Exegetical Reflection on the Gospel of the Thirty-First Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B, Mark 12:28-34, November 4, 2012
IN ONE OF our reflections, we stressed that the distinctive feature of Christianity is Jesus himself. Christianity is a religion that is centered on the person of Jesus Christ. Ours is not a religion of law. A person is a Christian, not because he follows the Ten Commandments. (The Jews observe the Decalogue, so do the Jews. And yet, they are not Christians.) One is a Christian he follows Jesus, his word and life. But, if Christianity is a religion of a person, does this mean that it has no place for the commandments of God? Of course, not. Even in civil society, laws are needed; they are of use to human relationships. All kinds of laws are intended to regulate order. Without them, society is doomed to chaos. And of course, in any religion, probably never was there a time that laws never existed. In Christianity, however, laws are not the heart of it; basically, the commandments express the people’s response to God’s initiative. In them we find a manner of life that is congruent with the offer of God.
That manner of life is essentially the life of love. The Gospel today makes this point. When the scribe asked Jesus about the greatest of the commandments, Jesus summarized them into two, although the rabbis taught that God gave Moses 613 commandments (365 prohibitions; 248 positive commands). In summarizing them, he quoted from Deut 6:4-5 (“Hear, O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord alone! Therefore, you shall love the Lord your God, with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength.”) and Lev 19:18 (“You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”). The summary shows that behind the commandments is revealed the life of love that God expects from his people. That love is shown in the love for the neighbor, because this form of love springs from the love of God.
The practice of religion, therefore, is not simply about doing nothing bad or offensive. More than refraining from evil deed or participation in it, it is always linked with loving God, shown in the love for others. It is along this gamut of thought that we shall understand St Augustine’s maxim, “love and do what you will.” For when a person loves, he will do nothing that would harm his neighbor because his act of loving comes from the love of God. Paul describes this in terms of freedom: “For you were called for freedom, brothers. But do not use this freedom as an opportunity for the flesh; rather, serve one another through love. For the whole law is fulfilled in one statement, namely, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ (Gal 1:13-14). This is the heart of the Jewish religion, and even of Christian religion—provided that we redefine what that love is. In Christian understanding, that love is none other than the love of Christ (John 15:12) shown in the Eucharist—his body is broken, his blood poured out (Mark 14:22.24). It is this form of love that ought to animate Christian praxis. Obviously, it is because of this redefinition that Jesus remarked to the scribe: “You are not far from the kingdom of God” (Mark 12:24).
This has many consequences for Christian practice, but we can focus on one. Because love belongs to the heart of religion, liturgical worship would be less meaningful if there were no love. This explains why in the Old Testament, and as the scribe remarked (Mark 13:33), loving God is worth more than burnt offering and sacrifices: “Sacrifice and offering you do not want, but ears open to obedience you gave me. Holocaust and sin-offerings you do not require, so I said, ‘Here I am’ (Ps 40:7-8a). It is therefore understandable that, when the Jews laid much emphasis on the cult, the prophets readily criticized them. Hosea, for example, declared in God’s name: “For it is love that I desire, not sacrifice; and knowledge of God rather than holocausts” (Hosea 6:6; see also Jer 7:21-23; 1 Sam 15:22; Eccles 4:17). This prophetic critique was a serious one, considering the fact that the Temple worship, together with the Law, was central to the Jewish religion.
This has much bearing on our eucharistic celebration and other liturgical and devotional celebrations. In the final result, all of them should be celebrations of love. What is so much important is not that we have fulfilled the rubrics, or omitted nothing in the novena, or we have acquired charismatic gifts, like the ability to speak in tongues, or the ability to work miracles. It is our loving attitude to God, shown in our concern for other people, especially the poor, that counts. If, for instance, we celebrate Mass, we ought to know and even feel that we are celebrating the love of Christ. And it is expected that our liturgical celebration will deepen our love for him and for others. Our external worship should express our internal loving attitude; for, otherwise, that would be empty: “If I speak in human and angelic tongues… if I have the gift of prophecy and comprehend all mysteries and all knowledge… if I have all faith so as to move mountains, if I give away everything I own, and if I hand my body over so that I may boast, but do not have love, I am nothing” (1 Cor 13:1-3).