Scripture and the Liturgy

Love and Priesthood: 31st Sunday of OT

We enter this Sunday into the last four weeks of the liturgical year, an unofficial liturgical season dedicated to reflection on the four Last Things: Death, Judgment, Heaven and Hell. The Readings for this upcoming Sunday revolve around the themes of love of God and perfect priesthood, necessary elements to enter into heaven.

1.  The First Reading is Deuteronomy 6:2-6:

Moses spoke to the people, saying:
“Fear the LORD, your God,
and keep, throughout the days of your lives,
all his statutes and commandments which I enjoin on you,
and thus have long life.
Hear then, Israel, and be careful to observe them,
that you may grow and prosper the more,
in keeping with the promise of the LORD, the God of your fathers,
to give you a land flowing with milk and honey.

“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.
Take to heart these words which I enjoin on you today.”

The Book of Deuteronomy is the climactic book of the Pentateuch, the Five Books of Moses that form the foundation for Judaism.  In Deuteronomy, Moses gives his last will and testament, provides the final form of God’s covenant with Israel that began at Sinai, and offers his last and definitive interpretation of all previous laws that had been given at Sinai and through the wilderness wanderings. 

Deuteronomy is a paradoxical book.  It includes laws that seem to be accommodated or compromised for the sake of the imperfect moral condition of the people of Israel, in other words, their “hardness of heart” (Matt 19:8).  Some examples would be divorce (Deut 24:1) and total warfare (Deut 20:16-18).  On the other hand, it contains some of the highest and most profound expressions of theology in the Old Testament, including today’s passage, which Jews have traditionally understood to form the basis of their faith.  We might say that Moses, at the end of his life, saw clearly the moral and theological heights to which Israel was called, but at the same time recognized the inability of the people of God of his own day to attain those heights.  Something new would be required at some point in the future, an interior cleansing that Moses called “the circumcision of the heart” (Deut 30:6).  St. Paul will identify this interior “circumcision” with Baptism (Col 2:11-12), which bestows the Holy Spirit and the power to enter into a relationship with God that exceeds our natural abilities.

In Judaism, the second half of today’s passage, beginning “Hear, O Israel!”, forms the heart of the Shema (“Hear!”), a traditional prayer recited by pious Jews daily, in a way similar to Christian recitation of the Lord’s Prayer.  In this way, faithful Jews remind themselves that, though the laws of Judaism at times seem complex or complicated, yet at heart they are a system based upon and expressing one’s love for God.

2. The Responsorial Psalm is Psalm 18:2-3, 3-4, 47, 51:

R. (2) I love you, Lord, my strength.
I love you, O LORD, my strength,
O LORD, my rock, my fortress, my deliverer.
R. I love you, Lord, my strength.
My God, my rock of refuge,
my shield, the horn of my salvation, my stronghold!
Praised be the LORD, I exclaim,
and I am safe from my enemies.
R. I love you, Lord, my strength.
The LORD lives! And blessed be my rock!
Extolled be God my savior.
You who gave great victories to your king
and showed kindness to your anointed.
R. I love you, Lord, my strength.

In this Psalm of David, we remember David as a great figure of salvation history who actually put into practice Moses’ command to love God with all one’s heart, soul, and strength: “I love you, Lord, my strength!”  In this and many other ways, David represents an ideal toward which Moses looked.  What was David’s secret?  He was filled with the Holy Spirit (1 Sam 16:13).  By Baptism, we come to share the same spirit.  Baptism also makes us like Christ, into “other Christs.”  Jesus was the Son of David, who inherited David’s kingship and his priesthood (Ps. 110).  We become “kings” in Baptism (CCC §784-86; 908); thus we can praise God with David: “You gave great victories to your king!”

3. The Second Reading is Hebrews 7:23-28

Brothers and sisters:
The levitical priests were many
because they were prevented by death from remaining in office,
but Jesus, because he remains forever,
has a priesthood that does not pass away.
Therefore, he is always able to save those who approach God through him,
since he lives forever to make intercession for them.

It was fitting that we should have such a high priest:
holy, innocent, undefiled, separated from sinners,
higher than the heavens.
He has no need, as did the high priests,
to offer sacrifice day after day,
first for his own sins and then for those of the people;
he did that once for all when he offered himself.
For the law appoints men subject to weakness to be high priests,
but the word of the oath, which was taken after the law,
appoints a son,
who has been made perfect forever.

The Book of Hebrews stresses the superiority of Jesus’ priesthood to the Levitical priesthood implemented by Moses.  The Levitical priesthood was not the original arrangement of worship at Mt. Sinai, but Moses created it as a response to the sins of the people of Israel (Exod 32:25-29).  It was not bad, but it was limited in many ways.  Jesus, on the other hand, has a more perfect priesthood, a priesthood modeled after Melchizedek, the great priest-king mentioned in Genesis 14.  David, too, shared a Melchizedekian priesthood.  Psalm 110 proclaims David and each one of his heirs to be a priest forever after the order of Melchizedek:

1 The LORD says to my lord: “Sit at my right hand,

till I make your enemies your footstool.”

2 The LORD sends forth from Zion your mighty scepter.

Rule in the midst of your foes!

 3 Your people will offer themselves freely

on the day you lead your host upon the holy mountains.

From the womb of the morning like dew your youth will come to you.  

4 The LORD has sworn and will not change his mind,

 “You are a priest for ever after the order of Melchizedek.”

This psalm, in which the LORD swears, is the “word of the oath” which comes “after the law” that appoints the “son” as a “priest forever.”  Jesus is a more perfect priest because, among many other reasons, he both possesses and dispenses the Holy Spirit (Rom 5:5), which empowers one to “love the LORD God with all one’s heart,” that is, perfectly .

4.  The Gospel is Mark 12:28b-34:

One of the scribes came to Jesus and asked him,
“Which is the first of all the commandments?”
Jesus replied, “The first is this:
Hear, O Israel!
The Lord our God is Lord alone!
You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart,
with all your soul,
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.”
The scribe said to him, “Well said, teacher.
You are right in saying,
‘He is One and there is no other than he.’
And ‘to love him with all your heart,
with all your understanding,
with all your strength,
and to love your neighbor as yourself’
is worth more than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.”
And when Jesus saw that he answered with understanding,
he said to him,
“You are not far from the kingdom of God.”
And no one dared to ask him any more questions.

This profound Gospel shows the broad common ground between traditional Judaism and the Gospel proclaimed by Jesus Christ, or in other words, between the Old Covenant and the New.  The scribe represents the best of Jewish religious thought.  He is not a hypocrite like many of the Pharisees.  He is a pious man who has reflected long and hard on the Law of Moses and come to understand that, for all its complications, it is ultimately based on love of God (Deut 6:2-6) and love of neighbor (Lev 19:18).  Yet for all the scribe’s wisdom, he is not yet in the kingdom of God.  He is close to it (“not far”), but not yet there.  What remains?  Only that he recognize that the LORD, the God of Israel, has come in the person of Jesus himself.  Hear we can compare the passage about the rich young ruler, who claimed to have kept the law from his youth (Mark 10:17-22).  To enter the kingdom of heaven, Jesus tells him to leave his wealth and “follow me” (Mark 10:21).  In other words, commit yourself wholeheartedly to a relationship with me.  Since Jesus Christ is the LORD God in the flesh, to “love the LORD your God with all your heart, soul, and strength,” now means to love Jesus Christ with that same total commitment, a commitment that might even mean the abandonment of all one’s possessions.  This is worth “more than all burnt offerings and sacrifices,” because such sacrifices were only of animals, but Jesus offered Himself as the definitive sacrifice for our sins, thus proving his love for us, and showing himself completely worthy of our love.

It’s a contradiction, then, to think we can just lead “a good life” and then “go to heaven” while rejecting or ignoring Jesus Christ.  First of all, heaven is going to be the presence and intimate communion with Jesus Christ, so why would we want to go there if we have rejected and ignored him during this earthly life?  Secondly, how can a life be termed “good” which rejects and ignores the greatest Good, the gift and presence of God’s own Son, God Himself, taken flesh among us?  If the greatest commandment is to love the LORD our God with all our heart, soul, and strength, and Jesus Christ is God in the flesh, then failure to love him is failure to keep the greatest of the commandments. 

At the beginning of this month of November, we focus on the centrality of Jesus Christ for human salvation, building toward the end of the liturgical year, the Feast of Christ the King.  This Sunday, let us do an examination of conscience on our love for Jesus Christ: do we maintain an intimate communion with our Lord on a daily basis, through prayer and the sacraments, so that on the day of our death he cannot say, “Depart from me, I never knew you?”  Since Jesus will be our eschatological judge, let us make sure to make friends with him during our earthly pilgrimage, so that our final judgment will be in the presence of a friend. 

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