49. ORDINARY 31st SUNDAY B
1st Reading = Deuteronomy 6: 2-6
Psalm = 18: 2-3, 3-4, 47, 51
2nd Reading = Hebrews 7: 23-28
Gospel = Mark 12: 28b-34
OPENING REMARKS - STORY:
One of the programs on EWTN Television that provides a strong faith witness is “The Journey Home,” where host Marcus Grodi interviews converts, reverts (Baptized Catholics who have returned after being away from practicing their faith), and people from all backgrounds, faith traditions and even atheists who tell their stories of what finally brought them (home) to the Catholic Church. An interview from a few months ago featured Dr. Holly Ordway, a former atheist, then an Episcopalian, and finally became Catholic – She had a fascinating story.
Ordway had a non-religious childhood, smattered with an occasional reference to Christianity but not enough to have much meaning. Where she did have any contact — such as the Christmas story and classic literature, she made no connection with the actual claims of Christianity. She quite happily accepted a naturalistic worldview with its relativistic implications and, although not hostile, had no interest at all in Christianity. But, she soon discovered that the literature she studied and loved suggested something deeper and more meaningful. She devoured fantasy literature and ended up doing her Ph.D. dissertation on Tolkien. Looking back, she reflected that “God’s grace was beginning to shine out of the works of C.S. Lewis and Tolkien, illuminating my Godless imagination with a Christian vision.”
Years later, the poetry of Gerald Manly Hopkins led her closer to the Christian faith. She said, “Hopkins offered a vision of the world that made sense even when life seemed arbitrary and confusing; his world had such things as justice and mercy even if one did not find them in one’s own experience. Hopkins’ world was integrated: it held pain, doubt, depression, and fear, but also joy and beauty and the sheer exultancy of being embodied. … Perhaps it was the integrity of his vision, his acknowledgment of both darkness and light, that made his words resonate with me.”
About three-quarters of the way through the fifty-five-minute interview, where Dr. Ordway recounted how she went from being an atheist to an Anglican and finally to the realization that the Catholic Church had the fullness of truth, and that is where she belonged, host Marcus Grodi asked, “So, Holly, at this point in your faith journey had you fallen in love with Jesus yet?” Preacher's Note: Repeat that line again slowly and let it sink in with your audience.
I can’t remember her response because Grodi’s question hit me so hard that it momentarily took my focus away from the program. I thought, what a brilliant question for everyone who professes Christianity as their faith of choice to ponder. I was convinced I had fallen in love with Jesus at some point in my faith journey. But it caused me to question if the spark of that love was still as brilliant as it was before. Have I taken Jesus for granted, or am I nurturing a prayer life and faith actions that would deepen that love? Have I fallen in love with Jesus? Have you fallen in love with Jesus?
Our readings for today provide insights for our deliberation.
The backstory for today’s first reading is essential, so we will look there first. In Deuteronomy 3: 23ff, Moses, the great hero of faith and instrument of Israel’s liberation from slavery in Egypt, expressed to the Lord his excitement about finally entering the land God had promised. But God had a different, albeit crushing, idea. God told Moses to go up the mountain and look to the west, the north, the south, and the east and look well at this promised land because, God said, “You will not get to see it. Instead, Joshua will lead the people there.”
Reflect on that scene for a moment. What a terrible blow it must have been to Moses’ ego that after 40 years of risking his life facing down the powerful Pharaoh and putting up with grumpy, grouchy, ungrateful, always rebellious, and complaining Israelites, his ‘reward’ of entering and enjoying the promised land is taken away by God.
Have you ever had your ego deflated? Has God ever imposed on you a sentence, an affliction, or denial of a favor that you thought you deserved? How did you handle the setback? How did Moses handle his setback? We see in today’s reading that despite the rejection, Moses continued to honor his commitment to God by gathering the remnant of those who would enter the land and giving them sage advice and explicit instruction. He held nothing back. He told them, “Fear the Lord and keep all the days of your life all his statutes and commandments - so you can continue to receive God’s promises and blessings, which will be for your benefit.” Moses acknowledges that the Lord is God alone and reiterates to the people God’s first and greatest commandment; “Therefore, you shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength. Take to heart these words which I enjoin on you today.” It was Moses’ love of the Lord that motivated his action of continued service, persisting through his disappointment. While fear and obedience to the Lord are essential, it is more excellent to love the Lord in response to the love He has shown for us. St. Augustine said, “Love God and do whatever you please.” And again, Augustine, with a feeling of regret, wrote, “Late have I loved you.”
Our response for Psalm 18 reads, “I love you, Lord, my strength,” It is a heartfelt declaration spoken by the Psalmist David on the day that God delivered him from the hand of all his enemies. This does not mean that David’s love of God was conditioned by his rescue from death. David had long before demonstrated his love by facing the giant Goliath – a blasphemer of God. His love for God caused immediate repentance and contrition toward God for his sin of adultery and murder perpetrated by his lust for Bathsheba. David’s love of God was unconditional, and his every act of obedience to the Lord solidified that love all the more. Today’s Psalm is a hymn of praise for worship of the God he adored and thanksgiving for God’s close personal attention to his life.
David understood the importance of petitioning God for deliverance from his enemies. From what enemies do we need to be delivered? First, our love of sin should yield to the love of God. Our pursuit of power, honor, wealth, and pleasure requires constant surrender to God’s power and Lordship over our lives. Personal pride and adulation should give way to praise, worship, and honor of God, who is all deserving of our repentance. The pursuit of wealth and the inordinate attachments that come with it: greed, divisiveness, abuse of others, and a stubborn will that ignores God’s command to give generously. What other ‘enemies’ as obstacles to loving God are you willing to surrender?
JESUS: OUR ALL:
The Book of Hebrews is addressed to stagnated Christians. Those who have grown bored with the
routine of their faith. Instead of being vibrant, it has become a matter of fulfilling customs and lacks the fire that gives vitality and direction to daily life. Although our expectation is for the Church to be there for us when we need it for critical transitional moments like birth, death, and marriage, it is possible that our life can be little affected by what we profess at each Eucharist.
Hebrews’ author reminds us that Jesus’ love, presence, and power are at the center of our lives. While we may stagnate in our faith, His sacrifice on the cross is a constant source of a new life for us—a way of invigorating us repeatedly. What had to be done for us, we are told, was done by Jesus. Therefore, we don’t need to go elsewhere to find a guru or new method or religious tradition to quicken our spirits and satisfy our thirst for meaning in our days. Instead, the author of Hebrews wants us to look with fresh eyes, mind, and heart at who we are, what our needs are, and how Christ, who shared our human state, can now raise us up to a renewal of our faith. He is our “high priest” whose sacrifice has and always will bring us life.
Today’s Gospel continues the parade of skeptics and naysayers who could not accept the Messianic authority Jesus claimed. At first, the chief priests, scribes, and Pharisees were baffled by Jesus’ words and deeds, and when they could not logically refute Him, they reasoned that killing Him would be the best solution. The latest round of challengers, appearing in Mark Chapter 12, are the Pharisees in an improbable alliance with the Herodians (the two had a fierce hatred for each other with opposite religious and political views – but found in Jesus a common ‘enemy’ they wanted to destroy). Their plan was to trap Jesus on the question of paying taxes to Caesar. It was a fool-proof plan (so they thought – actually, they turned out to be the fools). They asked Jesus if it was lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not. If Jesus told them not to pay taxes to Caesar, they would report him to the Roman government as a revolutionist, and Rome would do the deed of putting him to death. If Jesus, instead, advised them to pay the tax to Caesar, the Jews who thought it was immoral to do so would rise up in anger against him. They were totally befuddled, however, when Jesus answered, ‘Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God’” (Mark 12: 13-17).
Next, it was some Sadducees who challenged Him. They did not believe in the resurrection of the dead – that is why they were Sad-U-Cee. Sorry, I couldn’t resist that. Well, I would be Sad also if I thought this life was all there was, and there was no promise of eternity in Heaven for those who persevere to the end – wouldn’t you?
Okay, back to the Sadducees on the resurrection of the dead. So, when they also failed (Mark 12: 18-27), PREACHER’S NOTE – DON’T PRESUME YOUR AUDIENCE KNOWS THE DETAILS OF THE CONFRONTATION – SUMMARIZE IT FOR THEM. A Scribe, an expert in the law of Moses, questioned Jesus (in today’s Gospel) on which is the greatest commandment (out of some 650 they taught).
Jesus’ answer deliberately avoids the abstract and the theoretical – it is very personal. Have you noticed how proficient we can be in our performance of tasks and projects? How glibly we can pontificate high and noble opinions on the serious things of life and the pursuit of happiness? How agile we are in remaining detached or at arms-length with personal commitments that get a bit too uncomfortable? Jesus’ answer to the question on the greatest commandment is based on the incredibly unlikely offer made by God to His creation to enter into a relationship of mutual love. “The first is this: …you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength. The second is this: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Wow, it doesn’t get any clearer than that.
CLOSING COMMENTS AND QUESTIONS:
If the actions of the Jewish leaders with their Herodian counterparts were not so tragic in their schemes and evil devices, we could almost view them as humorous or at least foolishness. How could they have been so blind to miss the holiness, wisdom, and mercy of God in Jesus, who was in the flesh with them? They had God in their midst and totally turned a blind eye and a deaf ear to Him. Can we identify ourselves in some of these foolish antics where God’s word has been spoken, and we have rebelled against it? Or, where God’s love, demonstrated through the Sacraments and witnessed by the saints, missionaries, and ministers, and we are so overly cautious about getting too close?
The beauty of the Scriptures shows us a God who so desperately desires to make us partners with Him in a relationship of love. In this relationship, Christ gives himself fully and unconditionally to each of us. Are we willing to reciprocate and give ourselves fully to God? So, again, I ask you to ponder this question, “At what point in your Christian journey did you fall in love with Jesus?”
As we continue with this Liturgy, we pray for the grace to fall deeply in love with Jesus so that we may never miss out on the beauty of His love for us.