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Commentary to the 31st Sunday in Ordinary Time - Year B

Fernando Armellini - Fri, Oct 29th 2021

Can one command the heart?

Pharaoh was the beloved of the god Ra. From the earliest times, the god Ra motivated his interventions in favor of the ruler with the formula: "For the love, I have for you."

The God of Israel did not know this sweet and delicate feeling. In the earliest texts of the Bible, only strong passions are attributed to him: he repents, he is indignant, he grieves (Gen 6:6-7), he cultivates the proud loyalty of the feudal lord towards his vassal, but not love, which is why we understand that, in terror, Israel begged Moses: "You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, or we shall die" (Ex 20:19).

God contemplated creation and "saw that it was good," but there is no allusion to his emotion of joy; his covenants with Noah and Abraham are referred to, but one would look in vain in the sacred text for a reason for his choice the inscription 'because he loved them.' The Lord hears the lament of his oppressed people in Egypt, he remembers his covenant, looks at it, thinks about it (Ex 2:23-25), but here too, there is no mention of love. Israel was reluctant to attribute the verb' aheb,' to love, to the Lord because of its erotic overtones.

Hosea introduced the image of conjugal affection, and after him, no expression of this love, not even the boldest, was overlooked. It served to express the affections, the emotions, the tenderness of God toward people. His love for the patriarchs was discovered (Deut 4:37), Abraham was recognized as "his friend" (Is 41:8), the visceral affection of a father was attributed to him (Ps 103:13) and the oath: "Though the mountains fall away and the hills be shaken, my love shall never fall away from you" (Is 54:10).

Only after realizing this perennial and gratuitous love did Israel feel the need to correspond to it and understand that a God who loves in this way, without conditions, has the right to command even the heart and to demand even what humanly seems impossible: "If your enemies are hungry, give them food to eat, if thirsty, give something to drink" (Prov 25:21).

  • To internalize the message, we will repeat:

"Only those who have understood that God is love become capable of loving."


First Reading: Deuteronomy 6,2-6

The sons of Hagar, inhabitants of the desert of Arabia, were renowned for their proverbs and wise sayings; the merchants of Merra and Teman were storytellers; in their land appeared the famous giants of ancient times, tall in stature, skilled in warfare. Yet none of these peoples had been chosen by God; to none of them had he revealed the way of wisdom (Bar 3:23-27). On Sinai, he had given it to Moses, and from that day on, Israel considered itself the repository of wisdom and intelligence in the world, exclaiming: "Blessed are we, O Israel, for what pleases God is known to us!" (Bar 4:4). Even today, in the morning prayer, every Jew thanks God in this way: "Blessed are you, O Lord, who chose us from among all the nations and gave us your law."

It is in the context of this justified national pride that today's passage should be placed. It begins (vv. 2-4) with an appeal to fear the Lord. This is not an invitation to fear: fear presupposes an image of God that is incompatible with biblical revelation. To fear God means to place oneself before him in an attitude of total abandonment; it means readiness to accept his goodwill meekly. "Now I know that you fear God," the angel of the Lord declares to Abraham (Gen 22:12). He meant, 'Now I know that you are faithful to God and obey him in everything.' The God-fearing are those who are submissive to him and are ready to perform whatever he asks, not because they fear his chastisements, but because, being sure of his love, they trust him blindly.

The second part of the passage (vv. 4-6) introduces the famous text that every pious Israelite repeats, even today, three times a day: "Hear, O Israel...." It begins with the profession of faith in the oneness of God: "The Lord is our God, the Lord alone!" (v. 4). The most insidious temptation is not atheism, but polytheism, the choice to build oneself 'golden calves' and bind one's heart to idols that deceive, promise satisfaction, serenity, and peace, but then betray, enslave and dehumanize those who worship them. Aware of this danger, every Israelite feels the need to continuously remind himself of the fundamental truth of his faith: the Lord is one.

Then comes the recommendation, "You shall love the Lord your God" (v. 5). In the book of Deuteronomy, the verbs fear and love are interchangeable, and both express an exclusive attachment to the Lord. Love to God is not identified with the practice of religious duties, with the participation in acts of worship.

To ingratiate themselves with the gods, the people of the ancient Middle East offered holocausts of animals and the first fruits of the crops, convinced that, if the sweet smell of the victims did not regularly rise to the sky, the gods would be angry and would send pestilence, drought, and famine. Israel, too, for a long time conceived of its relationship with the Lord in cultic terms. They believed they could gain favor with their God by offering him, like the pagans, sacrifices, and burnt offerings.

This is not the way the Lord wants love to be shown to him. The prophets' requisitions against religious ritualism are violent: "What do I care for the multitude of your sacrifices? says the Lord. I have had enough of whole-burnt rams and fat of fatlings; to bring offerings is useless; incense is an abomination to me. When you spread out your hands, I will close my eyes to you; though you pray the more, I will not listen. Learn to do good. Make justice your aim: redress the wronged, hear the orphan's plea, defend the widow" (Is 1:10-20; cf. Am 5:21.25).

The love that God demands is not a fleeting sentiment, a momentary emotion, a declaration of affection made with the lips, but total adherence to him in the fulfillment of what is pleasing to him. For the Semites, the heart was the seat of emotions and rationality, and decisions. Loving God with all one's heart means handing over control of all choices and feelings to him. It also means maintaining an undivided heart, a heart where there is no room for idols. If it is the Lord who fills the heart with his word, the lust for money, whims, and ambitions can no longer be given any weight in the evaluation of what to do, say, or want.

With the whole soul. The soul in the Bible is equivalent to life. No moment can be spent in disagreement with the Lord's plan. The rabbis taught: the true Israelite loves God always, even when He takes his life.

With all strength means to employ all one's energies and abilities in the fulfillment of the Lord's designs. With the term 'strength,' the Israelites also indicated material goods, which is why they were always willing, when necessary, to sacrifice everything they owned 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 vestments of the priests, the fragrance of the incense, the melodious sound of the harps, the songs that accompanied the liturgical celebrations.

People are almost always attached to these outward manifestations of religiosity because they communicate the pleasant feeling of offering something to God. In today's passage, the author responds to the spiritual worry of these nostalgic Jews and affirms that the priesthood of Jesus and the worship he offers are infinitely superior.

Here are the reasons: first of all, the priests of the temple were many because death prevented them from lasting longer and, therefore, they had to be replaced. On the other hand, Jesus remains forever, has a priesthood that does not wane and, before God, continues to intercede for us (vv. 22-25).

Moreover, the priests of the temple were sinners and offered the sacrifices of atonement not only for the people but also for themselves. On the other hand, Jesus is pure, holy, and unblemished; he was tempted, as we are, but he was never overcome by evil (v. 26).

Finally, Christ is superior because he did not offer material sacrifices like the temple priests; did who presented oxen, turtledoves, lambs, and fruits of the earth to God; these sacrifices had to be repeated over and over because they were incapable of obtaining salvation. Instead, Jesus offered his life once and for all (vv. 27-28).

To the nostalgic Jews, the letter's author does not respond, as perhaps some of us would be tempted to do: in our churches, the liturgies are even more solemn than in the temple, our vestments are more precious... Instead, he declares that the worship offered by Christ is entirely different. Even the sacrifices of Christians are different from those of the temple; they are 'spiritual,' they consist in the gift of one's life to one's neighbor, as Christ did (Rom 12:1).


Gospel: Mark 12:28-34

The conclusion of this passage is a bit enigmatic. Why doesn't Jesus invite the scribe to follow him? Why does he not suggest the next step to enter the kingdom of God? He immediately pointed out to the rich man what he still lacked: "Go—he said—sell what you have, and give to the poor and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me" (Mk 10:21).

Let us leave these questions unanswered for a moment and begin to frame the episode to grasp its message. For three days, Jesus has been in Jerusalem. He has driven the sellers out of the holy place (Mk 11:15-18), a gesture that has made his conflict with religious authority irremediable. The high priests, the scribes, and the elders are studying how to frame him: they ask him captious questions, weighing his every word to find some pretext to accuse him and remove him from the way. While wandering about in the temple, they approach him and ask him a series of religious and political questions. Jesus answers them all, calmly and with great skill, to the point that his adversaries are amazed and admired (Mk 11-12).

Today's gospel is set in this polemical context. A scribe who has witnessed the previous controversies comes forward and also asks a question, "Which is the first of all the commandments?" Unlike his colleagues before him, he is not moved by malice against Jesus, nor does he intend to test him; he has heard good things about him and wishes to verify his biblical preparation.

Studying the sacred Scriptures, the rabbis had derived 613 commandments. They had distinguished them into negative precepts (which indicated actions to avoid, and which were 365 like the days of the year) and positive precepts (which imposed measures to perform, and which were 248 like the limbs of the human body). Some of these precepts were judged light, others serious, but the obligation to observe them was equally strict. Women were exempt from the 248 positives, but even for them, there were still many, too many. It was debated whether it was possible to summarize them, to reduce them to the essential. Some rabbis did not even want to hear about such a proposal. It is said that Rabbi Shammai one day clubbed a pagan who, in a hurry to become a Jew, had asked him for a summary of God's law. Other rabbis, however, were more reasonable; they considered the fact that the poor of the earth would never have been able, I won't say to observe, but even only to learn so many precepts.

Many teachers maintained that the most important of the commandments was the observance of the Sabbath; others believed that the main one was the one that imposed not to have other gods; the opinion of Rabbi Hillel was famous: "What you do not desire for yourself, do not do to your neighbor; this is the whole law, the rest is only commentary." Rabbi Akiba taught, "Love your neighbor as yourself; this is the great principle of the law," and Rabbi Simon, called the righteous, stated, "The world rests on three things: the law, worship, and works of love."

What was Jesus' position on this much-debated topic? He gave the impression of being very understanding towards sinners and their weaknesses; he was not intransigent like rabbi Shammai; therefore, he must have favored a synthesis. At other times, he had taken sides against the 'wise men' who complicated the lives of simple people, placing on their shoulders the unbearable yoke of detailed prescriptions, of the innumerable practices imposed by the tradition of the ancients.

The answer he gives to the scribe takes up the best known of the prayers of his people: "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." Then, without being asked, he adds a second commandment, taken from the book of Leviticus: "You shall love your neighbor as yourself" (Lev 19:18).

As we learned from the first reading, God is to be loved with heart, soul, and strength (Deut 6:4). But for Jesus, this is not enough: to these three faculties, he also adds the whole mind. If adherence to God is to be solid and unshakeable, it cannot be founded on fleeting religious emotions or made to depend on some pious devotion. It must involve the mind; it must be the fruit of a conscious and well-considered choice, which also fully satisfies reason.

Anyone who does not devote time to the study of God's word, who is uninterested in theological themes and ecclesial problems, who is incapable of giving the reasons for his faith, cannot claim to love God with all his mind.

Love of God is then juxtaposed by Jesus with the love of people, to the point of making the two commandments inseparable. Even if it is not always easy to establish what is convenient to do, it is pretty clear what love of neighbor consists of: it is the willingness always to do what is good for the other. However, it is not entirely clear what it means to love God and what the relationship between the two commandments is.

Love of neighbor requires a commitment to ensure that no one lacks food, clothing, assistance, education, and all that is necessary for life. However, this commitment must not overshadow one's duties towards God: prayer, Sunday Mass, and religious practices. Therefore, a part of our time should be dedicated to working, family, and friends, but woe betide if we rob God of his due share. This interpretation, quite widespread, is not satisfactory and is dangerous. Understood in this way, the two commandments oppose each other and put God and neighbor in competition because what is given to one is taken away from the other, and no one can ever be fully satisfied.

We note that only in Mark's gospel are the two commandments placed in hierarchical order; it is stated that there is a first precept, clearly more important, and a second. Matthew relates Jesus' response to the rabbi in a more nuanced way: "The second is similar to the first" (Mt 22:39); therefore, it is not inferior, as seemed to result from Mark's version. In Luke, there is an additional passage; 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, there is no mention of two commandments that summarize the entire law, but only one, and that is love for man.

In John's Gospel, Jesus declares: "This I command you: love one another" (John 15:17), and Paul affirms that whoever loves his neighbor has fulfilled the whole law, "for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments, 'You shall not commit adultery; you shall not kill; you shall not steal; you shall not covet,' and whatever other commandment there may be, are summed up in this saying, namely 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself'" (Rom 13:8-9). Writing to the Galatians, he is even more explicit: "The whole law is fulfilled in one statement, namely, '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 affirms: "If anyone says, 'I love God,' but hates his brother, he is a liar; for whoever does not love a brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen" (1 Jn 4:20).

To love God does not mean to give him something (time, prayers, songs...), but to share his project in favor of man, to accept his love and pour it out on others. Can there be a danger of loving man without loving God? Such an eventuality is so impossible that the Bible does not even consider it. If one loves man, he is undoubtedly animated by the Spirit because love can only come from God (1 Jn 4:7).

It now remains to clarify who Jesus means by neighbor. Already in the book of Leviticus, among the people to be loved, the stranger is included: "You shall treat the alien who resides with you no differently than the natives born among you; you shall love the alien as yourself" (Lev 19:34) and several rabbis, referring to the passage in Genesis where it is emphasized that God created man in His likeness (Gen 5:1), claimed that the term neighbor included all people. Generally, however, the commandment referred only to the people of Israel or, at most, to those who resided within the borders of the Holy Land.

Jesus put an end to all discrimination and declared without hesitation and in an unequivocal way: neighbor is anyone in need, whether friend or enemy (Mt 5:43-48). In his response (vv. 32-33), the scribe, echoing Jesus' statement, introduces the comparison between the practice of these two commandments and the worship offered in the temple.

He has no difficulty pronouncing his judgment because, like a good rabbi, he has studied the writings and assimilated the thought of the prophets and sages of Israel. He knows that "Practicing justice and equity is worth more to the Lord than a sacrifice" (Prov 21:3); he remembers the psalmist's exclamation, "Sacrifice and offering you do not want. Holocaust and sin-offering you do not request; I delight to do your will, my God; your law is in my inner being!" (Ps 40:7.9). He has no doubt: love is immensely more precious and pleasing to God than any offering.

Jesus, who was quoting the prophet Hosea repeatedly invited the Pharisees: "Go and learn what this means: I want works of love, not sacrifices" (Mt 9:13), cannot but be pleased with the spiritual sensitivity of his interlocutor, and for this reason he adds: "You are not far from the kingdom of God" (v. 34).

At this point, we can resume the questions we asked at the beginning: why did Jesus not immediately indicate to the scribe what he still lacked to enter the kingdom of God? Why did he not invite him to follow him? The reason must be sought in the theological perspective of Mark, who structured his gospel as a journey of Jesus from Galilee to Jerusalem. Now the Master has reached his destination; he is no longer on the road. Those who have followed him, those who have seen his works, listened to his words and understood his message, those who have had their eyes opened and, like the blind Bartimaeus, have joined the disciples along the way, are finally able to choose the gift of life together with him.

The others—the wise rabbi of today's gospel, the pious, Law-abiding Israelites, and all good and honest people—are only near the kingdom of God. To enter it, they must approach Christ, study his message in depth, evaluate his proposal and give him their conscious and resolute adherence. To arrive at this choice, they must first travel with him on the road from Galilee to Jerusalem.

Reading Mark's Gospel is equivalent to making this journey. It may be that having reached the last page, one does not yet dare to offer one's life with Jesus. It may be that we are not yet fully convinced that his proposal is the right one. There is no need to be discouraged because of this; one must resume the journey with him, starting again from Galilee. One day, like the blind man of Bethsaida, Jesus will finally be able to open everyone's eyes.


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