Msgr. Joseph A. Pellegrino
Thirty First Sunday in Ordinary Time: It’s Not That Difficult
What was with this scribe? Was he serious when he asked Jesus what was the first of all the commandments? Did he want to know the answer, or was he trying to make Jesus look bad in front everybody? There were 613 laws that Moses gave in the Torah, the first five books of the Bible. They were treated with such importance that there were a whole series of laws written to protect these 613. For example, the law, Keep Holy the Sabbath, was protected by detailed laws on what was and wasn’t viewed as work during the Sabbath. These laws were called the Halaka. But then the Jewish scholars thought that there should be a greater weight given to the Halaka. More laws were created on how to keep the Halaka. These laws were the Mishna and Tosepta. The Halaka would say that a person could not carry water from a well if that well was not next to the house. That would be work. The Mishna and Tosepta would define how many steps a person could or couldn’t take with a bucket of water. This might seem peculiar to us, but really the heart of all this was how sacred those 613 laws were and how seriously the Hebrews followed them. But then the Jewish scholars asked another question, “Which of these 613 was the most important?” For centuries the learned scholars debated this question.
And now, standing before one of these scholars, one of the scribes, there is this Jesus, a nobody from Galilee with no formal education, thinking that he could teach the people. The educated scribe could certainly make Jesus look bad, or so he thought. He was prodded by his companions to go for the rhetorical kill. He probably had an attack ready to meet whatever Jesus said. He would use his intelligence and
sarcasm to make Jesus look silly. We have all been in classes and in meetings with people like him, proud of their own intellectual skills and just looking for an opportunity to make someone else look bad.
But then Jesus ruined the scribe’s game. Instead of arguing over the fine points of this or that law, he merely quoted two verses from the Torah, one from the Book of Deuteronomy and one from the Book of Leviticus. From Deuteronomy the Lord took, “You shall love the Lord your God with your whole heart, whole mind and whole strength, and your whole soul.” And from Leviticus he quoted, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” How could the scribe mock that?
We get the sense that this intellectual adversary stopped and struggled between his loyalty to those who put him up to challenging Jesus and this insight into righteousness. The scribe reached the moment of truth, turned from his party bosses, turned from the establishment, and said, “You are right in saying that the love of God and love of neighbor are more important than all the burnt offering and sacrifices one could make.” The scribe then heard what his heart was yearning to hear. Jesus said to him, “You are not far from the Kingdom of Heaven.”
There are many times that people confront me, and perhaps you, regarding this or that aspect of our faith. “So, what do you think about this, Father? Or what do you think about that?” You probably have had people challenging you about your Catholicism. They ask, “How come you worship Mary? Why don’t you ever read the Bible?” Well, we don’t worship Mary, and we do read the Bible, but many times these people are not looking for a serious answer, just an opportunity to discredit us. If instead of getting into a debate, we give them the answer that Jesus gave, well, that becomes a game changer. So we say, “We don’t worship Mary, and we do read the Bible, but, you know what, all that matters is the law of Love. Love God and love others. Everything else flows from that.” And then, perhaps and with the grace of God, the intellectually arrogant, legends in their own minds, will be led to appreciate the simple wisdom of Catholicism.
St. Augustine said “Love God and do as you will for the soul trained in loving God will do nothing to offend the One who is Beloved.”
We are often overwhelmed by the number of laws we are told to follow. There are federal laws, and state laws and county laws. There are rules in families and in schools and in places of work. Even neighborhood associations have a host of laws and plenty of people who drive around looking for violators. Added to all these are the Church laws. In the Church the main body of law is the Code of Canon Law. Every aspect of church administration, sacrament administration, rules for daily life is carried in 1,752 canons or laws. There are divine laws, natural laws, and civil laws. Certainly we can join the scribe and asking, "Bottom line it for us, Lord. What is it that God really wants us to do to please him?" And Jesus says, “It’s not so difficult, “Love God; Love Others.”
People often have questions. You have questions. Is this right? Is that right? Everyone is taking this or that stuff, everyone is doing this or that. Why is it wrong? Just apply the law of Love. Is the love of God and the love of others seen in our actions? Or is our own selfishness, our desire to take care of number one, even if that means using others, the real reason we want to do this or that? For example, sometimes a person says, “I really love you,” but means, “I’m not going to give you my life, I just want to have sex with you.”
We certainly live in confusing times. There often appear to be more questions than answers. We are confronted with questions which weren’t even considered fifty years ago: What is marriage? What is human life? Does the separation of Church and State give the government the right to limit religious freedom? How can we discern what is right and what is wrong? How do we discern on which side of each argument we Catholics belong?
Just apply the law of Love. Love God and Love neighbor. When we do this, life become far lest complicated. Anything that does not reflect the love of God and neighbor is just a leap into a void.
The mystic Julien of Norwich sensed this back in her time, the late Middle Ages. She said that we simply need to conform to Christ and all will be well.
Today’s Gospel concludes by saying that after the people heard what Jesus said to the scribe, no one dared ask him any more questions. All answers to the complications of life are found here: We are to love God with our whole heart, mind and soul and love all those he created in his image and likeness as we love that image within ourselves.