31ST SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME YEAR B ON OCTOBER 31, 2021 (R. 1: Deuteronomy 6: 2-6; Psalm 18: 2-3, 3-4, 47, 51; R. 2: Hebrews 7: 23-28; Gospel: Mark 12: 28b-34)
FR EMMANUEL INEDU OCHIGBO
Since the past four Sundays, our second readings have been from the Letter to the Hebrews. There are so many questions about this letter that we are yet to confidently answer. For example, who is the author of this Letter to the Hebrews? Initially, it was taken for granted that Paul, who wrote most of the letters in the New Testament was the author of the Letter to the Hebrews. But after a careful look at the style of the Letter to the Hebrews, we understood that the authorship could not be attributed to Paul. That is why today, the lector would say, “A reading from the Letter to the Hebrews,” and not a reading from the Letter of Saint Paul to the Hebrews. What about the original target audience of this letter? There is the general agreement that the letter was originally addressed to Christians who converted from Judaism. The next question becomes, where were these Christians when they got the letter? Some scholars are of the view that they were residing in Palestine, while others opine that they were residing in Italy.
Another question is about the background of this letter. What culture influenced the writing of this letter? There are two views here. One view has it that the Greek culture influenced it and the other view is that the Jewish culture influenced the writing of the letter. From the Greek culture point of view, right from the time of Plato, there has been the understanding that there are two worlds: the real world and the world of shadows. The world we live in now is seen as the world of shadows, so everything we see in this world is just a shadow of the real world. Based on this background, the author of the Letter to the Hebrews invites Christians to join Jesus Christ who has come to take us from this world of shadows to the real world, the world of realities. From the point of view of the Jewish culture, it is dangerous to be very close to God. For example, in the Book of Exodus 33:20, we read that no one can see God and live. Only the high priest could show up in the presence of God, once a year, on the Day of Atonement. The high priest could not be there in the sanctuary in the presence of God for too long, if not, he would lose his life.
The establishment of a covenant relationship brought the people of Israel closer to God. This relationship was maintained by the observance of the commandments by the children of Israel. But they failed many times to keep the commandments. To remedy the situation, they offered sacrifices in the Temple. Overtime, they realized that those sacrifices were all efforts in futility, they continued to break the commandments and the gap between them, and God continued to increase. Their high priests could not save them; the sacrifices they were offering could not breakdown the barrier and could not bridge the gap between them and God. So, there was a need for a perfect priest who would come and offer a perfect sacrifice to bring about reconciliation between God and human beings.
According to the author of this Letter to the Hebrews, Jesus Christ came as the perfect priest to do what the old priests could not do. He offered a perfect sacrifice, once and for all, to bring about reconciliation between God and human beings. In today’s selection from the Letter to the Hebrews, some of the Jewish Christians, that is, some of the Christians who converted from Judaism were looking back, and they were missing their old religion. They were missing the solemnity of the worship in the Temple, they were missing the scent of the incense, they were missing the sound of trumpets. The author of the Letter to the Hebrews in today’s second reading challenged them to go for the superior religion, the one that Jesus Christ has brought. What they had in the past was only a preparation for the superior one which is what Jesus has brought. The priests in the past had their functions cut short because they did not live forever. But in Jesus Christ, we have a High Priest who is perfect, who lives forever, who has offered the perfect sacrifice bringing about the reconciliation between divinity and humanity, and between humanity and humanity.
In the gospel passage, Jesus reveals himself as the Superior Priest, who has come to take us beyond the practices of the old to the superior practice in the New Testament. Someone asked him to tell which commandment is the most important. In response, Jesus brought together all the commandments. Just like he brought about reconciliation between divinity and humanity, just like he closed the gap between divinity and humanity, he also closed the gaps between all the commandments, he linked them up with one word, LOVE. Previously, there was the confusion regarding which of the commandments was the most important. Jesus made it simple, it is all about loving God and loving your neighbor, which are essentially the same. You cannot claim to love God, whom you do not see if you do not love the neighbor, whom you see. The best way to love God is to love the neighbor, whom you can see.
So, Jesus has come to offer the perfect sacrifice and he is inviting us, not to offer a new sacrifice, but to connect to what he has done once and for all on our behalf. The cross tells the complete story of the reconciliation between divinity and humanity (the vertical beam), and the reconciliation between humanity and humanity (the horizontal beam). We cannot claim to be Christians until we connect completely to what Jesus has done for us, that is the reconciliation and the love he has brought for us. How do we know how to love? Jesus used himself as a model. He said, “Love one another as I have loved you.” That is the love that is ready to forgive those who have offended us, the love that is ready to fight for the growth of others, the love that is ready to come to the aid of those who are in isolation. Jesus has won the battle that we lost in the past for us. He is inviting us to connect to that victory, and the way to connect to it is through the love of neighbor which leads us to the love of God.
My dearly beloved in Christ, as we continue our journey here in this world of shadows, let us pray that the love of God be upon us as we place all our hope in God until we come to our heavenly inheritance, through Christ our Lord. Amen.