Some time ago I was on an airplane and a fellow traveler next to me struck up a conversation. “You are a priest?” “Yes,” I said. After a few pleasantries he steered our conversation to belief in God. He envied me, he said. “You must be confident in your faith, but for me God seems real only in brief glimpses. For the rest I am left groping in the dark.”
That conversation popped up again when I reflected on the readings for this Sunday. My response to my brief companion was to note that Jesus respected people who see God only in glimpses. I thought of the father of the boy Jesus healed who cried out, “I believe but help my unbelief.” And I thought of today’s gospel passage about the scribe who asks Jesus which commandment was the “first of all.” The version of this story in Matthew’s Gospel portrays the scribe as trying to test Jesus, but not so in Mark’s version.
Jesus’ response to the Scribe draws deeply on Jewish tradition. Jesus first cites the so-called “Shema” (which means “listen” or “hear”) or “creed” of Israel taken from the Book of Deuteronomy which is still recited daily by observant Jews: “The Lord our God is Lord alone! You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.” Beyond the segment quoted in today’s Gospel, the text of Deuteronomy goes on to urge the Israelites “to take these words to heart,” “keep repeating them to your children,” “recite them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you get up,” “bind them on your arm as a sign and let them be a pendant on your forehead,” “write them on the doorposts of your houses and on your gates.” Jews keep faith with this command by wearing amulets with this text inside on their arms and foreheads when they pray and by fastening “mezuzah” or small cylinders with these words inside on their doorposts.
But Jesus adds to these indelible words a quotation from the Book of Leviticus— “the second is this: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Love of God and love of neighbor—in a few profound words Jesus sums up for the scribe the very essence of what faith in God means. The scribe is awe-struck by Jesus’ insight: “Well said, teacher!” And he repeats Jesus’ words, adding his own conclusion that these two commandments fused together in Jesus’ teaching are “worth more than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.”
This scribe who came to Jesus earnestly seeking the truth grasped that even the sacred rituals of the temple worship would be meaningless if not done in a spirit of love of God and love of neighbor. Jesus, the Gospel notes, saw that the scribe was sincere and had answered “with understanding.”
Jesus’ final words to the Scribe reminded me of my fellow-traveler who saw God “only in glimpses.” Jesus tells the scribe who had been seeking God, “you are not far from the kingdom of God.” Not there yet, perhaps, but “not far” either. How many people there are today—including many young adults—who grapple with the faith that seems to come more easily to their parents’ generation. I am convinced that the Jesus portrayed in the Gospels had great compassion for those who struggle with faith, as all of us do at times. And I think Jesus would understand those who have become disillusioned with a form of religion they experience as irrelevant or, worse, hypocritical. Unfortunately, our Church itself, when it lacks integrity or is indifferent to the questions of the young, can lay down its own obstacles for those seeking faith.
The readings for this Sunday invite us to go to the very heart of our faith, to proclaim it by what we say and do, and to have compassion and respect for those who struggle with belief. They are not far from the kingdom of God.