Love and Sacrifice
by Rev. Steven G. Oetjen
Reprinted by permission of "The Arlington Catholic Herald"
To Sunday Gospel Reflections Index
Mark wrote to explain Christ
to the new Gentile converts.
One of the scribes came to Jesus and asked him, "Which is the first of all the commandments?" Jesus replied, "The first is this: Hear, O Israel! The Lord our God is Lord alone! You shall love the Lord you God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength. The second is this: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. There is no other commandment greater than these." The scribe said to him, "Well said, teacher. You are right in saying, 'He 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 offering and sacrifices." And when Jesus saw that he answered with understanding, he said to him, "You are not far from the kingdom of God." And no one dared ask him any more questions.
Love of God and love of neighbor. We've probably heard this twofold commandment of love many times. It shows up in some form not only here in Mark's Gospel, but also in Matthew and Luke. One unique detail that Mark includes, however, is the scribe's reaction. On hearing Jesus' teaching, he says, "Well said, teacher. You are right in saying, 'He 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."
The scribe repeats Jesus' teaching in his own words to show his understanding, even adding that such love of God and neighbor is "worth more than all burnt offerings and sacrifices." The words of Our Lord have penetrated the scribe's heart, and now he sees all of the Law more clearly. He sees what is more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices and indeed what gives those sacrifices their value.
It's worth noting that this encounter takes place in Jerusalem, the place where the Temple is and where sacrifices are offered, and it takes place at some point during Holy Week, at the end of which Jesus would offer himself as the one perfect sacrifice for all sins.
Jesus arrived in Jerusalem in a triumphal procession of Palm Sunday (Mk 11:7-10), and when he entered Jerusalem he went immediately to the Temple and "looked round at everything," before going to Bethany because it was late (Mk 11:11). Jesus then returned to the Temple to cleanse it. What did he see there? This is where sacrifices took place, and the animals to be offered in sacrifice were being bought and sold as if in a marketplace. So Our Lord said, "Is it not written, 'My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations?' But you have made it a den of robbers" (Mk 11:17). This is what prompts the religious leaders to question his authority to do these things (Mk 11:28) and test him with a series of questions, ending with this one.
Understanding the passage in its context helps us to see exactly what this scribe was beginning to see in this conversation with Jesus. The scribe came to understand the emptiness of the sacrifices that were being offered to God in the Temple if they were offered without love. The sacrifices that God prescribed were not meant to be seen as a transaction with or a manipulation of the divine, as they were for the pagans (I exploit the orphan and widow, but it's all right because I offer the prescribed sacrifices).
The sacrifices prescribed by God in the Old Testament were meant to be offered in faith (God commanded me to do this, and so I believe it has an effect) and in loving obedience (I desire to do what God commands because I love him). A sacrifice offered without faith and love had no power to accomplish anything. Even the greatest sacrifice one can make for another is worth nothing without love, says St. Paul. "If I give away all I have, and if I deliver my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing " (1 Cor 13:3).
And these sacrifices pointed forward toward the one perfect sacrifice offered by Christ. What made that sacrifice powerful enough to overcome all the sins of the world? It was the infinite love that burned in the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus as he suffered and died on the cross, love for the Father and for us. It is precisely his love that makes his sacrifice perfect and pleasing to the Father and which atones for all of our sins. In the cross, Christ shows us that perfect love of God with the whole heart, soul, mind and strength, and perfect love of neighbor. This is the love that is worth more than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.
Each morning, we can renew our intention to love God and neighbor in union with the perfect love of Christ by saying to Jesus those words of the morning offering, "I offer you my prayers, works, joys and sufferings of this day, for all the intentions of your Sacred Heart, in union with the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass throughout the world ..."