THE CENTRALITY OF THE PRIESTHOOD: LOVE, UNITY AND SACRIFICE
Readings: Deuteronomy 6:2-6; Psalm 18; Hebrews 7:23-38 and Mark 12:28-34.
Today’s liturgy reminds us of the greatest theological virtue, which is love. All the laws and prophets has love as their foundation, and this is explicit in the readings. This virtue of love is better expressed from two dimensions: our relationship with God and with man (human). What defines our relationship with God is how we relate with our neighbour. Is our relationship with neighbour surrounded with hatred, bitterness, anger, violence and other forms of vices or is it with love,unity and sacrifice? If truly we love God and our neighbour, we will keep His commandments.
The commandment of God was given to the Israelites through Moses as we have in the first reading account of today when he addressed the people, saying, “Fear the Lord your God by keeping all his statutes and his commandments, which I command you, all the days of your life.” The faith of the Israelites rested on their obedience to this one great commandment. If they obey this commandment, their life would be long and filled with blessings and if they do not obey it, they could expect to be cursed by God. This is in relation to the fourth commandment “Honour your father and your mother so that your days may be long,” which is otherwise known as the theology of retribution.
Moses draws the attention of the people to God’s commandment and monotheism as against polytheism when he said, “Hear O Israel: The Lord our God is one Lord; and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul and with all your might.” This verse is an essential prayer for the Jewish people called “Shema Yisrael,” taken from the first words of the verse “Hear O Israel.” Emphasizing the monotheistic nature of God. It is a prayer composed from selected phrases from Deut. 6:4-9 and Numbers 15:37-41. This prayer is also used weekly by priests, religious, and some lay faithful that pray the Divine office every Saturday night or solemnity of evening prayer I.
In the mind of many Jewish people and some Christians today, this verse alone disqualified the New Testament teaching that Jesus is God, and the teaching of the Trinity, that there is one God existing in three persons. However, this statement ‘The Lord our God is one’ does not contradict the truth of the Trinity nor the truth of Jesus Christ as God. In fact, it establishes that truth since the Hebrew word for ‘one’ used here is ‘echad,’ which speaks most literally of a compound unity, instead of using the Hebrew word ‘yacheed’ which speaks of absolute unity or singularity. The idea of echad as compound unity is explicit in the creation story, “…evening came and morning came, the first day…” (Gen 1:5) and Gen 2:24 says, “…the two shall become one flesh.” In this we see the idea of unity (one flesh), making a plurality (the two). Hence, we can affirm that this verse establishes the truth of Christ as God and the truth of the three persons in one God.
More so, this truth continues in the second reading from the letter to the Hebrews, which presents Christ as the high priest, holy and blameless, unstained, separated from sinners exalted above the heavens, who has no need to offer sacrifices daily like other high priests for his own sins and for his people. He did this once for all when he offered up himself. As in the case of Moses’ address to the Israelite to obey the commandments of God and the promise of long life attached to this commandment, God the Son, in obedience to the Father, offered the greatest sacrifice with his own life so that we can have, not just long life on earth, but eternal life in heaven. To attain this life, Christ calls us to love God and our neighbour just as Moses called the Israelites: Hear, O Israel this commandment.
Christ in the Gospel amplifies the call Moses made in the first reading when the Scribes asked Him which is the first or greatest commandment of all. In response, He said, “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one; and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart…” Amplifying this He said the second is this, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” The Scribes quickly affirm His response as it suits them in relation to monotheism saying, “You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that he is one, and there is no other but he, and to love him with all the heart…” These two commandments are interwoven as we cannot claim to love God without loving our neighbour and vice-versa.
Hence, as we gradually come to the close of the liturgical year, Christ draws our attention to the close of his public ministry, which has its culmination on the cross. His response to the Scribes was the image of the cross in a vertical (above to below or vice-versa) and horizontal relationship that exists between God and man; and the relationship between man and his fellow man. The first is to love God with our whole being and the second is the love of neighbour. Practically, this appears to be the most challenging of the commandments. It is easier for us to claim we love God. We can be so religious and prayerful as regards our relationship with God, but our relationship with family members and friends is nothing to write home about. What about our relationship with other tribes, ethnic groups and other religions? Or those who do not belong to our circle? 1Jn 4:20 tells us: “Anyone who claims to love God and hates his neighbour is a liar; for whoever does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen.” Put differently, Christ uses the compound unity (echad) in response to the love of God and the love of man, for both are intertwined.
Fr. Ken Dogbo, OSJ