanding...” Such understanding is the consequence of intelligent, critical thought. Merely to quote scripture is not understanding. To cite scripture verses out of their original context is very often manipulative and subversive of their actual messages. Fundamentalism and literalism are intellectually dishonest and superficial approaches as often as not. The only way to study and reflect upon scripture is with all the critical faculties of human intelligence coupled with a balanced, healthy, and mature religious faith appropriate to one’s time, place, and culture. To pick and choose among the whole biblical content and thus to observe and hold onto one’s favorite few ideas is to exclude much of the wisdom of the Bible. This is not the Tradition of the Church. Jesus demonstrated how scripture insights must be seen in their larger and fuller contexts by means of his addition of a verse from the Book of Leviticus to the Sh’ma: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18). This verse, too, rested in a larger context of social concern for each other, including mutual respect, truthfulness, and trust. Finally, Jesus made a profound connection between such “understanding” and being “not far from the kingdom of God.” He was not predicting the man’s death, but rather observing the man’s genuine and successful quest for justice, the justice found most perfectly in God’s kingdom. That justice is the whole purpose of the Law of Moses and the Gospel proclaimed by Jesus and the Church.
Today we have another installment from the Letter to the Hebrews. Last Sunday, we heard a description of the perfect human high priest in the Jerusalem Temple who was both a representative of the Jewish people and an advocate for them in his priestly office of offering sacrifice for sinners. He, too, was a sinner, so his self awareness allowed him to minister on behalf of sinners and the ignorant with profound human compassion and sympathy. Today’s description is that of Jesus as the perfect and eternal high priest who’s sacrifice was once and for all in terms of effect, and for both the Jewish people and for all the Gentiles too! This description is the consummate assertion of confident hope in the Paschal Sacrifice of Jesus. It and his ministry are eternal, without end, and universal. None are omitted or excluded from his Saving Sacrifice. So, as critically thoughtful and reflective disciples of Jesus the Christ, we must consider the personal and ethical consequences upon us when we call Jesus our Savior and High Priest who has redeemed the world. We must behave as self-aware “redeemed disciples” AND we must treat all others and the entire world as “redeemed” as well even though others might not be disciples themselves! This is where the idea of on-going conversion becomes a practical and fundamental aspect of believing in the Gospel.
To love God, and neighbor, and self ... to love and respect all others (even our enemies!) and the whole created universe as “redeemed” – this is the Gospel Sh’ma! Hear O Disciples of the Gospel and sisters and brothers of the Savior Jesus Christ! Live as the Redeemed, for that is what and who you already are!!!