Most Reverend Joseph C. Bambera, D.D., J.C.L.
Bishop of Scranton
31st Sunday of the Church Year – November 4, 2018
There’s a temptation that often emerges when reflecting upon today’s Gospel passage with its focus on the great commandment to love: to love God – our neighbor – and ourselves. The temptation is to quickly assess what’s going on in our Church, our nation, our schools and our workplaces and to resolve to work to change that which fails to embrace the challenge of Jesus.
While certainly that’s an important place for us to land, I’d suggest that we need to do some foundational work first. And we get a sense of what that work entails when we look at the context for today’s Gospel passage.
Throughout Mark’s Gospel, Jesus had been beset by conflict. Just prior to today’s passage, he’s barraged with political, theological and religious challenges, all orchestrated by the religious and political leaders of his day and age. So when the scribe – a lawyer likely hired by the powers that have confronted Jesus – approached Jesus, we expect another trap to embarrass him. … Where does Jesus stand on the age-old debate in Judaism of that era regarding which of the 613 laws that Moses had given is the greatest. … The scribe posed a well-known trap indeed – a no-win situation.
But something happened to the scribe in the midst of Jesus’ response to his trap. Jesus provided the scribe with a stunning answer that caught him in the middle of his conscience and fundamental decency. After Jesus’ response linking the great commandment – the Shema Yisrael – to love God above all else with the command from Leviticus to love your neighbor as yourself, the scribe was stopped in his tracks and, no doubt to the surprise of all who were listening, responded, “You are right, teacher. ‘God is One and there is no other than he.’ And ‘to love him with all your heart, with all your understanding, with all your strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself’ is worth more than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.” … In response, Jesus, the one being challenged, asserted to the scribe what was indeed a very great thing to be told, “You are not far from the reign of God.”
We never hear of that scribe again in the scriptures. We’re not told what happened to him after his encounter with Jesus – whether he lost his job or his friends. Yet, the Gospel clearly passes on to us a profound story of conversion, doesn’t it? All of the debates and tricky questions he was so good at became secondary to the realities of the truth that he had just heard. His encounter with Jesus changed his life and restored his integrity.
In so many ways, this nameless scribe is every one of us – not the worst people who ever lived – but individuals who are quick to point out what needs to change – which is a good thing – but, by the same token, are reluctant to do anything to help make that change a reality. We can be dedicated to a thousand good causes, but at some point in our journey of life and faith, we have to ask ourselves the question: the two great commandments – love of God and love of our neighbor and ourselves – do they operate in our lives? … Do we live our faith with integrity? … Does what we profess take shape and form in how we live?
A few years before her death, the great American poet, Maya Angelou, appeared on The Today Show. She was asked about her lifetime goals. She answered, “I want to be a Christian.” This surprised the show’s host, who asked, “But aren’t you already a Christian?” To which Angelou replied, “When people come up to me and say they are Christians, I think to myself, ‘Oh my, already?’”
The Christian experience is very much a journey of faith. It is a journey that begins with an invitation and a promise at Baptism to engage the life of Jesus and so to be assured of God’s saving grace in our lives. But it is a journey that takes a lifetime to achieve.
Given its all too human roots, this journey of faith so often finds the best of us wavering in our beliefs, making choices that are rooted in the darkness of sin and self-centeredness and consumed with our own wants and desires that set us at odds with our neighbor and our deepest, truest selves. … The sexual abuse crisis that we confront as a Church today and the sinful choices and decisions of Church leaders gives evidence of just how far removed this journey can drift from its center and goal in Jesus.
But the journey also finds us, more often than we may realize, reflecting the ways of Jesus in our lives and in our relationships one with another. Like the lives of faith-filled parishioners of the Diocese of Scranton who began building this local Church over 150 years ago, your presence at this Mass is a powerful reminder to us of God at work in your lives and in his Church – now, at this challenging moment, more than ever.
The journey of faith through which we become Christians is an ongoing process. And it happens in the way Rabbi Harold Kushner points out: “When people ask me ‘Where is God?’ I tell them I would rather rephrase the question to ‘When is God?’ God is there when we love him, when we love our neighbor.”
There’s a wonderful story told about a woman who was in great distress because she had lost the sense of God in her life. “Why doesn’t God make me feel that he is there? If only I could feel him, know that he touched me.” And the old woman to whom she was complained said to her, “Pray to God. Ask God to touch you. He will put his hand on you.” The woman closed her eyes and began to pray earnestly – and suddenly she felt the hand of God touching her! She cried out, “He touched me!” and went into an ecstasy of joy for a moment. But then she paused and said to her elderly companion, “But you know, it felt just like your hand.” … The old woman replied, “Of course it did. it was my hand.” “It was?” “Sure, what did you think God would be doing? Did you think he would extend a long arm out of heaven to touch you? He just took the hand that was nearest and used it.”
It’s clear from Jesus’ teaching that the greatest among us are those who share their vision of faith not in words alone but by the power of their example, in the integrity of their lives, in their commitment of service toward and respect for those whose lives are woven into their own. … And it is in our service and respect for all of God’s people that our beliefs are given life and the mark we leave in our world finds its light!
Some of you may have heard this story. I’ve shared it often. When Pope Francis was in Philadelphia during his visit to the United States in 2015, he talked about Saint Katharine Drexel, a saint from Pennsylvania, who was born just ten years before our Diocese was founded in 1868 and who was most noted for her work with the poor. Saint Katharine, who was a religious sister, met with Pope Leo XIII concerning mission work. She asked the Pope for help with her ministry. In response to her questions, the Pope seemed to turn the tables on Katharine. He said: “What about you? Tell me what you are going to do to make a difference. What are you going to do to proclaim Jesus?”
As Christians – as disciples of Jesus – we have but one responsibility. We are called through baptism to embrace and proclaim Jesus life, death and resurrection. In so doing, we are challenged to make his example of selfless love and service our own.
Brothers and sisters, we may be angry because of the injustices we see in our world. We may be disillusioned by what we are experiencing in our Church. But for the authentic follower of Jesus – for the authentic Christian – we are not given a pass because our world and our Church are imperfect. To the contrary, Jesus reminds us time and again – and as recently as his encounter with the scribe in today’s Gospel – that our mission – like his – is to proclaim good news to all who are in need of God’s mercy and forgiveness.
So love the Lord your God with your whole heart, soul, mind and strength. … Love your neighbor as yourself. … Make someone else’s life better because he or she experienced yours and so leave a mark for good in our world!