Theme: Courage to listen
Before the transcendent God who has chosen to be one with his people, we can have no other response than a holy, single-minded and wholehearted love. As believers we know that our love for God is real if it is demonstrated by expressions of generous love for all others. Such love finds its inspiration in the absolute, complete and unreserved gift of Jesus on the cross.
Theme: Deuteronomy 6:2-6
Sh’ma Yisrael/Hear, 0 Israel is that prayer recited in the morning and in the evening by faithful Jews everywhere as a declaration of faith. The Sh’ma/Hear has for centuries been a profound expression of faith and a symbol of moral righteousness embodying religious tenets of Judaism. Sh’ma Yisrael declares the absolute monotheism of Yahweh by stating that “Yahweh our God is the one” Deuteronomy 4:6; It asserts the absolute personal and sustained involvement of God among his people, “Yahweh has brought you into the land which he promised to your fathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob ... take care not to forget” Deuteronomy 6:10-13; It calls for absolute quality of love from every Israelite “You shall love Yahweh your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength” Deuteronomy 6:4.
Sh’ma was composed and attributed to Moses to maintain the memory of truth as Israel was settling in the land she believed had been promised to her as they reached the steppes of Moab before the entrance into Canaan. Here, God’s promise to provide food, water, bread and meat would continue in Canaan. Through Sh’ma, the covenant and its obligations had been set as. God would fulfill the promise of acquiring them permanent land flowing with milk and honey, a forecast of the eternal kingdom. Yahweh stands alone and supreme as the only God who deserves any outward expression faith and radical commitment. Amidst much destruction; Israel teaches how to believe, worship and love only one God alone instead of worshiping shadows.
Here we get a comparison of Christ’s perfect priesthood to the imperfect priesthood exercised by the priests of the old covenant thus liking Jesus to the ancient Melchisedek an ethereal figure of the Pentateuch’s patriarchal sagas cf. Genesis 14:17-20. Melchisedek literally meaning my king is righteousness was said to have met Abraham after his squabble 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/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 ascribed to the Hellenistic notion that change and multiplicity were marks of imperfection, Melchisedek, the ideal king and eternal priest, provided an suitable type 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. Rather, and in line with the belief about the mysterious paragon of priestliness, Jesus was foreordained by the will of the eternal God according to the order of Melchisedek, even far superior to any priests of the old covenant since the old ones were mortal.
In a clear reference to the song of the suffering servant cf. Isaiah 53:10, the Hebrews described Jesus’ death as the offering of himself for sin. This once for all sacrifice was absolutely sufficient as it put an end forever to the necessity/validity of animal offerings with which the priests of the old covenant had busied themselves. Seemingly the Jewish Christians who were among the recipients of the letter; still found their traditions appealing. Having grown up immersed in a cult that expressed its thanks, sorrow, petitions and praise through the help of animal sacrifices; they found it difficult to surrender to the new and great non-repeatable sacrifice of Jesus. Such an attitude is not uncommon even today. All nostalgia to ritual attachment among us is equally challenged by Hebrews that we vanquish our treasured traditions and accept radically the new way of approaching God made available through the saving act of Jesus Christ.
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, motives and authority. Today’s dialogue narrates one of such an encounter though it turns out to be amicable. Incidentally such interrogation was popular among rabbis meant to test the level of orthodoxy on matters of hokmah/wisdom/law such as “are taxes lawful?” Mark 12:13-17; on boruth/ridicule like “resurrection of the dead” Mark 12:18-27; on dereVeres/living good life “Love God, love neighbor” Mark 12:28-34; on haggadah/exegesis on a non-legal teaching interpretation cf. Mark 12:35-37. Today the question is “which is the first of all the commandments?” Mark 12:28 was tricky.
According to the teaching of Rabbi Sammlai, 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. Prophet Isaiah further reduced the 11 to 6 cf. Isaiah 33:15 and Micah whittled the 6 to 3 in the profoundly simple statement that embodies all of prophetic truth: “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. Deutero-Isaiah further shortened Micah’s 3 commands to 2, “Keep justice and do righteousness” Isaiah 56:1. Habakkuk ended contracting 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 the Sh’ma Yisrael cf. Deuteronomy 6:4, Jesus underscored the importance of the familiar prayer. Devout Jews wore it in the phylacteries/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 prefacing morning and evening prayers. There could have been no quarrel with Jesus’ choice of the Sh’ma as the greatest of all laws since all faithful Jews would have agreed with it. Yet as was his custom, Jesus went further than the ordinary by inviting the scribe to expand this horizon and understand that the love of one’s neighbor and oneself was as worthy an obligation as the love of God. The unique quality of Jesus’ statement is the fact that he took one law considered to be heavy/great law cf. Deuteronomy 6:4 and another one considered to be a light/ lesser law cf. Leviticus 19:18 and made them equal and interdependent.
Novelty was that, Jesus expanded the parochial and nationalistic Israelite concept of neighbor to include, not just fellow Hebrews as in Leviticus 19:18 but all peoples cf. Luke 10:29-37. In the best tradition of the prophets, the scribe replied that the teaching of Jesus’ dual law was far superior to the ritual of the sacrificial cult cf. Hosea 6:6; Amos 5:21. He had understood Jesus’ summons to a love that went beyond the limitations of legalism and the security of a well performed but external ritual. Because of that, Jesus assured him that he was not far from his desire. We the Christians of today who carry a similar perception are called by this gospel to close the gap and avoid being legalistic by being embracive so as not to be far from the kingdom of God.
The three keys to keep in mind for achieving this grater good is that we have to avoid mediocrity opting for holistic commitment of faith. In the midst of ritual attachments that tend to compromise faith, we are invited to look to Jesus the high priest of our race who is in the order of Melchisedek. When we have love for God and neighbor, then our feet are already within the kingdom of God.