Homily for the Thirty-First Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B
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.
— Mark 12:28b-34
Many of us were educated, especially in high school and college or seminary, by listening to lectures. This system has its merits, but it also has its limitations. It is formally active on the part of the instructor and passive on the part of the student. There is, however, another metho that gives both the teacher and the disciple an active and a passive role.
At the same epoch as that of Our Lord, there were two famous rabbis in Judea whose authority was— and has been since—very great in Judaism. They were the rabbis Hillel and Shammai. One day, a pagan came to each of them with the same question.
He first appeared before Shammai, standing on one leg, and asked, “Rabbi Shammai, can you summarize the whole Law for me while I stand on one leg?” Rabbi Shammai, annoyed by his silly demeanor, picked up a ruler and drove him away.
The pagan then came to Rabbi Hillel and, again standing on one leg, asked the same question, “Rabbi Hillel, can you summarize the whole Law for me while I stand on one leg?” Rabbi Hillel calmly answered, “What is hateful to you do not do to your neighbor. This is the whole Torah. The rest is detail.” The man was so impressed he renounced paganism for the religion of the Bible.
Nothing beats question and answer as a way of teaching and learning. This was the constant approach of Our Lord in the Gospels: in them, he asked 108 questions. (And these are only those recorded in Sacred Scripture.) By questions he moved his listeners to consider actively in their own inner lives the teaching he conveyed:
“Why do you worry?” “Why are you so afraid?” “Why do you harbor evil thoughts?” “Why did you doubt?” “Who do you say that I am?” “What are you looking for?” “Do you love me?” “To what can I compare the kingdom of God?” and even of his Father, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
Now, since Our Lord’s teaching was not abstract, his questions are very personal. In fact, his teaching was only a way of conveying the nature of his relationship to us and ours to him. In short, all his questions were related in some way to the question of love. That is why today’s Gospel gives, as it were, the epitome of Our Lord’s teaching both as to his method and his content. He moves his listeners to such a state of wonder about their own spiritual fate that one of them asks about the first and greatest of the commandments. The Savior’s answer is so fine and secure that the other rabbis and teachers in Israel could only praise it.
What is interesting and compelling about this episode is, however, not only Our Lord’s sound response but his further assertion to the scribe who posed the question in the first place. In response to the scribe’s approval, he does not say, “Thanks.” Rather, he takes the role of the teacher himself and assures him authoritatively that he is “not far from the kingdom of God.” This is something that no mere rabbi or teacher could say but rather only one who could guarantee the salvation of his questioner.
That is why no one dared ask him any more questions. He revealed himself as the giver and assurance of salvation, but in such a sound and succinct manner that reasonable Jews were unable to object. They just had to keep silent and ponder the matter.
“Love conquers all.” That was the saying of the pagan poet Virgil. It is also the certified and guaranteed teaching of the Savior, Jesus Christ. He questions us only in order to lead us to answer in so many words that, yes, we love him and those who belong to him. He only responds to our queries in the same way, with a challenge to love both him and our neighbor.
If you want to get your catechism questions right, then remember that for Jesus, who shows us his loving heart and pours out from it his blood shed for us, the only ultimate point to any question and answer is that we are loved and we love with his love. This is the first and greatest commandment. His own word confirms it. So if we have “doctrinal” questions or apparent doubts, let’s keep in mind that all the while we will be fine as long as we profess our love for him and fulfill his command to love our neighbor.
The school song from the movie version of the story Goodbye, Mr. Chips confirms the point of today’s Gospel very well, both as to form and to content, showing that in spite of secularism and Protestantism and years of separation from Catholic unity in the Church founded by Christ, the message of today’s Gospel had not been lost. One might well hope that Catholics might retain this much of the message:
In the morning of my life I shall look to the sunrise.
At a moment in my life when the world is new.
And the blessing I shall ask is that God will grant me,
To be brave and strong and true,
And to fill the world with love my whole life through.
In the noontime of my life I shall look to the sunshine,
At a moment in my life when the sky is blue.
And the blessing I shall ask shall remain unchanging.
To be brave and strong and true,
And to fill the world with love my whole life through
In the evening of my life I shall look to the sunset,
At a moment in my life when the night is due.
And the question I shall ask only I can answer.
Was I brave and strong and true?
Did I fill the world with love my whole life through?