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Thirty-first Sunday In Ordinary Time, Year B

By Father Donald Dilger
Father Donald Dilger


Deuteronomy 6:2-6; Psalm 18:2-3, 3-4, 47, 51; Hebrews 7:23-28; MARK 12:28b-34 

The first reading is part of a discourse attributed to Moses by the authors of the Book of Deuteronomy. The discourse begins as follows, “Moses called the whole of Israel together and said to them….” First item: a command to listen to the laws and customs Moses was about to solemnly proclaim as terms or stipulations of the covenant (treaty) that the Lord made with the Israelites at Mt. Horeb (an alternate name for Mt. Sinai).  The 10 commandments, some of them with lengthy commentary, are next. Then Moses recollects the violent phenomena that heralded the giving of the commandments and sealing of the Sinai Covenant. The first reading of this day begins at this point in Moses’ discourse. After a brief introduction encouraging the Israelites to do the stipulations (commandments) of the covenant, Moses gets to the heart of the matter , which is also the heart of Jewish faith to this day. 

That heart is called the Shema, a Hebrew imperative form meaning “Hear!” “Listen!” To name a document or statement or book by its first Hebrew word is a biblical custom seen also in the na-ming of books of the Old Testament.  Papal encyclicals follow that custom to this day. The Shema is so fundamental to Jewish faith that it deserves to be repeated here and memorized as also fundamental to Christian faith. The Lectionary’s quaint translation cries out for a better one, as follows, “Hear, O Israel. The Lord our God is one Lord. And you shall love the Lord your God with your whole heart, and with your whole soul, and with all your might.” In the context of the time of Deuteronomy it proclaims the Lord God of Israel as the unique and only Lord in contrast to the gods (fake gods?) worshipped by the nations surrounding Israel. The Shema then proclaims the commandment to make the Lord God the center of our being, the One to whom our every emotion and purpose is to be directed. The Shema was chosen as our first reading today because Jesus quotes it in the gospel of today’s liturgy.                 

The Responsorial Psalm (18) continues the Shema’s theme of love of God. The Psalmist heaps titles of praise upon the Lord, “my strength, my rock, my fortress, my rock of refuge, my horn of salvation, my savior.” What is a “horn of salvation?” Animals use their horns to secure domi-nance. Therefore animal horns became symbols of power and strength. The Lord as horn of sal-vation is therefore a synonym for the Lord’s strength or power in granting us salvation. The peo-ple’s response emphasizes love of God, “I love you, Lord, my strength.” Although Psalm 18 is a psalm of 50 verses, the Lectionary gives us only a few verses from the beginning and a few from the end of the psalm.  The closing verses sound a military theme common to many Psalms, “You who gave victory to your king, and showed great kindness to your anointed one.” 

The second reading is from the Letter to the Hebrews. In last Sunday’s second reading, the auth-or encouraged the receivers of his letter to turn to their high priest, Jesus Christ, for perseverance in their Christian faith. Then he spent time and energy comparing the priesthood of Melchizedek to the priesthood of Christ. He notes how numerous were the priests of the Old Covenant, but their priesthood ended with death. The priesthood of Christ did not end with his death because he lives forever. What is his forever job description?  “…to intercede for all who come to God through him.”  Nor does Christ have to offer his sacrifice over and over. He offered a perfect and final sacrifice once and for all, a sacrifice in which he himself was the unblemished victim.  The old high priests were men of weakness, but Jesus is the Son “who is made perfect forever.”

In last Sunday’s gospel Jesus and his disciples were still en route to Jerusalem to celebrate Passover. They had journeyed from Galilee in the north, where they crossed the Jordan River to the east bank. They traveled due south on the east bank to a crossing opposite Jericho. They crossed to the west bank and passed through Jericho, then on to Jerusalem. After Jesus’ triumph-al entry into Jerusalem, he and the disciples spent nights on the eastern slope of Mt. Olivet. This was a security measure. Jesus had made enemies due to what they considered his slack attitude toward Sabbath rest, his attack on the temple – the base of high priestly power and wealth – and the claim by some that he was the Messiah who would set up a new Kingdom of David in Jerusalem. The high priestly families were opposed to a rebellion against Roman occupation. Jesus engages in a series of debates with groups attempting to trap him into statements enabling them to have him removed from the scene. 

A well-disposed scribe (Torah scholar) wanted to get an opinion from Jesus about a debated question – which of the 613 laws of the Torah is the most important? Which law sums up all of them? Jesus quotes the Shema, explained above in comments on the first reading. But he adds another commandment to the Shema, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” The scribe agrees. He expands on the command about love of neighbor. He calls it a commandment that is greater than all sacrifices offered in the temple. Going too far? No, Jesus compliments him on his answer. What is Mark’s catechetical intention? When Mark composed his gospel about 70 A.D., the temple and its sacrificial system were ending. With the demise of this ancient form of worship, what replaces it? Love of God above all, but love of neighbor as part of love of God. About a decade before Mark wrote his gospel, St. Paul commented on the command to love one’s neighbor as oneself, and said, “Love does no wrong to a neighbor. Therefore love is the perfect-ion of the Torah.” Is it too difficult to love one’s neighbor as oneself? Words of Jesus, “Do not do to others what you do not want done to yourself.  This sums up the Torah and the Prophets.”