Traditionally, November was known as the month of the Poor Souls, beginning with the commemoration of all the saints, known and unknown, and then those closer to us among family and friends. It’s fitting. Autumn is a time for reflection and remembrance, as the summer growth and freshness gives way to winter — in this part of the world in a blaze of glorious color. Summer celebrates its passing. Not, however, today so much.
Recently, we have had more than sufficient cause for reflection and remembrance – the tragic, senseless shootings in various parts of the country, culminating in the terrible scene in Pittsburgh just over a week ago. Or the senseless deaths of so many small children on their way to school. So our hearts may be heavy today as we gather to remember our own loved ones and those of our sisters and brothers elsewhere, but we do so in the light of the word of God, a word of hope and longing, not of resignation and regret.
Today’s first reading was selected so we can’t possibly miss the connection in Mark’s gospel, where Jesus and the scribe discuss the great passage from the Book of Deuteronomy
known to Jews throughout history as the Shema’ Yisra’el, the greatest of all Jewish prayers: “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God is One. And you shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.”
The second commandment Jesus cites, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” is taken from the Book of Leviticus [19:18], in the most important section known as the Holiness Code, the rules or commandments that set Israel distinctively apart as God’s chosen people.
In Mark’s account, the scribe happens to be passing by when a fierce row is going on between Jesus, King Herod’s supporters, and the Sadducees over the question of the resurrection of the dead. Something to bear in mind today.
The Jewish Scribes or Sopherim were not just town clerks, but experts in scripture, men who had devoted their wholes lives to its study and practical application. This man, seeing that Jesus was answering 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: “You shall not take vengeance or bear any grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD.” When the scribe praises Jesus, and even raises the ante, pointing out 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 it fits here perfectly. On this point, 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. All the rest is commentary. But the story continues beyond our reading today as the disciples bring up some of the difficulties raised by the scribes themselves. Jesus warns them about following false leaders who twist the word of God.
But even this does not take away from the high praise Jesus gave the passing Scribe who was not far from the Kingdom of God. For he knew what scripture taught, the simple truth that love of God and love of neighbor sum up everything. Self-glorification, haughtiness, and religious pretentiousness melt away in the radiance of that great insight.
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? 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-interest. We love anything that makes us happy, even for an hour or two. But what we are really loving is ourselves. Jesus calls us to look far beyond personal fulfillment or the satisfaction of present wants. Inn this he is simply completing the Law and the Prophets.
More than that: Jesus’ own lie and ministry reveal, as the second reading tells us, that it is in unselfishly loving one another that we love God and show that we love God. In the end, this is everything the Law and Jesus himself have to teach us. Do that, and do it well, or perhaps even badly, and we are not far from the Kingdom of God.
As for those we remember today, do so with a joyful heart. St. Paul said it well,
“For since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead has also come through a human being; for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ” [1 Cor. 15:20-22].
All will be made alive in Christ… If there are poor souls to lament, they are to be found among us, the living. Those who have gone before us are in God’s presence, where every tear shall be wiped away … “and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away.” [Rev. 21:4] They rest in peace. May we share it with them here and for endless ages. Amen.