Today’s readings: Deuteronomy 6, 2-6; Hebrews 7, 23-28; Mark 12, 28-34.
The profession of faith in God unaccompanied by its historical and horizontal dimension of love for the other renders belief alienating from real life issues. All this is at the centre of today’s Scripture readings, with Jesus putting love of God and love of neighbour on one and the same footing.
Provoked by a scribe who asks which of all the Commandments is first and the most important, Jesus shows what the essence of religion is.
Religion, by definition, is meant to set parameters for the individual and the collectivity alike, as well as to serve as guide for one’s own growth and maturity in the faith. Yet, in its institutional expression, religion has very often developed into a system of belief giving priority to orthodoxy, as right or true doctrine opposed to heresy.
Whenever orthodoxy prevails, religion easily turns ideological and even fundamentalist. In this regard, the modern mystic Thomas Merton is right when in his book Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, he insists that religion is most authentic when its primary function is to mentor a person’s spiritual liberty. Yet the mainstream religion that was handed down to us demanded absolute conformity and left little or no space for critical thinking or for spiritual liberty.
This is the issue that St Mark’s gospel text today addresses. The scene is of a scribe interrogating Jesus on a very common topic of rabbinic discussion: which of all the Commandments is the first and most important. It is not clear from the text what the true intentions of the scribe were, given that very often scribes and Pharisees interrogated Jesus to trap him. In this particular case, Jesus seems to give this scribe the benefit of the doubt.
Jesus’ interaction with the scribe in this case is not entirely hostile though it is shrouded in ambiguity. This because it is most probably the only instance in the gospels where it is the interlocutor who commends Jesus for his answer, rather than the other way round: “Well spoken, Master, what you have said is true,” said the scribe to Jesus.
Jesus was very orthodox in his answer, basically quoting from the Shema, which was the mantra of the Jews, as seen in today’s first reading from Deuteronomy. But Jesus goes further and dares making his addition to counterbalance the commandment of love of God with the love of neighbour. This, to drive home the important message pervading all the gospels that God has assumed a human face in the incarnation of Jesus and that the claim to love God without love of neighbour is a lie.
Love of God and love of neighbour go hand in hand. There cannot be one without the other. Otherwise religion becomes an illusion. Guarding right doctrine or pretending to worship God by giving Him His due via solemn liturgies while ignoring the needs of the other or failing to encounter God in real life amounts to false religion.
Even the scribe in today’s gospel acknowledges this when in his reply to Jesus he said that “to love your neighbour as yourself is far more important than any holocaust or sacrifice”. But in spite of the good will of this scribe, St Mark is adamant to unmask the false religion of the scribes who used to uphold orthodoxy and neglect its implications in the sphere of relationships or the care for the needy.
Orthodoxy is not enough in religion. Orthodoxy means absolute conformity to creeds, rules and laws at the expense of the practice of justice. Let us not forget that when religion fanatically upheld orthodoxy and transformed itself into a system of rigid belief, the Inquisition was born, and people were sacrificed for the system. This was pure violence and abuse in the name of God.
This is exactly what Jesus is gradually dismantling when he calls for discipleship rather than blind conformity, when he puts conscience before conformity, and when he gives us all the space necessary for personal growth according to our own times and capacity.
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