Today’s readings stress love as the foundation of living a Christian and Jewish life, when loving God and loving others as we ourselves are loved is the basis for all ethical decisions. Reducing the Commandments to two may seem to make it easier, but always acting in a loving way may be even more challenging than ticking off rules.
This is an important section of the Hebrew Bible with an instruction still obeyed by pious Jews, who recite daily the prayer called the ‘Shema’ – meaning, ‘hear’ or ‘listen’ – from the first words that come at the end of our selection. This recognition of God as the one God was the basis of their religious faith. Some Jews keep the custom described in the following verses not read at mass: to fasten a copy of them on the wrist and forehead when praying and also to write them on the doorpost. This reading provides us with the source of the quotation Jesus uses in the gospel.
Psalm 17/18:2-4, 47, 51
Appropriately after the command to love, our response begins with the Psalmist’s declaration of love. Rather than relying on his or her own strength, God is the source of our strength. The Psalm uses some common images of the Old Testament to indicate how trustworthy God is in dealing with people: rock, fortress, refuge, shield. ‘Rock’ is not an individual stone, but more a firm mountain top where one is at an advantage in any attack. We may also think of a solid base of rock as a firm foundation which will withstand storms and other natural disasters.
The mention of the king, and the ‘anointed’ makes this one of the ‘royal psalms’, speaking of David, but probably written of a later king. It also points to the coming ‘Messiah’ – that Hebrew word means ‘anointed’, which when translated into Greek gives us the name ‘Christ’. Jesus speaking of the ‘Kingdom of God’ has translated this Old Testament idea of the ideal king into a description of the new kingdom he preached, a community of people responsive to God.
This is our final selection from the letter to the Hebrews, using the image of the Jewish High Priest as a comparison for the saving work of Jesus. Here the priesthood of Christ is seen not only as incomparably above that of the numerous priests of the old covenant, but as one who eternal and constantly available to us in all our needs.
At the end of last week’s gospel, Jesus was just about to enter Jerusalem at the feast of the Passover. The liturgy has skipped a section – 11:1-12:27 – detailing his first days in the Holy City, and the confrontations Jesus had with the religious authorities. These debates led to the decision to arrest Jesus, and so have an important role in understanding the whole of Mark’s gospel.
Our choice today comes after objections various authorities have raised about Jesus’ authority and his teachings. Here one of the scribes (interpreters of the Torah) is shown in a more favourable light than the previous questioners. The question of ‘what is the first commandment’ was at the time a debate over whether there was one basic commandment from which the others could be derived. Jesus answers that part, in essence saying, ‘Love is the fulfilment of the Law’. He quotes the first commandment, as we heard it earlier in Deuteronomy, but adds a fourth dimension, ‘with your whole mind’. Then comes what may have been a surprise to his audience: he adds another command, this from the book Leviticus, on loving the neighbour as oneself. It seems Jesus was the first to associate these two commands, and so stress that the love of God and other people are joined as our ethical basis for moral living.
The scribe responds positively, unlike the other leaders whose disputes preceded this. He commends Jesus, and then Jesus commends him. Morna Hooker suggests that as a religious teacher, the scribe assumes the role of approval, but in fact Jesus’ authority is greater. His statement thus carried more weight, not only for the scribe but for us. Mark does not tell us if this particular scribe moved on to follow Jesus into the kingdom he comes so close to.
It seems odd in the context of our reading with Jesus approving words that Mark says no one longer dares ask Jesus anything, but this a reaction to the whole section we have missed out. There Jesus has come out on top of the disputes and this intimidates others who might have started more arguments.
Jesus’ stressing the important of love might merit the treatment the Jews gave to the daily recitation, ‘Hear, O Israel’. Recalling Jesus’ words daily can be a reminder of the demands of loving actions as each day brings opportunities and challenges.