Commentary to the 31st Sunday in Ordinary Time – Year B –
Can the Heart be Controlled?
The pharaoh was “the beloved of the god Ra.” Since ancient times, the god Ra motivated his actions in favor of the king with the formula: “For the love I have for you.”
The God of Israel did not know this sweet and delicate feeling. In the oldest texts of the Bible only strong passions are attributed to him: he repents, disdains, mourns (Gen 6:6-7), and cultivates the fierce loyalty of the feudatory towards his vassal, but not love, for this one understands that—in prey of terror—Israel has begged Moses: “You yourself speak to us and we shall listen. But do not let God speak to us, lest we die” (Ex 20:19).
God looked at creation and “saw that it was good,” but he does not refer to his feeling of joy, instead his covenants with Noah and Abraham are referred to. However, one would search in vain the inscription “because he loved them,” as a motive of his choice, in the sacred text. The Lord hears the cry of his people oppressed in Egypt. He remembers his covenant, looks; he thinks of it (Ex 2:23-25), but even here there is no mention of love. Israel was reluctant to attribute to the Lord the word ‘aheb—to love—because of its erotic nuances.
It was Hosea who introduced the image of conjugal love and, after him, no expression of this love, even the most daring, was neglected. It served to express the feelings, emotions, and tenderness of God towards people. He disclosed his love for the patriarchs (Dt 4:37), Abraham was recognized as “his friend” (Is 41:8), he was given the visceral affection of a father (Ps 103:13) and the oath: “though the mountains may depart and the hills be moved, but never will my love depart from you” (Is 54:10).
Only after realizing this everlasting and free love, Israel felt the need to respond to it and understood that a God who loves so unconditionally, has the right to control even the heart and also to demand what seems humanly impossible, “If your enemy is hungry, give him something to eat; if thirsty, something to drink” (Pro25:21).
To internalize the message, we repeat:
“Only one who understands that God is love becomes capable of loving.”
First Reading: Deuteronomy 6:2-6
The sons of Hagar, inhabitants of the Arabian Desert, were renowned for their proverbs and wise sayings. The merchants Merra and Teman were tellers of tales. The famous giants of old, tall in stature, experts in war appeared in their land. Yet, none of these people had been chosen by God. He had not revealed the way of wisdom to any one of them (Bar 3:23-27). On Sinai, he had given it to Moses, and from that day Israel claimed to be the depositary in the world of wisdom and intelligence, and he exclaimed: “We are fortunate, O Israel, for we know what pleases the Lord!” (Bar 4:4). Even today, in the morning prayer, every Jew thanks, God thus: “Blessed are you, Lord, that you chose us among all nations and gave us your law.”
It is in the context of this justified national pride that today’s passage is set. It opens (vv. 2-4) with an exhortation “to fear the Lord.” It is not an invitation to fear: the alarm presupposes an image of God incompatible with biblical revelation. “To fear God” is to put oneself before him in an attitude of total surrender; it means the willingness to accept meekly his will to do good. “Now I know that you fear God,” the angel of the Lord said to Abraham (Gen 22:12). He meant to say: “Now I know that you are faithful to God and obey him in everything.” The God-fearing are those who are subject to him and are ready to do whatever he asks, not because they are afraid of his punishment, but because, being assured of his love, they trust him blindly.
In the second part of the passage (vv. 4-6) the famous text that every pious Israelite repeats three times a day, even today, is introduced: “Hear, O Israel …” It starts with the profession of faith in the oneness of God: “Our God is One Lord” (v. 4).
The more subtle temptation is not “atheism,” but “polytheism,” the choice to build “golden calves” and to fasten one’s heart to idols that deceive, promise satisfaction, serenity, and peace, but then betray, enslave, dehumanize one who worships. Aware of this danger, every Jew feels the need to continually draw to himself the fundamental truth of his faith, the Lord is one.
Then comes the command: “You shall love the Lord your God” (v. 5).
In the book of Deuteronomy the verbs “to fear” and “to love” are interchangeable and express both an exclusive attachment to the Lord.
The love of God is not to be identified with the practice of religious duties, involving acts of worship. To appease the gods, the people of the ancient Middle East offered burnt offerings of animals, and the first fruits of the harvest, confident that if the sweet smell of the victims were not regularly ascended into heaven, the gods would be angry and would send plagues, drought, and famines.
Israel, too, for a long time conceived her relationship with the Lord in terms of worship. She thought she could win the favor of her God offering him, as the heathens, sacrifices and burnt offerings. This is not the way the Lord wants people to manifest love to him. The indictments of the prophets against the religious ritualism are violent: “What do I care,” says the Lord “for your endless sacrifices?” … I am fed up with your oblations. I grow sick with your incense. Your New Moons, Sabbaths, and meetings … I can no longer bear. I hate New Moons and appointed feasts, they burden me. When you stretch out your hands, I will close my eyes; the more you pray, the more I refuse to listen … . Learn to do good. Seek justice and keep in line the abusers, give the fatherless their rights and defend the widow” (Is 1:10-20; cf. Am 5:21-25).
The love that God demands is not a fleeting feeling, a momentary emotion, a declaration of love made with the lips, but a total adherence to him in the fulfillment of that which is pleasing to Him.
For the Semites “the heart” was the seat not only of emotions but also of rationality and decisions. To love God “with all the heart” means to hand him the control of all the choices and feelings. It also means maintaining an “undivided heart,” a heart where there is no room for idols. If it is the Lord who by his word fills the heart, no weight is given to the greed of money, whims, and ambitions in the assessment of what to do, say or want.
“With all the soul.” The soul in the Bible is equivalent to life. No time can be spent in disagreement with the plan of the Lord. The rabbis taught that the true Israelite loves God always, even when he takes his life.
“With all the strength” means to use all energy and ability in carrying out the plans of the Lord. The term “force” also indicated material goods for the Israelites, so they have always been willing, when necessary, to sacrifice all their possessions as proof of their attachment to the faith.
Second Reading: Hebrews 7:23-28
The Jews who had converted to Christ cultivated a nostalgic memory of their ancient religious tradition. They remembered the grand ceremonies in the temple of Jerusalem, the solemnity with which the sacrifices were offered, the splendid trappings of the priests, the scent of incense, the melodious sound of the harps, the songs that accompany the liturgical celebrations.
Most of the time people are very attached to these outward manifestations of religion because they communicate the sensation of offering something to God.
In today’s passage, the author responds to the spiritual torment of these nostalgic Jews and says that the priesthood of Jesus and the worship he offers are infinitely superior.
Here are the reasons: first, the priests of the temple were many since death prevented them from continuing in office and therefore had to be replaced. Jesus, however, remains forever, has a priesthood that does not pass, and before God continues to intercede for us (vv. 22-25).
In addition, the priests of the temple were sinners and offered the sacrifices of atonement not only for people but also for themselves. Jesus, however, is pure, holy, and without blemish; has been tempted as we are, but he was never overcome by evil (v. 26).
Finally, Christ is superior because he did not offer material sacrifices as did the priests of the temple who offered oxen, doves, lambs, and fruits of the earth to God; these sacrifices had to be repeated continuously because they cannot obtain salvation. Instead, Jesus offered his life once and for all (vv. 27-28).
To the nostalgic Jews the author of the letter does not answer, as some of us may be tempted to do: in our churches, the liturgies are even more solemn than the temple’s, our garments are more valuable… He declares instead that the worship offered by Christ is “totally different.” Even the sacrifices of Christians are different from those of the temple; they are “spiritual,” consisting of the gift of life to others, as Christ did (Rom 12:1).
Gospel: Mark 12:28-34
The conclusion of this passage is a bit enigmatic. Why does Jesus not invite the scribe to follow him? Why does he not suggest to him the next step to enter into the Kingdom of God? To the rich man he had immediately indicated that which was still missing, “Go—he said—sell what you have and give the money to the poor, and you will have riches in heaven; then come, follow me” (Mk 10:21).
Let us for a moment suspend these questions and begin to frame the episode to be able to grasp the message.
For three days Jesus is in Jerusalem. He drove out the merchants from the holy place (Mk 11:15-18), a gesture that made his conflict with the religious authority almost irremediable. The chief priests, the scribes, and the elders are working on ways to frame him. They ask him tricky questions, weigh his every word in order to find some pretext to accuse him and to take him out of the way. As he wanders into the temple, they approach him and submit a series of questions on religion and politics. Jesus answers all, quietly and with great skill, so that his adversaries were astonished and admired him (Mk 11–12).
Today’s Gospel is set in this controversial context. A scribe who attended the earlier controversies comes forward and puts also a question: “Which commandment is the first of all?” Unlike the colleagues who preceded him, he is not moved by hatred against Jesus and does not intend to put him to the test. He heard good things spoken about him and wants to verify his biblical preparation.
Studying the Holy Scriptures, the rabbis had made 613 commandments and had distinguished them into negative precepts (indicating the actions to be avoided and they were 365, like days of the year) and positive precepts (which required actions to be taken and they were 248, like the limbs of the human body). Some of these precepts were considered mild while others severe, but the obligation to observe them was equally rigorous. The women were exempted from the 248 positives, but even for them, there were always many, too many. It was discussed whether it was possible to summarize them, reduce them to the essential. Some rabbis did not even want to hear about such a proposal. It is said that one day Rabbi Shammai took a pagan to a beating. He was in a hurry to become a Jew and had asked for a summary of the law of God. Other rabbis were rather more reasonable; they take into account the fact that the poor of the earth could never be able, I do not say observe, to learn so many precepts.
Many teachers argued that the most important commandment was the observance of the Sabbath; others felt that the principal one was that which imposed of not having other gods. The opinion of Rabbi Hillel was famous: “What you do not wish for yourself, do not do it to your neighbor; this is the whole Law, the rest is just commentary.” Rabbi Akiba taught, “Love your neighbor as yourself; this is the great principle of the law” and Rabbi Simon, called the just, affirmed: “The world rests on three things: the law, the worship, and works of love.”
What was Jesus’ position on this much debated issue? He gave the impression of being very understanding towards sinners and their weaknesses. He was not as uncompromising as Rabbi Shammai, therefore, he had to be in favor of the synthesis. At other times he sided against the “wise” who made the lives of ordinary people complicated by loading on their shoulders the unbearable yoke of detailed requirements, many of the practices imposed by the tradition of the elders.
The answer he gives to the scribe retakes the best-known of prayers of his people: “Hear, Israel. The Lord, our God, is one Lord; and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength.” Then, without being asked, he added a second commandment, based on the book of Leviticus: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev 19:18).
As we learned from the First Reading, God should be loved with “heart, soul and strength” (Dt 6: 4). But for Jesus that is not enough. To these three faculties, he also adds “all your mind.”
To have a solid and unshakable union with God, it cannot be based on religious or fleeting emotions or make it dependent on some pious devotion. It must involve “the mind,” must be the result of a conscious and well thought out choice, that fully satisfies even reason.
Who does not devote time to the study of God’s word, who is indifferent to the theological themes and ecclesial problems, who is not able to give the reasons for his own faith, cannot claim to love God “with all his mind.”
The love of God is then juxtaposed by Jesus to love the man, as to make the two inseparable commandments. Although it is not always easy to determine what specifically is convenient to do, it’s pretty clear what constitutes love of neighbor: it is the willingness to always do what is good for the other. It is not quite clear what it means to love God and what is the relationship between the two commandments.
Love of people demands commitment to make sure that no one goes without food, clothing, care, education and all that is necessary for life. However, this commitment must not overshadow the duty to God, prayer, Sunday Mass, and religious practices. A part of the time must be dedicated to work, to family, to friends, but woe to one who steals from God the part he deserves.
This interpretation, fairly widespread, is not satisfactory and it is dangerous. Understood in this way, the two commandments are in opposition to one another and bring God and man in competition, because what is given to one is subtracted from the other and no one can ever be fully satisfied.
We note that only in Mark’s Gospel the two commandments are placed in hierarchical order. It states that there is a first precept, clearly the most important, and a second.
Matthew records Jesus’ response to the rabbi in a more nuanced way: “There is another one very similar to it” (Mt 22:39), so it is not inferior, as it seemed to be in the version of Mark.
In Luke there is a step further, there is no mention of a first and a second, but only one commandment: “Love the Lord your God … and your neighbor as yourself” (Lk 10:27).
Throughout the rest of the New Testament, the two commandments which sum up the whole law is not spoken of but of one only and this is the love of people.
In the Gospel of John, Jesus says, “This is my (only!) command, that you love one another” (Jn 15:17), and Paul says that he who loves his fellowman has fulfilled the whole law, “for the commandments: Do not commit adultery, do not kill, do not covet and whatever else are summarized in this one: You will love your neighbor as yourself. Love cannot do the neighbor any harm; so love fulfills the whole Law” (Rom 13: 8-9). In writing to the Galatians, he is even more explicit: “For all the law is summed up in this sentence: You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Gal 5:14).
The two commandments cannot, therefore, be separated, because they are the manifestation of a single love, as John says, “If you say, ‘I love God’ while you hate your brother or sister, you are a liar. How can you love God whom you do not see if you do not love your brother whom you see?” (1 Jn 4:20).
To love God does not mean to give him something (time, prayers, songs…), but to share his plan for man’s benefit, to receive his love and to pour it out on others.
Is there a danger of loving man without loving God?
Such a possibility is so impossible that the Bible does not even consider it. If anyone loves man certainly he is animated by the Spirit, because love can only come from God (1 Jn 4:7).
What remains now is to clarify who Jesus meant by neighbor.
Already in the book of Leviticus, the stranger is among the people to love: “When a stranger stays with you in your land … he shall be to you as the native among you. Love him as yourself” (Lev 19:33-34). Several rabbis, referring to the passage in Genesis where it is noted that God created man in his own likeness (Gen 5:1), argued that the term neighbor included all people. In general, however, the commandment was referred only to members of the people of Israel or, at most, to those who reside within the boundaries of the Holy Land.
Jesus puts an end to all discrimination and states unequivocally and without hesitation: neighbor is anyone in need, be he friend or foe (Mt 5:43-48).
In his response (vv. 32-33) the scribe, taking Jesus’ statement introduces the comparison between the practice of these two commandments and worship offered in the temple.
He has no difficulty in pronouncing his judgment because, as a good rabbi, he studied the writings and understood the thinking of the prophets and sages of Israel. He knows that “to do what is upright and just pleases the Lord more than sacrifice” (Pro 21:3); remembers the exclamation of the Psalmist: “Sacrifice and oblation you did not desire; this you had me understand. Burnt offering and sin offering you do not require. Then I said, ‘Here I come! To do your will is my delight, O God, for your law is within my heart” (Ps 40:7-9). He did not doubt that love is infinitely more precious and pleasing to God than any offering.
Jesus quoting the prophet Hosea has repeatedly addressed the invitation to the Pharisees: “Go and find out what this means: What I want is mercy, not sacrifice” (Mt 9:13), cannot but be pleased with the spiritual sensitivity of his interlocutor for this he adds: “You are not far from the Kingdom of God” (v. 34).
We can now resume the questions we posed at the beginning: why did Jesus not immediately indicate to the scribe what he still lacked to enter the Kingdom of God? Why didn’t Jesus invite him to follow him?
The reason is to be found in the theological perspective of Mark, who has structured his Fospel as a journey of Jesus from Galilee to Jerusalem.
Now the Master has reached his goal; he is no longer on the way. Those who followed him, saw his work, listened to his words and understood his message, have let their eyes be opened and, like the blind man Bartimaeus, joined the disciples on the road and is finally able to make the choice of the gift of life together with him.
The others—the wise rabbi of today’s Gospel, the pious Israelites observant of the law and all the good and honest people—are only close to the Kingdom of God. To enter they must draw near to Christ, thoroughly study his message, evaluate his proposal and giving their conscious and resolute adhesion. To arrive at this choice they should first travel with him the road that from Galilee leads to Jerusalem.
To read the Gospel of Mark is equivalent to making this journey. It may be that having reached the last page, one has not yet the courage to give his own life to Jesus. It may be that he is not yet fully convinced that his proposal is the right one. There’s nothing to be dejected for this; one needs to resume the journey with him, departing again from Galilee. One day, as the blind man of Bethsaida, Jesus will finally be able to open the eyes of all.