Reading 1: Deuteronomy: 6:2-6
Responsorial Psalm: Psalm: 18:2-3, 3-4, 47, 51
Reading 2: Hebrews: 7:23-28
Gospel: Mark: 12:28b-34
“You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength” (Deut 6:5)
There is a famous scene in the play Fiddler on the Roof, where Tevye, the protagonist, tells his wife Golde that he has decided to give his permission for their daughter Hodel to marry Perchik, a student and Bolshevik revolutionary. Golde protests that he has absolutely nothing, but Tevye replies that it’s a new world, that now people marry for love, and what can they do? Tevye then turns to Golde and asks her if she loves him. She doesn’t know how to respond; she skirts the question and when Tevye keeps pressing her for an answer, she recites all that she has been doing for him for twenty-five years: washing his clothes, cooking his meals, cleaning his house, giving him children, milking the cow. Still not satisfied, Tevye asks her again if she loves him. She observes, “for twenty-five years I’ve lived with him, fought with him, starved with him, twenty-five years my bed is his; if that’s not love, what is?”
In the play, Golde gives all the evidence of love in action and then concludes that these constitute love. In today’s gospel, a scribe asks a question that comes at the issue of love from another direction. He wants to know which is the first of all the commandments, that is, what actions must take priority if one wants to respond correctly to God’s love. Jesus doesn’t help him out with the particulars. He simply advises him to love God back with his entire being: heart, soul, mind, and strength. And then a bit more concretely, he adds that loving one’s neighbor as oneself puts flesh and bones on this loving response to divine love.
The dialogue between the scribe and Jesus, like that of Tevye and Golde, emphasizes that love does not consist so much in feelings, as in concrete loving deeds toward the other. This is how Jesus can speak about love as something that is commanded. One cannot be commanded to feel warmly toward another, but one can be mandated to treat another with loving-kindness. Knowing oneself as the recipient of gratuitous divine acts of loving-kindness enables one to respond in kind. A concrete way by which human beings can express love toward God is by extending that love toward fellow human beings.
The two-pronged formulation of the love command does not give hard and fast answers about how to make difficult choices for prioritizing loving deeds in daily circumstances. Jesus, for example, was faced with hard choices several times when the command to love seemed to clash with the command to observe the Sabbath. Which took priority? In a number of instances, he healed people on the Sabbath, choosing to raise up a woman bent double (Luke 13:10-17), to restore a man’s withered hand (Mark 3:1-6), and a blind man’s sight (John 9:16). When challenged, he interprets these actions as giving proper expression to the intent of Sabbath, fulfilling the prime commands to love God and neighbor. When one’s whole self is centered on love, that’s the basis for knowing how to make day-to-day choices.
Our choices to love go beyond personal individual responses. With a heightened awareness in our time that all creation is interrelated, that all beings and Earth itself are created to be in a communion of love, structural and systemic actions that foster that unity are needed. Loving the neighbor involves making choices collectively that prioritize those who are poorest and most affected by inequities in our social structures. As we listen to the voices of our near and distant neighbors along with Earth and all its creatures asking us “Do you love me?” we will be able to discern what we are to do.
This reflection is expanded and adapted from Barbara E. Reid, OP, Abiding Word. Reflections on the Sunday Scriptures (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 2011), 118-19.