Readings for 31st Sunday in Ordinary Time: Dt. 6:2-5; Ps. 18:2-4, 47, 57; Heb. 7: 23-28; Mk. 12: 28b-34 http://usccb.org/bible/readings/110412.cfm
The focus of today’s liturgy of the word is the Hebrew prayer called the Shema. The prayer was the centerpiece of both morning and evening prayer services for the Jewish community throughout its history. It was taught to children as their bedtime prayer. The dying were encouraged to make it their final words as they shed their bodies to leave this world. In the King James Version the Shema’s beginning exhortation reads:
“The first of all the commandments is, Hear, O Israel; The Lord our God is one Lord: And thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength: this is the first commandment.”
Today’s first reading details the origin of the Shema. The legend goes that Moses himself taught the prayer to the Hebrews at Mt. Sinai. It was a thanksgiving prayer for their liberation from slavery in Egypt. Of course, the Exodus was the first experience the ancient Hebrews had of the God they came to know as “Yahweh.” Their response to Yahweh’s signature blessing was to be complete love and commitment.
In today’s reading from Mark’s gospel, Jesus quotes the Shema in response to the scribe’s question about the greatest of the commandments. What is the greatest commandment the scribe asks? Jesus’ answer:
“The first is, ‘Hear O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord our God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and 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.”
While many of us might be unfamiliar with the term “Shema,” its concept is certainly familiar enough for us. It’s what many of us learned from our catechism or Sunday school lessons. The first commandment is to love God with all our hearts, souls, minds, and with all our strength. The second commandment is to love our neighbors as ourselves.
What’s especially noteworthy in Jesus’ response is his linking of love of God with love of neighbor and love of self. That is, the Shema itself identifies love of God as the greatest of the commandments. It stops there. Jesus’ contribution was to connect love of God with love of neighbor and self, which was not part of the prayer Moses taught in this morning’s Deuteronomy reading.
True enough, Moses had given the command “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” in Leviticus 19:18. But that was not part of the Shema. By connecting the two, Jesus was following the rabbinical practice of “equal category.” That practice had rabbis linking identical phrases from Sacred Scripture and according them moral equivalency.
Here the phrase in question is “You shall love.” It appears both in the Shema and in the Leviticus reference I’ve just made. The bottom line here is that Jesus is placing love of God and love of neighbor on equivalent levels. For Jesus, love of God and love of neighbor are morally the same. That’s a radical teaching.
But so is the inclusion of “self” in the equation. In fact, the inclusion of “self” is the key to uncovering the meaning of Jesus’ new teaching. In his response to the scribe, Jesus equates God, neighbor and self. God deserves all our love. Our neighbor is somehow equivalent to God. But so is our very own self.
In this teaching, Jesus reveals his identity as the great Hebrew mystic he was. Mystics, you’ll remember, are those spiritual teachers and practitioners who recognize the presence of God in themselves, in others and in all of creation. In fact, mystics teach that God is our real Self, and what we identify with our names, birthdays, gender, nationalities, and the work that we do are only our “apparent selves” – the way the Great Self has chosen to manifest itself in the world. Our apparent self will die one day and be entirely forgotten in a generation or two. The Great Self will never die; the Great Self is God.
All of this means that God, we and our neighbors are one. In loving God (the Great Self) we love our Self and the Self of our neighbor all at the same time. In hurting our neighbor we not only offend God, but we deeply hurt ourselves. When we kill our neighbor in war or in capital punishment, we are actually committing a form of suicide. This is the highest mystical truth there is. Indeed, the mystics teach, there is nothing else to know in life.
But there’s more. Mark does not want us to miss the point about what the mystic Jesus considered most important in life. So he has the dialog between Jesus and the scribe continue. After Jesus references the Shema, the scribe says, “You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that ‘he is one, and besides him there is no other’; and ‘to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength,’ and ‘to love one’s neighbor as oneself.’ – this is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” That is, the scribe specifically places love of God and neighbor far ahead of formal worship.
And Jesus agrees with him. Mark says Jesus admired the wisdom of the scribe’s answer. He says, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.”
So what we’re doing here in church is of only secondary importance. So is what we believe about God — doctrines and articles of faith. Those are means to an end. The end, today’s readings remind us is love of God, neighbor and self. All three are one.
Please think about that. (Discussion follows)