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31st SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME (Cycle B)

Readings:
Deuteronomy 6:2-6
Psalm 18:2-4, 47, 51
Hebrews 7:23-28
Mark 12:28-34

All Scripture passages are from the New American Bible unless designated NJB (New Jerusalem Bible), IBHE (Interlinear Bible Hebrew-English), IBGE (Interlinear Bible Greek-English), or LXX (Greek Septuagint Old Testament translation).  CCC designates a citation from the Catechism of the Catholic Church. The word LORD or GOD rendered in all capital letters is, in the Hebrew text, God's Divine Name YHWH (Yahweh).

God's divine plan for mankind is revealed in the two Testaments and that is why we reread and relive the events of salvation history contained in the Old and New Testaments in the Church's Liturgy.  The Catechism teaches that the Liturgy reveals the unfolding mystery of God's plan as we read the Old Testament in light of the New and the New Testament in light of the Old (CCC 1094-1095).

The Theme of this Sunday's Readings: Two Loves that cannot be Separated
The Israelites were united to God in the sacred partnership of covenant.  God chose them, out of all the nations of the earth, to be His partners in the unfolding of His divine plan for mankind's salvation.  In the First Reading, Moses reminds the Israelites of their covenant bond with Yahweh that is based on loving God with an undivided heart and is demonstrated by obedience to all the commandments of God's Law that includes love of neighbor (Lev 19:18).

In the Second Reading we are reminded that the Old Covenant sacrificial system was instituted to proclaim the Word of God and to restore communion with God by sacrifices and prayer offered by the anointed High Priest.  But the old priesthood was powerless to bring about salvation and the old priesthood needed to repeat its sacrifices ceaselessly, being unable to achieve a definitive sanctification.  But God, in His love for us, gave us His anointed priest, prophet and Davidic king, Jesus of Nazareth—son of David and Son of God.  In Jesus' perfect sacrifice on the altar of the Cross, we receive the sanctification that the old order was incapable of giving and which only the sacrifice of Christ, our New Covenant High Priest of the heavenly Sanctuary, can accomplish for all people of all ages.  It is a loving gift He continually extends to us in the sacrifice of the Mass and the gift of Himself in the Eucharist.

The First Reading serves as an introduction to the Gospel Reading in which a scholar of the Law attempts to test Jesus by asking Him which of the commandments of the Law is the most important.  Jesus answers by quoting from Deuteronomy 6:6 in our First Reading, but then He adds "The second is this: 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.'" In His answer, Jesus has effectively summed up the entire Law of the Ten Commandments as love of God (first three commandments) demonstrated by love of one's brothers and sisters in the human family (last 7 commandments). 

Just as David had confidence in God's faithful covenant love in the Psalm Reading, so too can we have the same confidence that God loves us in the New Covenant in Christ Jesus in which we demonstrate our love for God in our love of our neighbor.  These are the two loves that cannot be separated in one's relationship with God. One of the central points of God's revelation to man, in the Old Testament and in the New, is that God is love and He calls us to love others as He loves us: In this way the love of God was revealed to us: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might have life through him.  In this is love: not that we have loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as expiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also must love one another.  No one has ever seen God.  Yet, if we love one another, God remains in us, and his love is brought to perfection in us ... God is love, and whoever remains in love remains in God and God in him (1 Jn 4:9-12, 16).

The First Reading Deuteronomy 6:2-6 ~ Promised Blessings for Obedience to the Law
Moses spoke to the people saying: 2"Fear the LORD, your God, and keep, throughout the days of your lives, all the statutes and commandments which I enjoin on you, and thus have long life.  3 Hear, then, Israel, and be careful to observe them, that you may grow and prosper the more, in keeping with them promise of the LORD, the God of your fathers, to give you a land flowing with milk and honey.  4 Hear, O Israel! The LORD is our God, the LORD alone!  5 Therefore, you shall love the LORD, your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength.  6 Take to heart these words which I enjoin on your today."

Our passage is from Moses' second homily to the children of Israel at their camp on the east side of the Jordan River as they prepared to begin their conquest of the Promised Land.  In this homily from chapters 6-11, Moses' focus is on developing the central ideas of his teaching from the first section of the Ten Commandments (Dt 5:7-10)—loyalty to Yahweh the one true God demonstrated by faithfulness in rejecting pagan idols and continuing the covenant in future generations.  In the introduction to this section, Moses speaks of God's promised blessings for Israel's obedience in putting God's laws into practice in the Promised Land; it is one of the central themes of Moses' homilies.  Moses urges the Israelites to "hear" his teaching on the Law and to "keep/protect" what they have learned.  Moses repeats what he taught at the end of his Ten Commandment commentary in 5:29.  The Israelites are commanded to pass on Moses' teaching and their fear of God (the deeply felt respect for God and fear of offending Him) to future generations as the basis for covenant continuation by applying God's commands and prohibitions to their daily lives as examples of righteousness living for their children (Dt 6:20-25). 

Moses admonished the people: "Fear the LORD, your God, and keep, throughout the days of your lives, all the statutes and commandments which I enjoin on you, and thus have long life."
He will urge the Israelites to "fear the Lord" and be obedient to His commandments numerous times in his three homilies.  However, Moses is not speaking of the kind of fear that drives the people away—the fear the people felt after witnessing the Theophany at Mt. Sinai (Ex 20:18-19).  At the end of the first homily in Deuteronomy 4:34-40 and in 6:2-5, Moses is actually juxtaposing the "fear of God" and the call to obey His commandments (verse 2) with his call for the people to "love God" (verse 5).   Moses is using "fear" as an expression typifying a deep reverence for God that inspires fear of offending God and therefore faithfulness to God and loyalty to His covenant.  Israel's response to God's love in giving them the Law of the covenant must be the people's obedience to God's commands and loyalty to the covenant as the expression of Israel's love (Dt. 4:37; 6:2-5, 13; 10:12-15).

3 Hear, then, Israel, and be careful to observe them, that you may grow and prosper the more, in keeping with them promise of the LORD, the God of your fathers, to give you a land flowing with milk and honey.
If they will put what Moses urges into practice, God will reward their obedience with prosperity and fertility in a land that has an abundance of everything that makes life good—a land "flowing with milk and honey."   The promised blessings in verse 3 are reminiscent of the blessings promised in the Creation event that were repeated to Noah and his family after the Great Flood (see Gen 1:28 and 9:1).  Israel's promised blessings of fertility and the gift of good land are the same as God's first promised blessings of fertility and dominion over the land made to mankind at Creation.  "A land flowing with milk and honey" is a metaphor that describes the abundance of Eden when man lived in perfect harmony with God.  It also recalls the promises made to Noah and his family after the Great Flood.  In each case, the blessings of fertility and prosperity in the land were made in association with a new creation:

The children of Israel were to reap the blessings in verse 3 if they both feared (loyalty born of reverent respect) and loved Yahweh ( Ex 20:20; Lev 25:17, 36, 43; Dt 4:10 5:29; 6:2, 13, 24, and Dt 5:10; 6:5; 10:12; 11:1, 13, 22; 19:9; etc.). 

4 Hear [shema], O Israel! The LORD is our God, the LORD alone!  5 Therefore, you shall love the LORD, your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength.
Their first obligation was the commanded to love God with an undivided heart and with their whole being (heart, soul and strength), placing their relationship with Him as individuals and as a people above all else.  Verses 4-5 are the opening verses of the Old Covenant profession of faith known as the Shema.  The Old Testament verses of the Shema (Dt 6:4-9; 11:3-21 and Num 15:37-41) are recited in morning and evening prayers in Rabbinic Judaism. 

This passage should remind us of the revelation of God's love for mankind in the New Covenant, that has its origin in God's divine plan already taking shape in the Old Testament.  For love of us, God willing sent His only beloved Son into the world to die for the sins of mankind that those who accept God's gift of salvation through the New Covenant of Christ Jesus might have life eternally. 

Responsorial Psalm 18:2-4, 47, 51
Response: "I love you, Lord, my strength."
 
2 I love you, O LORD, my strength, O LORD , 3 my rock, my fortress, my deliverer.
Response:
 My God, my rock of refuge, my shield, the horn of my salvation, my stronghold!  4 Praise be the LORD, I exclaim, and I am safe from my enemies.
Response:
47 The LORD lives!  And blessed be my rock!  [..]. 51 Extolled be God my savior, you who gave great victories to your king and showed kindness [hesed] to your anointed.
Response:

This psalm is attributed King David.  The psalm opens with a litany of invocations proclaiming God as David's Savior (verses 2-3).  Then the psalm tells of David calling upon the Lord who delivered him from his enemies (verse 4).  It is for this reason that David proclaims his faith in the living God and not in the dead images of false gods in pagan temples.  It is God who gives David, God's anointed king of Israel, victory and shows covenant love (the meaning of the Hebrew word hesed), being faithful to the eternal covenant God made with David and his heirs that will reach its climax in God's beloved Son, Jesus Christ, the Davidic Messiah and King of the eternal Kingdom of the Church on earth and in Heaven (see 2 Sam 7:16; 23:5; 2 Chr 13:5; Sir 45:25; Lk 1:32).

The Second Reading Hebrews 7:23-28 ~ Jesus our High Priest
23 Those priests were many because they were prevented by death from remaining in office, 24 but he, because he remains forever, has a priesthood that does not pass away.  25 Therefore, he is always able to save those who approach God through him, since he lives forever to make intercession for them.  It was fitting that we should have such a high priest: holy, innocent, undefiled, separated from sinners, higher than the heavens.27 He has no need, as did the high priests, to offer sacrifice day after day, first for his own sins and then for those of the people; he did that once for all when he offered himself. 28 For the law appoints men subject to weakness to be high priests, but the word of the oath, which was taken after the law, appoints a son, who has been made perfect forever.

The Old Covenant Aaronic priesthood was limited by the determined length of service and by the human frailty of the priest, but the resurrected Jesus Christ is an eternal High Priest who lives forever to make intercession for us (CCC#1364; 1366).  In Hebrews 7:26-27, the inspired writer list 5 attributes of Christ as our High Priest:

  1. holy
  2. innocent
  3. undefiled
  4. separated from sinners
  5. higher than the heavens

He tells us that Jesus is "separated from sinners", but His only separation is in His sinless nature and in His place in the heavenly kingdom.  In every other way, Jesus identifies with us and shows us the way to holiness and salvation.  He is the prefect High Priest because:

  1. In His sinless nature He is the perfection of holiness
  2. He is installed by the Father as priest of the heavenly sanctuary
  3. He offers the one perfectly and holy sacrifice for the salvation of mankind

The high priests of the Old Covenant had to offer sacrifices day after day for their sins and the sins of the community.  The daily sacrifice was the first continual communal sacrifice commanded of the covenant people in Exodus 29:38-46.  It was the "single" sacrifice known in Hebrew as the Tamid, in which an unblemished male lamb was offered in a liturgical worship service twice daily, once in the morning and again in the afternoon (evening for the covenant people) in a communal sacrifice for all the covenant people along with an offering of cakes of unleavened wheat and a red wine libation.  But those sacrifices and all other sin, communion, and festival sacrifices had to be repeated over and over again because no animal could be perfect enough to completely remove sin, reestablish continuing fellowship with God, and was incapable of offering eternal salvation or the gift of the Holy Spirit.  The Catechism teaches:

28 For the law appoints men subject to weakness to be high priests, but the word of the oath, which was taken after the law, appoints a son, who has been made perfect forever.
St. Epiphanius, the late 4th century Bishop of Salamis, wrote concerning the perfect priesthood of Jesus Christ: "For he abides forever to offer gifts for us—after first offering himself by the cross, to abolish every sacrifice of the old covenant by presenting the more prefect, living sacrifice for the whole world.  He himself is temple, sacrifice, priest, altar, God, man, king, high priest, lamb, sacrificial victim—become all in all for us that life may be ours in every way and to lay the changeless foundation of his priesthood forever, no longer allotting it by descent and succession by granting that, in accordance with his ordinance, it may be preserved in the Holy Spirit" (Panarion 4, Against Melchizedekians 4.1-7).

If Jesus' sacrifice was "once for all" (Heb 7:28; 9:28), offered for all men and women of all time, then why do we call the celebration of the Mass a sacrifice?  Isn't what Jesus offered up on the Cross enough?  Of course, Jesus' sacrifice on the Cross was full and sufficient.  But Jesus continues to offer His one perfect sacrifice, re-presented on the altar of every celebration of the Mass.  It is the same sacrifice He offered on the Cross that continues to be the sacrifice He offers as our New Covenant High Priest before God in Heaven and which continues to atone for the sins of mankind.  As the inspired writer of Hebrews says in 8:3 Now every high priest is appointed to offer gifts and sacrifices; thus the necessity for this one also to have something to offer (emphasis added).  St. John Chrysostom, Archbishop of Constantinople (349-407 AD), wrote concerning Jesus' sacrifice as our High Priest: "... he says, "every high priest is appointed to offer gifts and sacrifices; hence it is necessary for this priest also to have something to offer."   [..].  But there is no priest without a sacrifice.  It is necessary then that he also should have a sacrifice" (On the Epistle to the Hebrews, 14.2).

See the document "Is the Eucharist a True Sacrifice" also see CCC# 1330; 1366-67; and read Hebrews 8:1-3 while considering that a high priest is a high priest only because he offers up a sacrifice to God as God's representative to His people.

The Gospel of Mark 12:28-34 ~ The Greatest Commandment
28 One of the scribes, when he came forward and heard them disputing and saw how well he had answered them, asked him, "Which is the first of all the commandments?"  29 Jesus replied, "The first is this: 'Hear O Israel! The Lord our God is Lord alone!  30 You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.'  31 The second is this: 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.'  There is no other commandment greater than these."  32 The scribe said to him, "Well said, teacher.  You are right in saying, 'He is One and there is no other than he.'  33 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."  34 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.

In this encounter with Christ, a scribe who is aligned with the Pharisees approves of Jesus' answer to the Sadducees when He defended the doctrine of a bodily resurrection (Mk 12:18-27).  He steps forward to test Jesus' understanding of the Torah (the Law of Moses) by asking, "Which is the first of all the commandments?"  Jesus answers by quoting from two commandments from the Torah.  The first is from a verse from the collection of verses in the Shema (the Old Covenant profession of faith) in Deuteronomy 6:4-5, and the second is from the Holiness Code (Lev chapters 17-26) in Leviticus 19:18.

The first quote from Deuteronomy 6:7 concerning one's relationship with God commanded that God must be given one's undivided love and loyalty which encompasses one's entire being:

Then Jesus tells the scholar: "31 The second is this: 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.'  There is no other commandment greater than these."


Jesus lists as the second law that leads to eternal life by quoting from Leviticus 19:18 in the command that one must love one's neighbor as oneself.  The two quotes summarize the Ten Commandments: the first three commands address man's relationship to God and other seven commandments address the rightness of man's relationship with his fellow man. 

32 The scribe said to him, "Well said, teacher.  You are right in saying, 'He is One and there is no other than he.'  33 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." 
The scribe approves of the Jesus' answer and also demonstrates that he has a spiritual understanding of what God required in the offering of liturgical sacrifices.  Then the scribe refers to passages in Scripture when he speaks of the humility of "love" fulfilling the law and the ritual of sacrifice.  He is probably referring to 1 Samuel 15:22; Psalm 40:7-9; 51:18-19 and Amos 5:21-25.  The Lord commanded, and David and the prophets Samuel and Amos understood, that worship that is only external ritual devoid of a self-sacrifice and love and without a commitment to living in justice and obedience to the commandments of God is meaningless like a life without a soul.

 

34 And when Jesus saw that he answered with understanding, he said to him, "You are not far from the kingdom of God." 
Jesus approves of the spiritual understanding of the scholar and tells him that he is not far from the kingdom of God, but Jesus' response to the scribe implies that something is lacking.  
There is something else the scribe needs to be ready for the Kingdom of God—he needs to accept Jesus as the Redeemer-Messiah!

And no one dared to ask him any more questions.
Jesus has defeated all attempts by the religious authorities to discredit Him with the people.  This is the last time the religious leaders will try to challenge Jesus on the understanding of the Scriptures.

Catechism References:
Deuteronomy 6:4-5 (CCC 201, 459, 2093); 6:4 (CCC 228, 2083); 6:5 (CCC 368, 2055, 2133)
Hebrews 7:24 (CCC 1366, 1564); 7:25-27 (CCC 1364); 7:25 (CCC 519, 662, 2634, 2741); 7:26 (CCC 1544); 7:26 (CCC 1544); 7:27 (CCC 1085, 1366, 1540)
Mark 12:28-34 (CCC 575)

Michal E. Hunt Copyright © 2015