THE SUNDAY LECTIONARY
THIRTY-FIRST SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME
YEAR B: YEAR OF MARK
Download >>> 31st Sunday in Ordinary Time Yr B
A reading from the book of Deuteronomy 6:26
Responsorial Psalm Psalm 18 (17): 2-4. 47. 51. R/. v.2
A reading from the letter to the Hebrews 7:23-28
A reading from the holy Gospel according to Mark 12:28-34
<> <> <> <>
Today’s readings come to us in darkening clouds. Jesus has arrived at his destination and his destiny. The “way of the LORD” has brought him to Jerusalem and everything that happens to Jesus in this last week is part of that God-appointed way. Every incident in Mark’s Gospel is told to clarify who Jesus is and what mission to the world God has placed in his hands. Before we explore what is offered to us on these last few Sundays of the Church’s year, we need to reflect on the drama that opens the final act of Mark’s story, reserved in our Lectionary for Palm Sunday. We have to discover why the ‘way of the LORD’ that leads to the death of Jesus is named ‘gospel, ‘good news’ by Mark and by everyone who calls upon the name of our LORD God.
The Demonstration on the Mount of Olives (11:1-10)
There is no triumphal entry into the city of Jerusalem, not in Mark nor in the Gospel of Matthew nor in Luke. Here I am disagreeing with many scholars and agreeing with a few. After his account of the noisy demonstration on the Mount of Olives, Mark states clearly,
And he went into Jerusalem to the Temple and looking around at everything, as
it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the Twelve. Mark 11:11
This implies that the Twelve entered the city with Jesus. But the procession did not. The emphasis is on Jesus who entered the city, went to the Temple area, inspected everything and then went to the village of Bethany with the Twelve who are mentioned only when he departs the city. The Temple and its authorities will be at the very centre of all that happens in Jerusalem to bring Jesus to the cross, to his death at the place of the Skull (15:22).
Notice how carefully Jesus orchestrates what happens on the Mount of Olives (11:1). Detailed instructions are given to two of his disciples and meticulously carried out. The colt is brought to Jesus, cloaks (again!) are thrown on it, and Jesus sits on it. What exactly is happening here?
To grasp the significance of what is happening we must learn a little history and delve into the writings of three prophets, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi.
First, the history. Little Judah joined the Egyptian coalition against the Babylonian empire and that led to the destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple (586 B.C), the end of the monarchy, thousands of people killed, and as many more driven into exile. The Persians conquered Babylonia in 539 B.C. and in that same year their victorious ruler Cyrus II issued a proclamation that the exiles could return and were to be allowed to rebuild the Temple. The Second Book of Chronicles records a decree of Cyrus II, the victorious Persian ruler:
Now in the first year of Cyrus king of Persia, in order that the word of the LORD by the mouth of Jeremiah might be fulfilled, the LORD stirred up the spirit of Cyrus king of Persia, so that he made a proclamation throughout all his kingdom and also put it in writing:
“Thus says Cyrus king of Persia, ‘The LORD, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth, and he has charged me to build him a house at Jerusalem, which is in Judah. Whoever is among you of all his people, may the LORD his God be with him. Let him go up [to Jerusalem]”.
Second Chronicles 36:22-23
After eighteen years the building had not even started and the prophet Haggai berates the rich and the powerful who prospered on their return from exile but gave no support to the building of God’s House. He sets out to shame the political and religious authorities into undertaking the project. His vision was that the Temple would be filled with God’s glory and all nations would come to experience the glory of God on earth.
The prophet Zechariah continues to advocate the programme demanded by Haggai. The rebuilding of the Temple, the restoration of the Presence of God in God’s own House would bring prosperity. The prophet imagines an ideal future in which the returned exiles would grow in number and in prosperity. Jerusalem would again be great and the Temple would become the centre of worship for the whole world. God would rule as King recognised by all humanity. After the many tribulations endured by God’s people the LORD God would return to his house in Jerusalem:
Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion!
Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem!
Behold, your king is coming to you;
righteous and bringing salvation,
yet humble and mounted on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a donkey.
The return of God to the Temple would be a time of universal peace:
I will cut off the chariot from Ephraim
and the war horse from Jerusalem;
and the battle bow shall be cut off,
and he shall speak peace to the nations;
his rule shall be from sea to sea,
and from the River to the ends of the earth.
The greatest blessing of all - peace - came to be seen as God’s gift entrusted to the hands of God’s Messiah. The prophet Malachi, coming from the same time as Haggai and Zechariah, also urged reform and proper worship in a rebuilt Temple. Malachi, rather romantically, recalled the good old days:
Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the LORD as in the days of old and as in former years. Malachi 3:4
But to bring about all that must be done if God’s peace is to be done on earth, God must send his envoy, his messiah:
Behold, I send my messenger, and he will prepare the way before me. And the LORD whom you seek will suddenly come to his Temple; and the messenger of the covenant in whom you delight, behold, he is coming, says the LORD of hosts. Malachi 3:1
These words of Malachi (his name means “messenger”) are echoed in the opening lines of Mark’s Gospel (1:2) where his prophetical words are applied to Jesus. We need to weave the thoughts of these three prophets into our understanding of what is happening in the demonstration Jesus provokes on the Mount of Olives. We need to carry those thoughts into the confrontations Jesus is about to have in the city with the priestly and political authorities, confrontations that lead to his death. The first scene in the final week of the life of Jesus is created and dominated by Jesus himself as an assertion of who he is and to what purpose God has sent him. His coming is not in military might. He does not come in a war chariot nor riding a war horse. Rather he comes mounted on a donkey. Zechariah has determined that the King comes bearing salvation and speaking peace unto the nations.
Each phrase uttered by the exuberant crowd is important:
Blessed is he who comes in the name of the LORD!
Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David!
Hosanna in the highest!
“Hosanna” means “Save now!” but over the years it became a cry of joy and praise, rather like Alleluia. But the original undertone of salvation will not have been lost on Mark’s readers and hearers. Jesus riding on the donkey will have brought Zechariah to the mind of the participants and to the minds and hearts of Mark’s readers and hearers. Hosanna is quoted from Psalm 118:25, the psalm that is the last of the Hallel Psalms sung at the end of the Passover meal, to which Mark refers in 14:26. Hosanna is the shout of praise everywhere used to greet the goodness of God as our King whose steadfast love is given to all humanity.
Blessed is he who comes …
These words are from Psalm 118:26. This psalm, Martin Luther’s favourite, is a victory hymn celebrating the return from the exile in Babylon and the rebuilding of the Temple. It is quoted 13 times in the New Testament. The psalm quotes the blessing given by the priest to those coming to worship God in the Temple:
Blessed be the one who comes
in the name of the LORD;
we bless you from the House of the LORD;
the LORD is God, and has given us light.
The pilgrims are blessed as they enter the Temple to give thanks to the LORD, the priest reminding those in procession that their faith is in God whose steadfast love endures forever and who has given victory over enemies. But the crowd on the Mount of Olives hails Jesus as the one coming in the name of the LORD. They greet Jesus as a new King David setting up a new kingdom. This is the beginning of the theme of kingship that will go all the way to the cross on which the Messiah will die with the sign “King of the Jews” above his head.
When Jesus enters the city alone and goes to the Temple, looking around at everything, he is coming to the very heart of Jewish faith. It is the confrontation with those who represent that faith that will lead Jesus to his death. In chapters 11 and 12, for the most part, we hear Jesus clarifying his mission and authority. It is worth listing the events that take place before we come to to-day’s Gospel reading:
Jesus curses the fig tree (11:12-14).
Jesus cleanses the Temple (11:15-19).
The fig tree withers (11:20-26).
The parable of tenants (12:1-9).
The rejected stone (12:10-12).
Paying taxes to Caesar (12:13-17).
The Sadducees and Resurrection (12:18-27).
Love and the kingdom (12:28-34).
The identity of God’s Messiah (12:35-37).
It is clear that a battle is being waged here, a battle between Jesus, the one who has come in the name of the LORD, and those who are stewards of God’s Temple in this holy city. Jesus provokes confrontation and we hear truth speaking to power.
Open you Bible. Turn to the Gospel according to St Mark. Notice that there are 16 chapters in that Gospel. Ten of these chapters are devoted to the preaching, teaching and healing ministry of Jesus. The six remaining chapters are devoted to the last six days of his life. Is our German friend right? Is Mark’s story “a passion narrative with a long introduction”?
A reading from the book of Deuteronomy 6:2-6
Now this is the commandment … that the Lord your God commanded me to teach you, that you may do them in the land to which you are going over, to possess it, that you may fear the Lord your God, you and your son and your son's son, by keeping all his statutes and his commandments, which I command you, all the days of your life, and that your days may be long. Listen, therefore, O Israel, and be careful to do them, that it may go well with you, and that you may multiply greatly, as the LORD, the God of your fathers, has promised you, in a land flowing with milk and honey.
“The LORD our God, the LORD is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart.”
The word of the LORD.
Today’s reading from the Book of Deuteronomy has given faithful Jews the introduction to their daily prayer. Twice a day, in home or synagogue, a devout Jew recites what has come to be called the Shema Prayer. “Shema” means “Listen” and the first duty of those who “fear the LORD your God” is to listen. What we hear is that there is one God and the first and chiefest response to “the LORD, our God” is “to love with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind”.
But how can love be commanded? To know that God’s steadfast love endures forever, to know that creation is safe in God’s hands, to know that forgiveness and mercy are at the very heart of God, is to know who we are. We are created by love, sustained by love, and our destiny is eternal love. It is imperative that we know ourselves for if we truly know ourselves we will know God. Our very existence commands us to love God. Who and what and why we are demand that we love God. It is that bond of love that makes us fully human, fully alive.
What part does “the fear of the LORD” play in the process of keeping all that is commanded? This simple English phrase is, at first glance, easy to understand but its use in the Bible is more complex than we might imagine. When we get into complex issues in the Bible, the best way to seek enlightenment is to turn to prayer. If we turn to the Bible’s book of prayers, the Psalms, we will discover that ‘fear’ has a more profound meaning than that simple word suggests.
Turning to the prayers of the people, one psalm will be enough to help us to understand what ‘fear of the LORD’ means. Psalm 33 will serve our purpose. It begins with a call to break into song, to sing a new song:
Shout for joy in the LORD
O you righteous!
Praise befits the upright.
Give thanks to the LORD with the lyre;
make melody to him with the ten stringed harp!
Sing to him a new song;
play sweetly with shouts of joy.
Why are we called to sing a new and joyful song? Because what God speaks to us is true:
For the word of the LORD is true,
and all his work is done in faithfulness.
He loves righteousness and justice;
the earth is full of the steadfast love of the LORD.
All that God does is done in love, a love that lasts forever. That is the very principle of creation. We are created into a creation that comes from God’s love and is sustained by that love. This is not a song for Israel’s people alone. True, God has chosen this people but not to the exclusion of the rest of humanity:
Blessed is the nation whose God is the LORD,
the people whom he has chosen as his heritage!
The LORD looks down from heaven;
he sees all the children of Adam.
From his dwelling place he looks
on all the inhabitants of the earth,
he who fashions the hearts of them all
and observes all their deeds.
The eye of the LORD is upon us all and it is an eye of love, of concern, of care:
Behold, the eye of the LORD is on those who fear him,
on those who hope in his steadfast love,
that he may deliver their soul from death
and keep them alive in famine.
Our soul waits for the LORD;
he is our help and our shield.
For our heart is glad in him,
because we trust in his holy name.
Let your steadfast love, O LORD, be upon us,
even as we hope in you.
Because we trust in his holy name - yes, indeed. Whatever life throws at us, whatever charms of the world attract us, we hope and trust in the LORD. Our fear is that we forget that the LORD is God, that God’s steadfast love embraces us. We trust and hope in God, fearing the while that we may forget that God delivers us from all that is evil. Our prayer is that our trust, our hope in God, may not be overcome by the passing frivolities of the world we live in. The worse of fears is the fear that we lose touch with the God of love and hand ourselves over to poor substitutes. Psalm 34 explores fear of the LORD deeply. One stanza:
Oh, taste and see that the LORD is good!
Blessed is the man who takes refuge in him!
Oh, fear the LORD, you his saints,
for those who fear him have no lack!
The young lions suffer want and hunger;
but those who seek the LORD lack no good thing.
Those who fear the LORD are those who lack no good thing. Fear is a true understanding that we know our place, that is, we know our place in God’s heart. What the writers of Deuteronomy want us to do is to listen to God and hear God’s love and live in the strength of that love.
By the way, do you remember that the voice from heaven on the mountain of the Transfiguration gave only one command to those who were there and to those who hear the story? It is this:
Listen to him.
Responsorial Psalm Psalm 18 (17): 2-4. 47. 51. R/. v.2
R/. I love you, O LORD, my strength.
I love you, O LORD, my strength.
The LORD is my rock and my fortress and my deliverer,
my God, my rock, in whom I take refuge,
my shield, and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold.
I call upon the LORD, who is worthy to be praised,
and I am saved from my enemies. R/.
The LORD lives, and blessed be my rock,
and exalted be the God of my salvation—
Great salvation he brings to his king,
and shows steadfast love to his anointed.
R/. I love you, O LORD, my strength.
The poetical language of Psalm 18 imagines Death to be a hostile power. Some of ancient Israel’s neighbours regarded Death as a god, the king of the underworld, who challenged the rule of God. The powers of Death reach out to snatch the living from God’s care. But the purposes of God will not be overcome by the designs of Death. Our prayer to be delivered from all that Death can do is always heard:
I call upon the LORD,
who is worthy to be praised,
and I am saved from my enemies.
As St Paul puts it,
O Death, where is your sting?
1 Corinthians 15:55
A reading from the letter to the Hebrews 7:23-28
The former priests were many in number, because they were prevented by death from continuing in office, but [the risen Christ] holds his priesthood permanently, because he continues forever. Consequently, he is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them.
For it was indeed fitting that we should have such a high priest, holy, innocent, unstained, separated from sinners, and exalted above the heavens. He has no need, like those high priests, to offer sacrifices daily, first for his own sins and then for those of the people, since he did this once for all when he offered up himself. For the law appoints men in their weakness as high priests, but the word of the oath, which came later than the law, appoints a Son who has been made perfect forever.
The word of the LORD.
First, what oath is the writer referring to? Psalm 110 is a basic text in the thought patterns of the author of this letter to Jewish Christians. We have met Melchisedek before and here again Psalm 110 is in the writer’s thinking:
The LORD has sworn
and will not change his mind,
“You are a priest forever
after the order of Melchizedek”.
As Melchisedek lives for all eternity, so too does Jesus, the Messiah, the priest-king who now sits at God’s right hand and is our priest forever before the heavenly throne of God. We are invited to understand that Jesus, now exalted in heaven, forever pleads our cause. His perpetual prayer that God’s mercy be ever upon us is forever answered. Our eternal destiny is assured.
A reading from the holy Gospel according to Mark 12:28-34
And one of the scribes came up and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, asked him, “Which commandment is the most important of all?” Jesus answered, “The most important is,
The LORD our God, the LORD is one. And you shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind
and with all your strength. ’
The second is this:
‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself. ’
There is no other commandment greater than these. And the scribe said to him, “You are right, Teacher. You have truly said that he is one, and there is no other besides him. And to love him with all the heart and with all the understanding and with all the strength, and to love one's neighbour as oneself, is much more than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” And when Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” And after that no one dared to ask him any more questions.
The Gospel of the LORD.
The second, and equally great, of the two greatest commandments is You shall love your neighbour as yourself. This is a quotation from the Book of Leviticus 19:18. Why should this commandment be joined with the commandment to love God with heart and soul? The answer is that we are commanded to love as God loves. There are to be no exceptions, no excuses. There are to be no enemies, no one who is not your sister or your brother and who may be hated and killed with God’s blessing. The reason is underlined in that great and unread Book of Leviticus.
For the author of Leviticus there is a basic principle that underlies all commandments. It is a principle that God gives directly to Moses to be passed on to the whole people of Israel and through them to the world:
The LORD spoke to Moses, saying,
“Speak to the whole people of Israel and say to them:
‘You shall be holy,
the LORD your God,
We need to reflect on what being holy means. First, we must understand what it means when the Bible says God is holy. We do not mean that God is morally good, that God does not do bad things. The basic meaning of the word means ‘separate’. God’s holiness is God’s complete otherness. God is not a better kind of human being. Everything about God is divine. By saying God is holy we mean that being God is unique: only God is God.
On the other hand, holiness in human beings means ‘belonging to God’. We are holy because we belong to God. We are God’s property. In the Old Testament the people of Israel are holy because they have been chosen by God: You shall be my treasured possession among all the peoples (Exodus 19:5). Indeed God explains to Moses what the special vocation of Israel means:
Indeed, all the earth is mine,
but you [the people of Israel]
shall be to me a kingdom of priests
and a holy nation.
Being holy, belonging to God, means being infused with God’s presence. It means being bearers of God’s Presence on earth. It means, not just walking with God, but being a walking Presence of God on this earth. All this is in one majestic paragraph in the Book of the Exodus. God tells Moses that he will meet with him and all the people at the Tent of Meeting (a makeshift temporary temple in the desert, serving as the great Temple will serve in the future Jerusalem). In this meeting in the desert as the people make their way from slavery to freedom, God will outline who and what this people are called to be:
For there [at the tent of Meeting] I will meet with you, and there I will speak with you. And there I will meet with the people of Israel, and it shall be made holy by my Presence there. I will make holy the Tent of Meeting there and the altar, and I will consecrate Aaron and his sons to serve me as priests. I will dwell among the people of Israel, and I will be their God. And they shall know that I am the LORD their God, who brought them out of the land of Egypt that I might abide among them: I am the LORD their God.
Notice the verbs here:
I will meet with you.
I will speak with you.
I will make holy.
I will consecrate.
I will dwell.
I will be their God.
They shall know.
I AM the LORD their God
What makes us holy is that God walks with and in us. God is in us and we in Him. Living the commandments is living the Presence. St Paul reminds us that we carry this glory in weakness: we carry this treasure in vessels of clay (2 Corinthians 4:7). Therefore our God is a God whose steadfast love is ever present in mercy and forgiveness, seeing to it that these weak vessels do not leak beyond repair.
The greatest gift God gives is shalom, peace. For peace on earth and goodwill to all light up the Presence of God in earth as it is in heaven. So we are commanded to love our neighbour with that same intensity with which we love the LORD our God.
All this explains why the praise Jesus lavishes upon the scribe is qualified: You are not far from the kingdom of God. Not far, but not quite there. For the message of Jesus is this: The kingdom of God is at hand (Mark 1:15). That is to say, God’s will, as expressed in the life Jesus lived, will be done on earth as it is in heaven. That is the blessing Jesus preached to the world. It is a blessing, not a threat. It is a blessing because it means that the God whose steadfast love endures forever is the God whose mercy and forgiveness forever copes with our weaknesses. While loving God is a human response to God, building the kingdom is entirely the work of God. To know that is to know the message of Jesus. The Church is not the kingdom. The Church is the servant, the slave, of the kingdom of God.
What the servant Church must know is that God copes, as only God can, with our failings, with our brokenness, with our sins, and with our indifferences. The Church cannot cope with sin. Only God can. That is why the Church must be always on its knees.