November 4 31st Sunday of the Year (B)

A. The Bible as Guide in Life and Liturgy (Sunday Readings)

First Reading (Deuteronomy 6:2-6).

This reading contains the Shema, “Hear, O Israel”, the central expression of Jewish faith down through the ages. In the Book of Deuteronomy it comes after the account of the giving of the Ten Commandments to Israel on the mountain (Horeb; Sinai), with Moses as mediator. As Israel is presented about to enter into possession of its inheritance (for them the land of Canaan) they are reminded that true possession of that inheritance depends on the obedience to God’s laws and commandments. After this comes the call (“Listen, Hear”) to listen to the voice of the Lord and profess faith in him as the only God, the one Lord. Then comes the command to love God with all one’s being, the heart, soul and “strength” or “might”, although the Hebrew for the word rendered “might” may best be understood and translated as “means, abundance, property”, and may have been so understood in Palestine in Jesus’ day. This commandment of the love of God is to be the driving principle in the innermost being, written on the heart.

Responsorial Psalm (Psalm 17[18]). I love you, Lord, my strength.

Second Reading (Hebrews 7:3-28).

This is part of what the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews has to say on Christ as the true High Priest. He contrasts Christ with the Jewish high priest and the sacrifices he and the other priests offered. For the Jewish liturgy there was a succession of priests and high priests since those priests died. In contrast to these Christ has died once for all and is now High Priest at God’s right hand interceding on behalf of all who wish to come to God through him. The qualities of the ideal high priest are listed, all of which Christ possesses in an eminent degree: holy, innocent, uncontaminated by sin, raised high above the heavens, without need (unlike priests of the Jewish liturgy) of offering sacrifices for his own sins and those of the people, as is stipulated for in the Old Testament texts on the priesthood and the sacrifices they offer. The passage ends recalling the text of Psalm 109 (110):4, a text central to this entire letter’s presentation on the priesthood of Christ. The text in question is God’s solemn promise, understood as words directed to Christ: “The Lord has sworn an oath and will not change his mind, ‘You are priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek’”.

Gospel (Mark 12:28-34).

In Mark’s Gospel this is the third question posed to Jesus. The first two were hostile: about tax from some Pharisees and Herodians, about the resurrection by Sadducees. This one is genuine, from a scribe and the only instance in Mark where a scribe is presented in a positive light. The question he asks is one posed by Jewish scholars of that time: which is the greatest commandment of the law, one on which all the others depend. Jesus replies by citing the first commandment as found in Israel profession of faith (“Hear, O Israel”), in the Book of Deuteronomy, read as first reading today. Jesus then cites the second on the love of one’s neighbour as found in the biblical text of Leviticus 19:18: “You shall love your neighbour as yourself: I am the Lord”. The scribe agrees, replying by a profession of faith in Jewish monotheism (there is only one God, the God of Israel), and adding that these two commands outweigh any ritual action, such as (Temple) sacrifice. This was in keeping with some Old Testament teaching (for instance Hosea 6:6). This scribe professes faith in the uniqueness of God and of obedience to his will by observance of the two great commandments. Jesus replies to him that he was not far from the kingdom of God. He had that attitude of little children to whom the kingdom of God belongs (Mark 10:15).

B. The Bible in Dialogue with Questions of the Day

Religion and Spirituality

For some time past one will have observed that in public discourse, in the media and elsewhere, spirituality is contrasted with religion, to the detriment of the latter, as if it were acceptable and praiseworthy to be interested in and practice spirituality rather than religion. Religion may tend to be regarded as formal, dogmatic, controlled from above, by religious authority, rather than spontaneous. It is not easy define what is exactly meant by “spirituality”, even by those who use the term. In one sense it is any manifestation of the human spirit. When some say that they are interested in spirituality, not in religion, they may mean that they respect the things of the spirit, rather than being materialistic. Sometimes the word is used to indicate that the person using it has given up religious practice, not necessarily religious beliefs themselves, at least not in their entirety.

Whatever about the problem of exact definition, it must be admitted that today there are very many who are interested in things spiritual, as they understand the word, but are alienated from the practice of the Catholic religion, or in many cases of any organized religion. These vary from new age religion adherents to Catholics or Christians on the margins. They are quite often very interested in literature and conferences on religion or spirituality, and are prepared to pay well for attending such lectures or conferences. They are also attended to by columns in Sunday papers. Interest in spirituality, rather than organized religion, is often pronounced among the learned and literati, who consider that they have passed beyond the simplistic answers and rather empty rituals and religious practices of their earlier years. All this is a phenomenon to be reckoned with. It is part of the world in which we live.

While spirituality as a manifestation of the human spirit is to be respected, since the human spirit and its operations and ambitions are part of the divine creation, the gospel message and its demands cannot be put aside. From the outset, the Gospel message has been in contact with a diversity of spiritualities, Jewish, Greek and others ancient and modern. While the Gospel was preached to all of these, the Gospel message was not modified to have them accept it. This is clear with regard to Judaism. We have an informative example in Paul’s visit to Athens, recounted by Luke in Acts 17:16-33. Luke himself says that the Athenians and the foreigners living there would spend their time in nothing but telling or hearing something new (Acts 17:21). In addressing the learned Athenian body, the Areopagus, Paul, keen in gaining their good will, opened with the words: “Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way” (Acts 17:22). They had their own spirituality. But on hearing the central point of the Gospel message, the resurrection of Christ, and God’s plan for the world in Christ, they politely dismissed Paul, with the words; “We will hear you again about this.” At Corinth Paul took a different approach. Instead of any learned philosophy he preached the central message of the Cross and resurrection of Christ and was quite successful. A little later the central truths of the incarnation, death and resurrection of Christ, and the central Gospel message were too much for sections of the early Church, probably learned circles, and gave rise to Gnosticism, which in time faded out. The Christian doctrine of the incarnation proved unacceptable to some learned scientists and other learned persons in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and led to Arianism and Arianizing tendencies.

The number of those in quest of spirituality rather than religion today varies immensely from country to country and from one region to another. While a number of us may consider the questions a mere matter of semantics, for those involved it can be immense. In any dialogue with these within a Christian context, the difference between spirituality as a manifestation of the human spirit and Christian spirituality must be made clear. Christian spirituality for all, for the young and old, the learned and the untutored, comes from the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of God, of Jesus, the Spirit that gives new inner life and hope, who makes us conscious of being children of God and of calling on God as “Father”, Abba, just as Jesus did. This Holy Spirit gives life to the Church, purifies and sustains her. It is a spirituality that has its origin in the Holy Spirit and must be nurtured by a living contact with God, with Jesus, with the Holy Spirit, the sacraments and the Church, the Body and the Spouse of Christ. The Holy Spirit knows the human spirit and its desires, and helps each individual understand oneself.

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