SUNDAY HOMILIES FOR YEAR B
By Fr Munachi E. Ezeogu, cssp
Homily for 31st Sunday in Ordinary Time
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Love Over Law

Deuteronomy 6:2-6 Hebrews 7:23-28 Mark 12:28-34

Here are some laws that are said to have existed or still exist in parts of the United States of America:

  • In Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania it is against the law to sleep in a refrigerator.
  • There was once a law in Iowa against women wearing corsets, and an official job of corset inspector who went around poking women in the ribs to make sure they weren't wearing one.
  • In Gary, Indiana, you're breaking the law if you attend the theatre within four hours of eating garlic.
  • In Pocatello, Idaho, it is illegal to look unhappy.
  • Snore loud enough to disturb your neighbours and you can spend a night or two in jail in the Dunn, North Carolina.
  • It is illegal for chickens to cross the road in Quitman, Georgia.
  • It is against the law in Alabama to wear a false mustache to church, such that it makes people laugh.

The problem with multiplying laws is that people get confused about what things are truly important and what things are incidental. The Jews too had so many laws, all 613 of them, drawn from the Old Testament. Because the demands of one law often conflicted with those of another, Jewish moralists tried to work out a synthesis of the essentials of the Law. This helped them to know which laws should enjoy the priority in cases of conflicting demands. The prophet Micah, for example, summarised the Law in these words: "What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?" (Micah 6:8). Rabbi Hillel was once asked to summarise the whole law standing on one leg. His summary was "What you hate for yourself, do not to your neighbour. This is the whole law, the rest is commentary."

So when the scribe asks Jesus, "Which commandment is the first of all?" (Mark 12:28), he was not simply asking for the first of the Ten Commandments: "I am the LORD your God ... you shall have no other gods before me (Exodus 20:2-3). Rather he was asking for Jesus's own synthesis of the laws and commandments of God. In Mark the scribe is presented not as trying to test Jesus but as truly willing to learn. Probably he was overwhelmed with the conflict he saw in his own life as he tried to meet the various demands of the commandments. His final answer to Jesus: "You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that 'he is one, and besides him there is no other'; and 'to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength,' and 'to love one's neighbour as oneself,'--this is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices" (Mark 12:32-33), suggests that he was probably experiencing conflict between the need to love the people in his life and the need to fulfill all the demands of Temple worship. Jesus resolved his problem by assuring him that practical love for God and neighbour comes before the need for ritual observances and worship.

Jesus took issue with the Pharisees because they reversed the order. They absolved people from taking care of their old parents so long as they willed all their wealth to the Temple (Mark 7:11-12). In this way they became adept in the observance of trifling religiosities but deficient in what Jesus calls "the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith" (Matthew 23:23).

There are still many of us Christians today who see our worship of God in terms of observing laws and commandments. We go to church on Sunday to fulfill our "Sunday obligation." We celebrate the events of Holy Week to do our "Easter duty." Jesus reminds us today that whatever we do as Christians, in church, in our families, and at work should flow not out of a sense of compulsion but out of love for God and neighbour. Obedience is not the first duty of a Christian. Love is.

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