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Saturday, November 3, 2012
Reflection for this Sunday ~ Mark 12:28-34
There are many today who are suspicious of exclusive claims in religion. Our critics say that to believe that we have the truth is dangerous. It may make us intolerant.
Everybody, they say, should be respected, with their different understandings. Well, yes; but do the critics set about it the right way?
This Sunday’s readings make us think about this because they shimmer with passionate commitment. In our first reading Moses is addressing the people before the entry into the Promised Land. Our reading (Deut. 6.2-6) ends with a ringing injunction that the Lord is the one and only God, and is to be loved with heart, mind and strength. Incidentally, you ought to know that this passage is known to Jews as the Shema and is to be prayed daily. Parents teach it to their children. Traditionally these are the last words on the lips of a dying Jew. The Shema was heard as an act of defiance repeatedly as the doors of the gas chambers closed at Auschwitz, faith in God being asserted even as the darkness closed in. What faithfulness and courage this short passage reminds us of when we think of these things.
And now we find the words picked up by Jesus in the gospel (Mk. 12.28-34).
Traditionally there are 613 precepts in Torah Judaism, and at the time of Jesus it was not unusual for a spiritual master to be asked which was the greatest. It was, you might say, a keenly debated question. Jesus cites the Shema, but to it he adds a quotation from Leviticus 19.18b: ‘You must love your neighbour as yourself.’ But if we look at the text from Leviticus we find a challenge to us. Here is the full quotation from Leviticus 19.18: ‘You shall not take vengeance or bear any grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbour as yourself: I am the Lord.’ So, what begins in the Old Testament as an act of generous loyalty to your own people is universalised by Jesus: quite simply, everybody is our neighbour – as he himself taught so beautifully in the parable of the Good Samaritan.
So: is it right or wrong, constructive or destructive, to have strong faith in God? Many people say today that religion is associated with violence. But actually, looking around me, it seems that any kind of passionate belief can lead people astray. Politics can be destructive. For that matter, I would think that the bankers who led the world economy to the brink of collapse no doubt believed strongly at the time in what they were doing. Any belief can blind us, and we have to admit that religious fanaticism has a lot to answer for.
But look again at the words of Jesus. To love God and to love neighbour: these, he is telling us, are inseparable. And we remember that his definition of neighbour excluded no one. If we live these words, then we will be forgiving, generous, kind, loving, supportive, reconciling. No doubt we only achieve these things partially, but the challenge to be so is always before us, and it includes not just words but the living example of Jesus himself.
To be passionate in loving God in the way that Jesus tells us is not a way of intolerance. Rather, it gives us a centre from which our actions can flow. It gives us a centredness which will help to steady us rather than letting us be swept away by the passions and fashions of the moment. Passionate love of God in this mode sets us free and strengthens us for service in the world that was made, loved and redeemed by God.
Fr Terry Tastard is Parish Priest of St Mary's, East Finchley, in north London.