ordinary time The Sánchez Archives

Year B

Patricia Datchuck Sánchez

Greatness Calls

Deuteronomy 6:2-6
Hebrews 7:23-28
Mark 12:28-34

Greatness calls unto greatness. In the face of the transcendent God who is one and has chosen to be one with his people, we can have no other response than a holy, single-minded and wholehearted love (Deuteronomy). Believers know that their professed love of God is real and true if it is matched by expressions of magnanimous love for all others (Mark). Such love finds its precedent and inspiration in the absolute, complete and unreserved gift of Jesus on the cross (Hebrews).

Deuteronomy 6:2-6.

Prayed in the morning and in the evening by faithful Jews everywhere, the prayer that has come to be called the Sh’ma Yisrael (Hear, 0 Israel) or simply the Sh’nuz (Hear’) has for centuries been both a profoundly theological expression of faith and an imperative of moral rectitude. Called by some scholars a type of credal formula, the Sh’ma (in its given context) embodies the religious tenets of Judaism in a few brief verses, viz., (1) the absolute monotheism of Yahweh (“Yahweh our God is the one Yahweh.” Deuteronomy 4:6); (2) the absolute personal and sustained involvement of the one God with his people, Israel(“When Yahweh has brought you into the land which he promised to your fathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob ... take care you do not forget Yahweh who brought you out of the land of Egypt.” Deuteronomy 6:10-13); (3) and the absolute quality of the response owed to such a reality (“You shall love Yahweh your God with all your heart, with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength” Deuteronomy 6:4).

Composed at a time when Israel was already settled in the land she believed had been promised to her, Deuteronomy is a highly theological book, reflective of a society that had already experienced life on both sides of the covenantal law. A homiletic expansion of the law as an effort to adapt the law to changing needs and times, Deuteronomy was instrumental in the sweeping religious reform of Josiah in the seventh century B.C.E. Purported to be the testament of Moses delivered, to Israel on the steppes of Moab before the entrance into Canaan, the work is a piece of successful summation, gathering the best and the deepest of Israel’s Pentateuchal traditions. Israel learned through the prophets and especially through the Deuteronomist that Yahweh, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God who called them out of the land of Egypt, who was with them in the desert, who provided food and water, bread and meat, was also with them in Canaan. Moreover, the people of Israel gradually learned that Yahweh their God was not merely capable of exercising his power in Canaan but was omnipotent above all gods. Indeed, Israel progressively discovered through revelation that Yahweh was the one God and that there were no other gods. Throughout the process of sedentarization and throughout the gradual growth into radical monotheism, the Deuteronomic theologians were both auxiliary to and representative of their people’s profoundest realizations. Nowhere is the inspiration more clear and the theological insight more sublime than in the Sh’ma Yisrael at the heart of today’s first reading.

In the first portion of the pericope (vv. 2-3), the covenant and its obligations were set forth by the Deuteronomic author as stipulations necessary for the fulfillment of God’s promise, viz., the acquisition and permanent possession of the land flowing with milk and honey. Centuries later, in New Testament times, these same obligations would be named as partial requirements for entrance into the eternal kingdom made present in the person and message of Jesus. In today’s gospel, the further demands made by Jesus will be paired with those made by the Deuteronomic theologian.

In the second portion of today’s first reading which consists of the Sh’ma, Yahweh the Lord is designated as the one God. At once a polemic against Canaan’s Baalism and the extravagant pantheon of deities other nations entertained, the statement underscored in radical terms the uniqueness of Israel’s God. Not merely superior to other deities, Yahweh stood alone and supreme as the only God. In the face of that awareness and as an outward expression of her faith, Israel was called to a radical and total commitment of all its energies-political, spiritual, psychological and theological.

Hebrews 7:23-28.

A continuation of the author’s comparison of Christ’s perfect priesthood to the imperfect priesthood exercised by the priests of the old covenant today’s second reading is from a longer section of Hebrews (7:11-28) that likened Jesus to the ancient Melchisedek. An ethereal figure of the Pentateuch’s patriarchal sagas (Genesis 14), Melchisedek (literally: “My king is righteousness”) was said to have met Abraham after his altercation with the four kings and to have given him bread, wine and his blessing. In return, Melchisedek received from Abraham a tenth of his booty, the proper portion or tithe due a priest for services rendered. Because Melchisedek’s birth, death, origins and ancestry remained shrouded in mystery, rabbinic exegetes concluded he was eternal--basing themselves on the principle that what is not mentioned in the Torah does not exist.

Since the Hebrews’ author ascribed to the Hellenistic notion that change and multiplicity were marks of imperfection, Melchisedek, the ideal king and eternal priest, provided an apt type or figure for describing Jesus as the eternal, kingly and unequalled priest above all priests. Like Melchisedek, Jesus was not born to his priesthood through family or tribal ties. Nor was he appointed by human persons (e.g., as was Zadok). Rather, and in line with the belief about the mysterious paragon of priestliness, Jesus was ordained for his priesthood by the foreordained will of the eternal God. For this reason, Jesus’ priesthood, “in the manner of Melchisedek” or “according to the order of Melchisedek,” was so far superior to that of the priests of the old covenant as to render them obsolete.

In a clear reference to the fourth of Deutero-Isaiah’s songs of the suffering servant (v. 27: Isaiah 53:10), the Hebrews’ author described Jesus’ death as the offering of himself for sin. This “once for all” (ephapax) sacrifice was absolutely sufficient and put an end forever to the necessity or validity of animal offerings with which the priests of the old covenant had busied themselves. Perhaps the Jewish Christians who were among the recipients of the letter still found their traditions appealing. Having grown up immersed in a cult which expressed its thanks, sorrow, petitions and praise with the help of animal, grain and other sacrifices, they may have found it difficult to surrender these external acts to the one, great non-repeatable sacrifice of Jesus.

Such an attitude is not uncommon even today. All nostalgia, whether of the first or the 20th century, is challenged by the Hebrews’ author to acknowledge the vanquisher of treasured traditions and to accept the radically new way of approaching God made available to all in the saving act of Jesus Christ.

Mark 12:28-34. For one who came to proclaim the kingdom of peace and justice, Jesus’ life was fraught with controversy and conflict. Throughout his public ministry the man from Nazareth was set upon by the Pharisees, the Sadducees, the scribes, the chief priests and Herodians who, each in their turn, questioned his methods, his motives and his authority. Today’s gospel relates the meeting of Jesus with one of the scribes and stands out as quite an amicable encounter amid a series of stories of more fiery controversies. As one of the last four confrontations in Jesus’ public life, the scribe episode forms a group with the other three controversies and as such may represent an outline for interrogation popular among rabbis.

For example, a rabbi’s opinion was often tested according to the following pattern: (1) hokmah, “wisdom” or a point of law (Mark 12:13-17: “Are taxes lawful?”); (2) boruth, “ridicule,” a question asked in an effort to mock or ridicule a belief held by the one being interrogated (Mark 12:18-27: “resurrection of the dead”); (3) dereVeres, a query as to the fundamental principles for living a good life (Mark 12:28-34: “Love God, love neighbor”); (4) haggadah, a non-legal teaching, e.g., a conflict about the meaning of certain scripture texts (Mark 12:35-37: an exegetical question on Psalm 110).

Whether it was Mark or his redactor who arranged the controversies according to this pattern cannot be known for certain. However, there is no doubt that controversy was an inevitable and constant companion for Jesus and should be expected by his would-be disciples.

Not an unusual question, the scribe’s “Which is the first of all the commandments?” was often posed to rabbis in an effort to find one main law upon which the others could hang and from which all others could be derived. Countless efforts had been made by each generation of rabbis and scribes to distill the many prescriptions of the law into a powerful and comprehensive concentrate.

According to W. Barclay, Sammlai had taught that Moses received the 613 precepts on Sinai--365 according to the days of the solar year and 248 according to the generations of men. David was credited with reducing the 613 to 11 in Psalm 15. Isaiah, the eighth century B.C.E. prophet, further reduced the 11 to six (Isaiah 33:15) and Micah whittled the six to three in the profoundly simple statement that embodies all of prophetic truth as well: “What does the Lord require of you--only this: to do justice, to love tenderly and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8). In the sixth century B.C.E., Deutero-Isaiah shortened Micah’s three commands to two, “Keep justice and do righteousness” (Isaiah 56: 1), while Habakkuk believed he had contracted all the given laws into one, “The righteous shall live by faith” (Habakkuk 2:4).

Although the scribe asked Jesus his opinion as to which law was first of all, Jesus responded with a pair of laws that he united and set on a par with one another. By quoting to the scribe the Sh’ma Yisrael (Deuteronomy 6:4), Jesus underscored the importance of the familiar prayer. Devout Jews wore this prayer in the phylacteries or prayer boxes affixed to their wrists and foreheads. The Sh’ma was contained in the mezuzah mounted on the door frame of every good Jewish home and this prayer prefaced morning and evening prayers. There could have been no quarrel with Jesus’ choice of the Sh’ma as the greatest of all laws. All faithful Jews would have agreed to the value and necessity of wholehearted and unreserved love of the one God. Yet Jesus, as was his custom, went further than the ordinary, further than what was expected. He invited his hearers to expand their horizons and hearts to understand that the love of one’s neighbor a oneself was as worthy an obligation as the love of God. Not the first to pair the two commandments (Deuteronomy 6:4 and Leviticus 19:18), Jesus’ recommendation can be found in some of the intertestamental literature of about 100 B.C.E. For example, in the Testament of Isachar we find, “Love the Lord and love your neighbor” (5:2). So too in the Testament of Dan (5:3) we read, “Love the Lord through all your life and one another with a true heart.” Perhaps the unique quality of Jesus’ statement is the fact that he took one law considered to be a “heavy” or great law (Deuteronomy 6:4 and another law considered to be a “light” or lesser law (Leviticus 19:18) and made them equal and interdependent. Moreover, Jesus expanded the parochial and nationalistic Israelite concept of “neighbor” to include, not just fellow countrymen (as in Leviticus 19:18) but all peoples (as in Luke 10:29-37).

In the best tradition of the prophets, the scribe replied that the keeping of Jesus’ dual law was far superior to the ritual of the sacrificial cult (Hosea 6:6; Amos 5:21ff.; I Samuel 15:22). He had understood Jesus’ summons to a love that went beyond the limitations of legalism and beyond the security of a well performed but external ritual. Because of that insight, Jesus assured him he was not far at all from the mind and heart and will of the one God made manifest in the person of Jesus. By his perception and acceptance of Jesus words the scribe had drawn near to the eternal kingdom as it had begun to erupt upon the earth in the mission of Jesus. Modern believers with similar insight and perceptions are called by today’s gospel to close the gap and be “not far” but even one with the kingdom or reign of God as revealed in Jesus Christ.

1. Mediocrity has no place in the commitment of faith that summons the whole heart, the whole person (Deuteronomy).

2. Ministers by their person and their work make God nearer and the path to goodness clearer for their charges (Hebrews).

3. A tithe of even 10 percent of all one’s goods is no substitute for the 100 percent gift of self in love of God and neighbor (Mark).

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Illustration prepared by Julie Lonneman.

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