Sunday, 4 November 2012

Week 31 (Year B) Sunday -- 4 November 2012

Readings: Deuteronomy 6:2-6; Psalm 17; Hebrews 7:23-28; Mark 12:28-34

Some years ago an English actor did the round of theatres in Britain and Ireland with a one-man show. He simply spoke the King James version of St Mark's Gospel from beginning to end. As an actor, an interpreter of scripts, he brought out all kinds of subtleties and shades of colour that our normal public reading of scripture never captures. Where most liturgical reading is solemn and a bit monotonous, he illuminated the story in a remarkable way bringing out the humour, anger, irony, sarcasm, gentleness, poignancy, bitterness, and many other things that lie hidden in the text. It was a stunning performance.

So what about today's gospel reading from Mark, what moods or shades of colour might be found in it? The scribe seems a bit patronising or perhaps he is simply naive. Is he condescending? His repetition of Jesus' summary of the law adds to it and changes it in subtle ways: is he correcting the amateur rabbi from Galilee? Is there a barb in Jesus' answer - you are not far from the kingdom of God - effectively telling him that he has hit the nail on the side? Is this what the scribe is saying to Jesus, you got it almost exactly right? Is it what Jesus is saying to the scribe? How near is 'not far'?

The answer to that question depends on what we are talking about. Augustine in his Confessions tells about a moment when he was not far from the kingdom of God. His spiritual condition was like a man who from a wooded summit can glimpse the homeland of peace for which he has long searched, he has it now in his sights, but there is still the question of how to get into that kingdom from where he is. What will carry us across, bridge the gap, when a person is not far from the kingdom of God? For Augustine it is the cross of Christ by clinging to which he makes the journey from his viewing point, home to the kingdom. Charity is established in the humility of Christ, he says. If we want to live by the great commandment we must embrace the humility of Christ, his cross. Catherine of Siena speaks similarly about Christ as the bridge that carries us to the kingdom. There is a hostel at the bridge which is the Church where the Eucharist, Christ himself, is baked and offered to us as our food for the journey. The divinity is kneaded into the clay of our humanity.

We find a scriptural basis for such thoughts in the Letter to the Hebrews which we have been reading recently at Sunday Mass. It speaks of Jesus as our high priest who has opened the way for us by his sacrifice. He came into our flesh and in offering that flesh taken from us he enters the heavenly sanctuary carrying not the blood of animals but his own blood. There he eternally makes intercession for us. Trailing behind him is the way he has opened, the road to the throne of grace and mercy, the bridge, the cross, the Eucharist, the Church.

'Beautiful' is how we might translate the scribe's comment to Jesus when he summarises the great commandment: 'you are right'. Jesus sees that the scribe's answer is wise, intelligent. So perhaps there is more understanding between them might seem at first. Love opens up the space in which the other can be, and can flourish. It begins with the understanding a person already has and invites him or her to embrace that understanding more fully, to test its depths, to see where its truth leads.

Of course another meaning of 'not far' is that it refers to the scribe's physical proximity to Jesus himself. In John's gospel the great commandment takes the form 'love one another as I have loved you'. The content of the new commandment is not a written law, not even a sacred and hallowed piece of scripture. Most of us can easily quote the text and tell others what the great commandment is . But its content is Jesus Christ, the one who has fulfilled the law in every detail. He loves the Father with all his heart, soul, mind, strength, and he loves his neighbour as himself. He shows us what these things involve but, more than that, he is the only teacher who can enable us to carry it out.

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