Thirty-first Sunday in Ordinary Time – Year B

Rev. Francis J. Horn O.S.A.
St. Thomas of Villanova Monastery
Villanova, Pennsylvania

Dt 6:2-6
Ps 18:2-3, 3-4, 47, 51
Heb 7:23-28
Mk 12:28b-34

People often wonder: What does it mean to be a good Catholic? There are many answers that come back to us: go to Mass every Sunday; obey the teachings of the Church; be concerned about the poor and about injustice in the world; vote pro-life; be open to the gifts of the Holy Spirit. All this in an age where Catholics can be drowned by a torrent of sound-bites from the pope and pastoral letters from bishops, as well as confusing and often erroneous interpretations of all of them in the secular media.

Today’s gospel finds Jesus in a similar situation. A scribe – a specialist in the Jewish law – asks Jesus: “Which is the first of all the commandments?” For Jews at that time, God’s love for the people was revealed in the covenant God made with them through Moses on Mt. Sinai. Their response to this love was to obey “all God’s statutes and ordinances,” which by Jesus’ time had been codified beyond the Ten Commandments to 613 prohibitions or commands found in the Torah (or first 5 books of the Bible). And so, the question of the scribe is genuine: which is the first (or most important) commandment?

Jesus responds by quoting from the same Torah that the scribe had so ardently studied. He cites the first verses of what is called the Shema, a prayer said by devout Jews every day (and which we have in our first reading today): “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God is Lord alone. You

shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.” The motivation for this total love of God is gratitude for all that God has done for them.

Then, citing another text from the Torah, Jesus says that the second most important commandment is: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Throughout the ages there have been many interpretations of what this means, but basically it comes down to: “Love others as if they were yourself” or “as if you were in the same situation as your neighbor.” It’s basically a variation of the Golden Rule: “Do unto others what you would have them do to you.”

Today Jesus challenges a one-dimensional understanding of love that allows religious people to express devotion to God, while ignoring the problems of the real people around them every day. For Jesus, true love has three essential components: the love of God; the love of neighbor; and the love of oneself. The commandment to love your neighbor as yourself presumes that you first love yourself as a person created in the image and likeness of God. That you see your dignity and beauty as a unique part of what God has created.

Pope Francis, speaking on this same topic, has said, “In the middle of the thicket of rules and regulations, Jesus opens a gap that allows you to see two faces: the face of the Father and the face of our brothers and sisters. He doesn’t deliver us two formulas or two precepts, but two faces, indeed one face, the face of God reflected in many faces of others, because in the face of each brother and sister, especially in the smallest, the most fragile and the most helpless, the same image of God is present.”

Our world needs this neighborly reminder more today than ever. We don’t have to look further than the ongoing scourges of racism, prejudice, violence, and war that are so much a part of our world.

Both the love of God and the love of our neighbor are not expressed only in prayer and in words; they must become a part of our daily lives. The gospels portray a Jesus whose love for God and neighbor was translated into action: by offering his Father’s mercy, by healing touches, by confronting the power of evil, and by giving of himself, even to the point of death.

Such love is difficult and challenging. Paradoxically, what it means to be a good Catholic today can be expressed in a few words and in a profoundly simple teaching: Love God with all that we are, and love our neighbor as ourselves. When we live this teaching, we are, like the scribe in the gospel, “not far from the Kingdom of God.”