It is an auspicious moment. Today, the meeting of the “G20” concludes in Rome and COP 26 begins in Glasgow, where the rich and powerful nations of the earth will once again have a fleeting chance to forestall the ecological catastrophe that will first and most severely impact those Franz Fanon so aptly named “the wretched of the Earth.”
It is the 31st Sunday of the year, coincidentally Oct. 31, not only Hallowe’en, All Hallows E’en or Evening, but also Reformation Sunday, named to commemorate the day in 1517, according to Philip Melanchthon, on which an Augustinian monk named Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses on the door of All Saints church in Wittenberg. It was the “eve” of All Saints Day, a major feast and titular one precisely there. Luther knew that crowds of mass-goers would see his notice. It was common then to tack notices on church doors, a kind of community information center, so this was not an especially defiant gesture, but one surely to be seen. It was radical enough to launch the Reformation.
“Hallow” is the old English word for “saint,” which has stuck to the “eve,” not the actual feast day but the night before (think of Christmas Eve and New Years Eve). There are still All Saints churches to be found in the United States and other English-speaking areas such as Ireland and England, but few have anything nailed to their doors. All Hallows Day itself was celebrated to remember all the saints in heaven, especially those without their own special feast day. The jack-o’-lanterns and the custom of “trick-or-treat” stem from ancient Ireland, however, where the Day of the Dead, Samhain, was the beginning of the winter season. The night before was not a time to be outside, for the spirits of the dead and other scary creatures were believed to roam around seeking mischief. Today, things that go bump in the night are likely to be the neighbor’s kids looking for candy, which might be dangerous to tooth enamel, but not to life and limb. God bless the kids… and protect them from real dangers tonight, especially drive-by-shootings and related thuggery. Ghosts and goblins are not the creatures we need to be wary of these days.
The readings for today are innocent of all that, being a regular Sunday for the most part, although it is certainly
worth noting the responsorial psalm sung after the first reading, which echoes Psalm 46, the basis of Luther’s great hymn “A Mighty Fortress is our God”:
‘I love you, O Lord, my strength
O Lord, my rock, my fortress. My deliverer’ [Ps 18].
This choice of text underscores the superb passage in Mark’s gospel in which Jesus counters a challenge from a passing Scribe by citing the great commandment from the Torah that climaxes in today’s first reading, the great ‘Shema Yisrael,’ the heart of Jewish morning and evening prayer which all pious Jews hope will also be on their dying lips .
‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord is our God, the Lord alone.
You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart,
and with all your soul, and with all your might’ [Deut 6:4-5].
To this mighty command a passage was commonly added. It is found in the Book of Leviticus in the most important section known as the Holiness Code, the rules or commandments that set Israel distinctively apart as God’s chosen people: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’ [Lev 19:18b].
Jesus was a faithful Jew, a reformer, and he knew scripture by heart, having learned it from his childhood like all Jewish boys. His encounter with the Scribe is found in all three synoptic gospels – Matthew, Mark, and Luke. It was well known. In Mark’s account, the Scribe happens to be passing by as a fierce row is going on among Jesus, some Pharisees, King Herod’s supporters, and Sadducees over the question of the resurrection of the dead. It was a major confrontation and something to bear in mind as we approach November, traditionally the month during which we especially remember the dead.
The Scribes or Sopherim were experts in scripture who had devoted their lives to its study and practical application. This man, seeing that Jesus was answering his opponents well, as Mark puts it, simply cut to the chase. What’s the most basic commandment of all? And Jesus replies first by quoting the Shema’ and then cites the verse from Leviticus. Perhaps surprised, the Scribe praises Jesus and acknowledges that such love is greater even than the Temple sacrifices. Jesus returns the compliment: “You are not far from the Kingdom of God,” a Jewish way of saying that he’s right in the midst of it.
This is the kindest and most positive remark attributed to Jesus regarding the learned scriptural experts and doctors of the Law. Here at least Jesus and the Scribe were in complete accord. The heart of all true religion, of the Jewish faith and the Christian faith, is total, undivided love for God. And one’s neighbor.
What is it, then, to love God with your whole heart, and your whole soul, and all your mind, and your whole strength? And your neighbor as yourself? This is the challenge Jesus puts before us, then, now, and always.
Meister Eckhart once complained that many people love God the way they love a cow — for her milk and butter and cheese, and maybe even her tenderloins. But that’s not love, it’s self-centeredness. We love anything that makes us happy, even for an hour or two. What we are really loving is ourselves. Jesus calls us to look beyond our need for personal fulfillment or the satisfaction of felt needs, and in this he is simply completing or perfecting the Law and the Prophets.
In John’s gospel and epistles how we love God, how we love Jesus above all else, becomes the central focus. ‘If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. …This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends’ [John 15:10-13].
In these difficult times as self-centeredness, violence, and civil discord seem to be in the ascendant, we would do well to remember the encounter between Jesus and the Scribe. We should never lose sight of the heroism of first-responders who risk their lives to save people from fire and flood and the health-care workers who struggle tirelessly to save those who refuse to be vaccinated against the Covid virus until it is too late. We even have something to learn from the children who share their Hallowe’en candy with those less fortunate than themselves. For it is in loving one another in practice that we love God and show that we love God. COP 26, please take note.