31 SUNDAY B 2012
The scribe in today’s Gospel gets an unusually good press. The scribe asks which is the first of all the commandments and Jesus recites the famous opening words of the Shema, “Hear O Israel”, the prayer recited by pious Jews each day.
“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.”
"Hear, O Israel" is used as centerpiece of all morning and evening Jewish prayer services. It indicates vividly how Judaism believed in the One God. This prayer was considered the most important one in Judaism.
Here are the very moving words that Moses says just after this prayer:
“And these words that I command you today shall be in your heart.
And you shall teach them diligently to your children, and you shall speak of them when you sit at home, and when you walk along the way, and when you lie down and when you rise up. And you shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be for frontlets between your eyes. And you shall write them on the doorposts of your house
and on your gates.”
How strong this is. How affectionate. A basis for life. Walk in this manner!
Shema Israel, is more than a prayer; it is a pledge of allegiance to God. Repeating this pledge renews one’s commitment and forges solidarity between God and the community of believers.
In the accounts by Matthew and Luke the scribe, or lawyer as we would probably call him today, is portrayed as out to trick Jesus. This particular scribe in the gospel of Mark, is in complete contrast to the others.
Perhaps this is so because Mark is trying to highlight the importance of the Great Commandment to love God and one’s neighbour. The compliment paid by Jesus to the scribe —you are very close to the Kingdom of God— is also highly exceptional and again highlights the importance of this incident to Mark’s readers.
If you imagine the scene in the Templewhere they were standing; all around them there would have been the preparations for the sacrifices going on there. They would have heard and smelled the animals and seen the smoke from the sacrificial fire wafting around. The scribe says: ‘To love God and your neighbour is more important than any holocaust and sacrifice.’ “You are not far from the kingdomof God”
There has been much discussion about whether the double commandment is original with Jesus. Actually it is a combination of two different Old Testament passages, Deut 6 and Lev 19, so its contents cannot be regarded as original in themselves. But the rabbis never combined the commandment to love your neighbor with the commandment to love God.
Jesus understands the interconnection between the two commandments in a quite radical sense. Love of God is illusory if it does not issue in love of neighbor, and love of neighbor can be just refined self-love if it does not proceed from the love of God.
Love of God and love of neighbor cannot be separated; rather, they are mutually complementary and interdependent. Later, in the first letter of John, we hear, “If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ but hates his brother, he is a liar; for whoever does not love a brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen. This is the command we have from Jesus: Whoever loves God must also love his brother”.In Matthew’s gospel, “If someone is offering a gift at the altar—loving God— and remembers that his brother has something against him, he must leave his gift and go love his brother first.
We know that we are supposed to love God. But God loves us before we love God. How many of us really believe that, or understand what it means? We think: God loves us — but only if we love God back. God loves us — but we have to deserve that love. God loves us — but we can lose that love through sin.
None of that is true. There are no conditions on God’s love. God simply loves as a matter of course; God loves because to be God is to love.
Simply put, we don't try to be good so that God loves and rewards us. God loves us no matter what we do and heaven is never a reward for a good life.Are these glib statements? No. God's love, as Jesus assures us, is always both unmerited and unconditional, nothing we do can ever make God love us, just as nothing we do can ever stop God from loving us. God loves just as God does everything else, perfectly. God loves everything and everybody perfectly. In fact, part of Christian belief is that God's love is what keeps everything in existence. If God stopped loving anything, it would cease to be. The American theologian, Michael Hines, raises an interesting question: If God loves everything and everyone perfectly, does God then also love Satan? Indeed, does God love Satan as much as he loves Jesus' mother, Mary?
The answer can only be "yes", God loves Satan as much as God loves Mary. The difference is not in how God loves them, but in how they, each in turn, love God.God loves each of them in the same way, namely, perfectly. But obviously Mary's response is very different from Satan's. In that difference we see what creates hell, a certain attitude in the face of love. However notice that in neither case is the love either merited or deflected. We cannot prevent God from loving us. God just loves us, pure and simple. God's love cannot be driven away. God does not reward or punish us on the basis of whether we have been good or bad. God simply loves us.
Then why be good? Why keep the commandments? What difference does our response make? The desire to be good and to keep the commandments, as Martin Luther once said, follows from genuine faith and love, the way smoke follows fire. The intent is never to earn love or reward, but to respond properly to them.
Our response makes a big difference, but not in terms of driving God away, or making God punish or reward us. It makes a difference in how we stand and feel in the face of love. We can, like Satan, live in bitterness and unhappiness right within love itself and we can deeply hurt others. Or we can in response to love’s invitation, overcome our selfishness and sin and grow to become fully alive as beautiful human beings.
Why be good if God loves us anyway? For the same reason that an artist doesn't deface a masterpiece and a lover doesn't violate his or her beloved. To do the good follows naturally when truth, beauty, and love encompass me.