“To love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength, and to love one’s neighbour as oneself, is much more than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” (Mark 12:33)
As our liturgical year gradually draws to a close, our readings are becoming more and more urgent reminding us of the most important things we must bear in mind as children of God. The theme of our liturgy today is the power of love. There are so many lessons contained in our readings today:
1. The Beauty of Humility and Willingness to Learn.
It is surprising that despite the fact that Jesus did not seem to be on good terms with the religious leaders of his day, Jesus actually commended this scribe in today’s Gospel passage. Mark tells us: “And when Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, ‘you are not far from the kingdom of God.’” This scribe, unlike his colleagues, did not come to test Jesus. He had not come to catch Jesus in his words. In the course of his interaction with Jesus, he said: “You are right, Teacher.” This means, he was humble enough to accept Jesus’ authority as a teacher and he agreed with Jesus.
While his fellow scribes saw Jesus as a threat and could not fathom His Divinity, this Scribe acted sincerely and was commended by Jesus. At times, you see Christians of different denominations argue on issues regarding the faith with so much passion and heat as if they are going to fight a war. We must learn from this scribe the humility of seeing things from another person’s perspective. We should not allow hatred for a person to prevent us from learning the truth from that person.
2. The Importance of Love in the Scale of God’s commandments.
Having considered the humility of the Scribe, let us now ask: “what brought about this question and why was it an important question?” As at the time of Jesus, there were SIX HUNDRED AND THIRTY-FOUR commandments a child of God was required to memorize, obey and teach others. God gave only Ten Commandments to Moses, but in a bid to explain these Ten Commandments, the religious leaders had expanded them even to the point of adding their own. In fact, as Jesus noted: “in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the precepts of men.” (Matthew 15:9). The Scribes and the Pharisees had fallen into the darkness of mere legalism.
For instance, God said: “obey the Sabbath the keep it holy,” they added: “anyone who does any work on the Sabbath day must die.” (Exodus 31:14-15, 35:2). Not only had they forgotten the original purpose of the third commandment, they now took the explanation of this commandment as the law and were willing to kill Jesus for healing people on the Sabbath day.
When the scribe asked Jesus which commandment was the first, he wasn’t talking about numerical value, he was basically asking, “Which is more important than others? Which supersedes all others?” or “Which deserves to be obeyed even if anyone else is to be disobeyed?” It is obvious that the religious leaders were putting so much emphasis on sacrifices and offerings (which of course, brought a lot of income to them). Temple worship had reduced to the level of mere commerce. According to Jesus, they had turned the House of God into a den of robbers. (Mat. 21:13, Mk 11:17 & Lk 19.46) You see why they could not forgive Jesus for spoiling their business in the name of cleansing the temple.
Jesus not only “broke” the Sabbath law, but he also went as far as “desecrating” the temple by scattering the table of the money changers and allowing the animals for sacrifice to go freely. Jesus did all these to teach us one lesson: “So long as we love God and our neighbour, nothing else matters.” This is why when Jesus saw a man with a withered hand in the temple on the Sabbath, he put him up before the crowd and said: “is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save a life or to kill?” (Mark 3:4). In other words, Jesus was asking: “Is it against the Sabbath to Love?”
3. Love of God Comes Before and Gives Meaning to Love of Neighbor.
Jesus was asked one question but gave two answers. Jesus was asked: “which is the First Commandment?” but He added the second. Why? Jesus knew that without adding the second, “love your neighbour”, the first would be meaningless yet without the first, the second is pointless.
As John puts it: “If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen.” (1 John 4:20). Loving God with all our heart, soul and might is not a matter of coming to church it is rather a matter loving of our neighbour as ourselves. In fact, Jesus taught us that God is more pleased with our ability to forgive our neighbour than our offering. He said: “If you are offering your gift at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.” (Matthew 5:23-24).
Nevertheless, the love we show our neighbour is a love that must be predicated on the love we have for God. Without the first commandment, there cannot be a second. Most often, when the word “love” is mentioned, our minds tend to go that exclusive feeling of attachment to a person which often finds expression in bodily touch and lustful desires. This is not the love Jesus is talking about. Any “love” that leads us to sin against God is evil.
4. Love of Self is the Yardstick for Love of Neighbour.
Jesus did not simply say: “you shall love your neighbour,” He carefully added, “as yourself.” Without love for self, there is no love for neighbour. One who cannot love himself or herself cannot also love his neighbour. Love of others begins with the love of the self. How do we love our neighbour? By treating everyone as we want to be treated. In Luke 6:31 Jesus says: “as you wish that men would do to you, do so to them.”
When the Samaritan traveller saw a man beaten and left half-dead on the road, the first thing he did was to put himself in the shoes of this unfortunate man. This motivated him to help without considering tribal or religious differences. This is exactly what it means to love God with all our heart, mind and soul, this is the greatest of all the commandments.
5. Love is a Sacrifice.
Our final lesson today comes from our second reading. The letter to the Hebrews in comparing the priesthood of the Old Testament with the Priesthood of Jesus makes us understand why that of Jesus is supreme. It says: Jesus “has no need like those high priests to offer sacrifices daily… he did this once for all men when he offered up himself.” The priesthood of Jesus is higher than all others because while other priests offer blood that is not theirs, Jesus used his own blood. When we offer the mass, we do not offer a new sacrifice, rather we do a memorial of the one supreme sacrifice of Jesus Christ. “Do this in memory of me.”
Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross remains forever the only correct definition of love. For God so loved the world that he gave his only son to die for us. To love is to be willing to die for another not to gain from another. In John 15:12-13, Jesus says: “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” We cannot say we love when we do not want to lay down our lives for others. Love is a sacrifice. Yes, love hurts, love is about giving and giving till nothing else is left. To all married couples, I say: never give up on your love for your spouse even when it becomes painful. Love is not all about sweetness, love is a sacrifice.
Let us pray: Lord Jesus, you are love itself, teach me to love you above all things and to love everyone as myself. Amen.
Bible Study: Deuteronomy 6:2-6, Psalm 17:2-4,47,51 Hebrews 7:23-28 and Mark 12:28-34).