October 31, 2021, Thirty-first Sunday of Ordinary Time
These statements on the lips of Moses reflect the national pride that Israel derived from having the Law that God gave them. Israel needed this reminder during a time of national crisis.
Some Jews who became Christians missed the certainties and institutions of their former religion. The author of Hebrews assures them that they have things better with Jesus. Today the author compares the old priesthood of the patriarch Levi with Jesus, whom he sees as a new, singular kind of priest.
Mark's gospel moves inexorably toward the crucifixion of Jesus, brought on by Jesus' more and more heated arguments with leaders of the Jews. Today they tangle over Judaism's most sacred institution, the Law of Moses.
Our Liturgical Setting: Today's gospel, Mark 12:28b-34, is the climax of a series of contentious conversations between Jesus and the enemies who would soon conspire to kill him. The lector should read the gospel, and would do well to read it in context, beginning with Mark, chapter 11. You'll see that, by late in chapter 12, the stakes in this argument have become very high. Now the dispute is about the Law, historically Israel's most sacred institution, the foundation of every other institution. Mark's gospel traces Jesus' inexorable path to the cross; this climactic argument, after which "no one dared to ask him any more questions," is the last milestone on that journey.
The Historical Situation: All that said, the lector can understand the solemnity and gravity with which Moses speaks about the Law in the first reading. He's initiating the people's reverence for the Law, centuries before later leaders trivialized it. Moses is giving this band of runaway slaves something that will bring them dignity and purpose, stature and distinction among the nations of the world, a unique place in history. This gives Moses great pride and hope. But at the same time he worries that the people don't "get it."
Your Proclamation: The lector might imagine how a contemporary leader would sound giving a similar speech today. I've identified the situation as the beginning of nationhood for a new people, their transformation from slaves to citizens. I've named the speaker's emotions: hope, pride and anxiety. And the speaker names the source of all this: "The LORD is our God, the LORD alone."
So, lector, (and preacher) meditate on the kind of greatness to which God is calling the people before you. They're to be distinguished among the nations by their love of God and of neighbor. They're to prefer those loves to "all burnt offerings and sacrifices." They're to be closer and closer to the kingdom of God. Like Jesus, their behavior should be so good, their speech so evidently truthful, that no one can question them. That's the kind of people to whom you belong and to whom you speak.
Secondly, it's always possible that some individual in the congregation will hear in these words something deeply personal, something that his or her heart has been searching for. That person may be on the verge of conversion, about to leave behind false gods or the slavery of a life of sin, or trying escape the burdens of resentment. Let them hear the promise of long life (stretch out the word "l o n g"). Help them imagine a home where there is plenty of milk and honey (or a life with plenty of God-given security and peace of conscience).
The Historical Background: Some Jewish converts to Christianity missed the comforting institutions they had enjoyed in Judaism. For them the author of Hebrews explains how they have greater benefits now. Today's passage focuses on the ancient priests and the sacrifices they offered, compared to the priest Jesus and his sacrifice. (The description "levitical" means in the tradition and family of Levi, the patriarch whose descendants had something of a monopoly on the job of priest in ancient Israel.)
Jesus the new priest is superior for three reasons:
Proclaiming It: In the assembly that gathers to hear you announce this on Sunday, few will be pining for the comforts of the ancient Jewish priesthood; neither will you, in all probability. Yet your task is to proclaim this in a way faithful to its original meaning. By the contrasts you use in your voice, be sure that the people understand that there's a contrast between the way of Jesus and the ways of the past.
You might prepare for this by meditating on the values in your own life, good, bad and indifferent, to which Jesus offers superior alternatives. Or think about ways your congregation is "stuck" in nostalgia for something long gone, and unable to enjoy the opportunities of the present.
Moses with the Ten Commandments, by Philippe de Champaigne, (b. 1602, Bruxelles, d. 1674, Paris), 1648, oil on canvas, 92 x 75 cm, The Hermitage, St. Petersburg. This image originates at the Hungarian site, Web Gallery of Art, where you can click on a thumbnail and see an enlarged version. The site says of the artist and this work:
This page updated September 4, 2021