The scribe in today’s Gospel gets an unusually good press. Jesus compliments him, something quite rare in the Gospels. The scribe asks which is the first of all the commandments and Jesus recites the famous opening words of the Shema, the prayer recited by pious Jews each day.
In the accounts by Matthew and Luke the scribe, or lawyer as we would probably call him today, is portrayed as out to trick Jesus. Although Mark’s version of the story is placed in the middle of several other incidents in which various scribes and the Sadducees dispute with Jesus and try to trick him, this particular scribe is in complete contrast to the others.
Perhaps this is so because Mark is trying to highlight the importance of the Great Commandment to love God and one’s neighbour. The compliment paid by Jesus to the scribe, ‘you are very close to the Kingdom of God,’ is also highly exceptional and again highlights the importance of this incident to Mark’s readers.
On reading this text I found it quite striking that it is actually the scribe who said: ‘To love God and your neighbour is more important than any holocaust and sacrifice.’ At first, I thought it was Jesus who said those words but then looking at it carefully I saw that I was wrong and that it was indeed the scribe.
If you imagine the scene in the Temple where they were standing; all around them there would have been the preparations for the sacrifices going on there. They would have heard and smelled the animals and seen the smoke from the sacrificial fire wafting around.
So, for a scribe to point out that these holocausts are unimportant is a bit unusual to say the least. To most of his hearers the scribe’s remarks must have sounded like the worst sort of heresy. I looked it up in the commentaries but none of the authors I read seemed to find it quite so striking as I did. They point out that several prophets said pretty much the same thing.
Whether I’m the only one who finds this strange I don’t know and it certainly doesn’t matter. But the point needs to be made and with the benefit of hindsight we know that Jesus’ own sacrifice, which was not very far off, is the definitive sacrifice which would bring salvation to the whole world. And as such Christ’s sacrifice automatically renders the Temple sacrifices utterly redundant. This is underlined quite strongly in the extract from the Letter to the Hebrews, our second reading today.
The final words of Jesus to the scribe ‘you are very close to the Kingdom of God’ are obviously spoken with authority and in a believable way because, as it says, ‘after that no one dared to question him anymore.’
There is a lot to think about in this particular Gospel passage but perhaps the thing we should hang on to is the Great Commandment which tells us that our first duty is: ‘to love the Lord our God with all our heart, with all our soul, with all our mind and with all our strength.’
What an order! There is nothing left out, no part of us is exempt from loving God. It seems a practically impossible or, at the very least, an extremely daunting task. This is an obligation that cannot be filled by merely coming to mass on a Sunday or muttering a few prayers now and again. This is an obligation that will occupy all our time, every moment of the day and all our attention and all our energy. But if you think about it what we owe to God demands nothing less.
However, don’t think of this as something burdensome that we must do for God. Instead, think of what he has done for us. He gave us all our faculties; he gave us the gift of life itself; he forgives our sins; if he withdraws his attention from us for a moment we wouldn’t even continue to exist. And he gives us the greatest gift of all; he freely gives us the life of his only Son for our salvation.
The scribe was close to the Kingdom of God because he understood these things. He understood what was due to God; he understood that in the face of such love our whole lives belong to God. He understood that it is only in using our whole energy to live the way God wants us to live will bring us the greatest joy and fulfilment.
On a slightly different note, we have just celebrated the feast of All Souls and in this month of November we think particularly about our loved ones who have died. Throughout the world Catholics pray for the dead and visit the cemeteries and graves of their families and friends.
We pray for the dead to aid them on their journey to full union with God in heaven. This is not because we don’t think that they will get there without our prayers or because we doubt the love and mercy of God. We pray for them as an expression of our love and because we know that prayer is the most powerful force in the world. In prayer earth and heaven are united; in prayer the Kingdom of God is brought nearer to its culmination; in prayer we, ourselves, are transformed and become ever holier.
It is our firm belief that there is a very thin veil between earth and heaven; that our loved ones are very near to us. And heaven and earth are closest of all in the celebration of the Eucharist. For in the Eucharist we are united with Christ and receive his body and blood. Even though to outward eyes what we do at this altar might seem rather mundane, the belief at the very core of our faith is that on this altar heaven and earth actually meet.
And at this privileged meeting place with God we earnestly intercede for all the dead. We do so full of joy and in hope and eager anticipation that the promises of God will in due time be fulfilled. The Kingdom of God is indeed very close, closer than we can ever know. It was close for that scribe; it is close for us; and our prayer is that it is already a reality for our loved ones who have died.
May their souls and the souls of all the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace. Amen.
Father Alex McAllister SDS
Parish Priest of
St Thomas à Becket