Today’s readings: Deuteronomy 6, 2-6; Hebrews 7, 23-28; Mark 12, 28-34.
The Kingdom of God is the sacred space we are all called to inhabit. The true measure of one’s faith is how distant or near one is to that kingdom which is hidden but powerful, mysterious yet manifest.
Very often in his rabbinic disputes on the Torah, Jesus accused the Pharisees and scribes of being distant from the kingdom in spite of their religious fervour. In today’s gospel we have the exception and it is worth exploring it.
The rabbinic discussion of the law between Jesus and one of the scribes in today’s gospel is the climax to a series of similar debates.
Here the usual hostility and suspicion is absent. The issue about which one is the first of all the commandments was a common topic in Judaism but here in his reply Jesus brings together two regulative principles of human behaviour and puts them as the foundation of any religion worthy of the name. Love of God, when separated from love of neighbour becomes pure idolatry.
What Jesus is affirming is that orthodoxy by itself is not enough. It has to be accompanied by the obligations towards others. Jesus brings together orthodoxy, referring to the ‘Shema Israel’ of Deuteronomy, which was the basic Jewish profession of faith, and the obli-gation to neighbour from the Leviticus tradition which prohi-bits oppression and exploitation particularly of the weak and poor.
Love of God, if separated from the practice of justice, is a lie. In our life as Christians we are not after some private religious experience that will make us feel secure or holy.
The profession of faith of the Jews in Deuteronomy needs to be read in a context where the challenge was not coming from an atheistic culture but from idolatry.
The Jews had a history of lords who oppressed them and kept them slaves. They were also surrounded by idolatrous peoples. With time they came to profess their faith in God as the only true Lord. For them this was not simply doctrine. It was acknowledgment of things experienced.
Loving the Lord with all mind, soul and heart is contemplation at its highest. And we are at a point in time when we truly need to rediscover the contemplative side of life. Otherwise life will be void and futile and religion misleading.
In the recent Synod of Bishops on evangelisation, Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, spoke of this contemplation which, he said, “is the only ultimate answer to the unreal and insane world that our financial systems and our advertising culture and our chaotic and unexamined emotions encourage us to inhabit”.
God’s love cannot be translated into law. It can only be transmitted as love. This is what actually the questioning scribe acknowledges in the presence of Jesus when he affirms that there is only one true religion that goes beyond the religion of sacrifices. The latter is subservient to the law, it is bound to our doing rather than to our being.
Both in Deuteronomy and in the gospel, religion is seen as not resting exclusively on the Decalogue.
This is also enshrined in the second reading from the letter to the Hebrews which speaks of the unique priesthood of Christ who “would not need to offer sacrifices every day, as the other high priests do for their own sins and then for those of the people, because he has done this once and for all by offering himself”.
Unfortunately though, we still perpetuate a religion which, in outlook, and very often in substance, is very much similar to the primitive religions built on fear of the divine and on a give and take relationship with God.
Relationship with God is always intimate and personal. Yet orthodoxy as we very often conceive it, interferes with this relationship. This is the worst that can happen to us in religion when the name of God is simply used to project or stamp our authoritarianism. That is abuse of God and of religion.