Homily November 4, 2018

Homily for the XXIV Sunday After Pentecost B – November 4, 2018

Ruth 1: 1- 18

Hebrews 9: 11-14

Mark 12: 28-34

The Gospel passages that we are going to hear in this month of November all belong to the very last portion of the life of Jesus. He has entered Jerusalem in triumph, on a donkey, which is how the prophet Zacharia in the old times presented the peaceful king of Israel, and it was quite a provocation. Next, in the Gospel of Mark, Jesus teaches within the city, sometimes in the Temple itself, and is confronted by representatives of all the groups that make up the religious and political establishment: priests serving in the Temple, people belonging to the court of king Herod, as well as scribes, that is, theologians and Bible experts. All come to Jesus to ask difficult questions and find some fault in his answers, so that they can destroy him (Mk. 11:18 et passim). Finally, we get to the passage we read today, in which a scribe comes to Jesus with an honest question. Jesus in the end praises him, but that is not enough to turn around the atmosphere of impending disaster. Jesus opposes directly the whole religious and political system that Jerusalem represents. He and his disciples enter the city as a subversive force, and the powers-that-be are very aware of it.

Jesus was not about overthrowing the Jewish religion. He was about practicing it to a deep level. Especially in the final phase of his life, we see him pulled into theological controversies, but cleary he is not interested in them. What he cares about is the real and deep meaning of his ancestral religion. His answer to the scribe is completely made of quotations from the Torah, the core books of the Bible. In it, Jesus leaves aside the secondary aspects of his own Jewish faith and brings his dialogue partner, and us with him, to its very centre. It's like being dropped into a pool of fresh water. But do we know how to swim? According to Jesus, the commandment through which all the other commandments receive their meaning is this: loving God with undivided attention. But what does this means? For the faithful Jew, loving God was first and foremost a response to God's love. When you do not perceive yourself as a “self-made man”, but rather you perceive yourself as being fashioned and sustained in life by some Force much larger than yourself, gratitude rises spontaneously from your heart, awe and wonder suffuse your thinking. This is perhaps an approximation of what it means loving God with all your soul/heart and with all your mind. But there is also an element of effort. “With all your strenght”, Jesus says. That is, with perfect intention and with an intensity matching (to the extent that it is possible) the intensity and passion of God's love for the people of Israel.

But Jesus both helps and complicates the issue of what it means to love God with the second half of his answer. “Love your neighbor as yourself”, he says, is very similar to loving God. This is an unexpected turn of the conversation, and has given Christians much to meditate and to act on for centuries. The commandment “Love your neighbour as yourself” is from the book of Leviticus (19:18), where love for neigbhor “is defined in terms of non-exploitation”. Active love is about helping people in need, just as it is about preventing the possibility that people will end up in a condition of need. Leviticus “prohibits the oppression and exploitation of the weak and the poor” through very specific laws. For example, after you have reaped the harvest of your land, you should leave something for the sojourner to glean (Lev. 19: 9-10); you shall not keep with you the wages of a hired servant until the morning, but pay him promptly (Lev. 19:13); you shall not be partial to the poor in judgment (Lev. 19: 15).1 It is this very concrete love that Jesus calls similar to the love of God. And, as people were expected to love themselves quite strongly – the modern illness of self-hate had not yet penetrated the culture – saying “love your neighbour as yourself” meant suggesting a quite fierce kind of love for people you didn't even know.

I have been trying to say something about what “love” meant in the original context of our readings. Still, today, I am not sure that we really know what love is about. The word “love” has been so abused, sentimentalized, manipulated, that is has become self-serving. Are we able to start over and learn what it means? The story of Ruth, which we heard in the first reading, presents a quite intense form of love, the love of Ruth for Naomi and for her people and ancestral traditions. But what is amazing is that Ruth is a Moabite. She belongs to the traditional arch-enemies of Israel, and it is from her that the readers of the book bearing her name learn, or should learn, a very concrete lesson about love. Not a theory of love, but its practice. Are we able, as Christians, to stop thinking that we can teach others what love is, and start learning from others what it is? When Jesus preached about love in Jerusalem he was confronting the religious and political institutions of his time. The scribe who praises Jesus, and who is in turn praised by him, does not become a disciple. Jesus calls him “intelligent” or “thoughtful” with a word that appears only here in the whole New Testament (nounechos). It's a word that implies a very good intellectual grasping of the subject matter. Yet he does not follow Jesus. He understands but he cannot act. That is what institutional religion can do to you. Even to the best people. That is why we need to focus and be very clear about our priorities. Christianity as an institution will crumble much sooner than we think. Learning and re-learning what it means to love God and neigbhor is critical. Let us not assume that we already know. Let us work at it together. Amen.

1Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man, 318.