Thirty-First Sunday of Ordinary Time at Mississippi Abbey

[Scripture Readings: Deut 6:2-6; Heb 7:23-28; Mk 12:28-34 ]

In the Hebrew Scriptures, the Book of Deuteronomy which we read this morning, God shows that he is not above offering a little bribery to win the love of his people. He offers them a land flowing with milk and honey. Well for me, that just doesn't cut it. Now if he offered beer and pizza that would catch my attention. But is that really important? A few years ago a high school teacher in Manhattan asked her students to write about poverty. A girl from a wealthy family began her story in all sincerity like this: “Once there was a poor little girl. Her father was poor, her mother was poor, her chauffeur was poor, and her butler was poor. They were all very, very poor.” Really? She had no idea what true poverty was like. She had never experienced it. Unless, perhaps, her story could be understood about another kind of poverty, the kind that is described in the Book of Revelation: “You say, 'I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing.' But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked” (Rev. 3:17). Ignorance of what is most important in life is real poverty.

A scribe approaches Jesus to question him. He is a scholar of the Sacred Scriptures, a lover of God's Word who wants to find out whether or not this wandering teacher from Galilee really knew the Law. Was Jesus qualified to be called Master and Rabbi? Seeing that Jesus replied wisely to questions of the Pharisees and Sadducee, this lover of the Word of God asks Jesus, “Which commandment is the first of all?” What is most important in life? What must we do?

His question is of the greatest importance. The Sadducees would never ask the way to eternal life, because they did not believe in life after death. The rich man who feasted sumptuously every day and ignored a starving person at his gate, wrongly believed the purpose of life was to eat, drink and be merry. But he was really living in dire poverty, while Lazarus clothed in rags was truly rich. Devils do not ask the way to eternal life because they have lost it forever. They have no hope at all. The scribe speaks for us when he asks, “Which commandment is the first of all?”

It is like the question the jailer asked when an earthquake opened the prison cells of the apostles Paul and Silas: “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” It is the same question young disciples ask of elderly monks in the stories of the desert fathers, “How can I be saved?” It is the question St. Benedict sees his disciples asking in the prologue of his Rule for Monasteries: “Lord, who shall dwell in your tent, who shall rest on your holy mountain?”

The scribe knows the answer to this most important question, but he is testing the wisdom of Jesus, his worthiness to be called Teacher. And Jesus, who is the only one in the world absolutely worthy to be called the Master, replies with not one, but the two greatest commandments. Love of God and neighbor.

Hearing Jesus' reply, the scribe says to him, “You are right…”. He gives Jesus an “A” for his answer to this test. More importantly, the scribe shows that he is himself a good student, by repeating Jesus' answer word for word, including what he did not ask, the second commandment which is like the first, to love one's neighbor as oneself. And Jesus shows us the way. He loved us so much that he became our neighbor. St. Paul expresses it this way: “While we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. … God proves his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us” (Rom 5:6-8). Jesus drew near to restore our lost inheritance and to teach us what is most important in life.

It is the love of God that moves us to help others in their time of need. Like the poor woman who was walking home from shopping one day. She saw a man lying on the city sidewalk, while people walked around him with complete indifference. She quickly knelt down next to the prostrate man and asked, “Are you hurt? Can I help you?” The man looked up and said, “I'm from the gas company, I'm listening for a leak.” It was an honest mistake, but you know, she is not far from the kingdom of God, she is truly rich.