31st Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B

Love of God and Love of Neighbour
(Readings: Deuteronomy 6:2-6; Hebrews 7:23-28; Mark 12:28-34)
Introduction to Mass
The readings today concentrate on the "greatest commandment" as the gospel calls it. Jesus lays down two aspects to it: love of God and love of neighbour. For Christ, devotion to the Divine Being is essential, but that devotion is lacking if it doesn't find expression in concern and service towards our fellow human beings.
To prepare ourselves to celebrate this Mass, we call to mind our own failures to love, small and great, and we ask God to forgive us and strengthen us with his grace.
In today's Gospel reading Jesus is asked one of those questions where the questioner is looking for a short, simple statement on a large, complex subject.
Even so, it seems that Jesus doesn't need to stop and think before answering him. He refers back to the words of Moses which the scribe would have known very well and which we heard in the first reading: "You must love God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength".
The difficulty with this is that we can't see and hear God or get to know him in the way that we see and hear and know each other. God is different from us, our Creator rather than a fellow creature, and there's always a sense in which knowing and loving God is a different experience from knowing and loving another human person.
St. Bernard of Clairvaux, one of the great Christian mystics or contemplatives, wrote somewhere: "Time is ours only that we may find God".
It's a saying that suggests two things to me: that God isn't immediately accessible to us, we do have to take conscious steps to make contact with him - "find" him as St. Bernard put it. And also that it takes time: coming to know and love God is something that takes place gradually, spread out over the course of our whole life and beyond.
What happens is we find first of all that we have to clear away various obstacles and distractions and create the quiet and the solitude that's necessary to raise our thoughts to God. If we persist in doing that we start to become more aware of his presence, more aware of his influence and activity.
It involves effort and discipline on our part, but over time we get more of a sense of being drawn by a current from outside of ourselves. What starts out as a vague and unsure knowledge, maybe even a rather impersonal knowledge, gradually takes the shape of devotion to a person: our will and our emotion are involved, not just our minds.
A sense of dependence grows - it's not an equal relationship, it's more father and child, shepherd and sheep, to use two of the Bible's images. We experience the force of God's grace as a benevolent, protecting, guiding, loving force. And in response we then start to feel a desire to dedicate ourselves to God and to serve him in return.
So I think that when Jesus talked about love of God as the greatest commandment, it was something along these lines that he meant, this growing sense of the reality of God that we get if we persist in seeking him out and the devotion to him that we develop as we make progress in our relationship with him.
But Jesus doesn't leave things there. He adds a second commandment - just as important as the first, he says: "you must love your neighbour as yourself". If our love for God is real, Christ is saying, it will express itself in love for our fellow human beings.
Obviously this love is different from the particular and exclusive love that we reserve for family relationships and the people we're emotionally close to.
The love that Christ is proposing here is more a determined effort of will to surrender our own self-interest for the sake of the needs or the welfare of others. It's more a matter of a basic stance towards anyone and everyone - our "neighbour" - than a matter of the emotions that come into play in our close relationships.
Jesus' own illustration of this love is the behaviour of the Good Samaritan, putting himself out and looking after a complete stranger. This was a love that's free from any calculation of results or benefits for ourselves. It doesn't seek any reward. Christ himself showed this form of love throughout his ministry, most of all when he went to his death praying for the people who had conspired to kill him.
So there's something costly and difficult about this Christian love. It's the one thing that enhances our spiritual stature and brings out our resemblance to God. But at the same time it goes against the grain of all our more self-seeking inclinations, and that's where the problems can start.
People in Jesus' day, just as much as in our own, were happier with limited, manageable notions of love. They preferred, as we still prefer, to draw dividing-lines, recognising obligations to, and showing concern for, the people on one side, but refusing solidarity towards - even freely exploiting - those on the other side.
So Jesus found that he couldn't always put forward the principle of love in the positive way he does on this occasion. Very often he found himself having to preach his message in a negative way, denouncing the lack of love and the blindness to suffering that many of his fellow-believers showed while at the same time claiming a great devotion to God.
Christ didn't preach a religion of love in way that only patted people on the back and made them feel good about themselves - the purpose of so much modern religiosity, it seems. For Christ, coming close to God and being drawn into the circle of his love is always going to be something that challenges our lack of love and our refusal to love. If we're honest about ourselves, we won't mind admitting that frankly and we'll want to tackle it.
To wind up, then, this gospel passage puts a spotlight on a few important areas of Christian life.
One is the relationship with God that each of has individually. We're all called to search for God, and to be open to him, and when we persist in that we get drawn further into his life, and eventually loving God "with all our mind and heart and strength and will" the way Christ talks about becomes a reality.
Then there's Jesus' second commandment. If our love for God is genuine, it will naturally take shape in practical concern and service towards our neighbour, purely as a response to their need, without any element of self-interest on our part.
These are the two sides of the single great motive that lies at the heart of following Christ and living in communion with God.