From Scribal Understanding to Holy Living

Mk 12: 28-34

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 your 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 offerings 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 to ask him any more questions.

____________

In this gospel Jesus was approached by a scribe, who inquired, “Which is the first of all the commandments?” Jesus responds, “…Love God with all your heart with all your soul, and with all your mind and with all your strength.”  Jesus continues, “…the second is this: you shall love your neighbor as yourself, there is no other commandment greater than these.”   The gospel story ends with Jesus acknowledging the scribe’s correct understanding of the scriptures, as he encourages him to continue working and growing as He states, “you are not far from the kingdom of God.”

This last point is a very interesting and important to note, that is, how a scribe can understand so much of the Scriptures, and yet – according to Jesus  – still be “…not far from (or outside of) God’s Kingdom.” This profoundly simple point can easily be overlooked and missed!!!

If prayerfully considered in light of one’s life, it has the potential to be one of those “Wait, Jesus said what?” points that can almost make both Catholics and non Catholics briefly rethink, if not to almost hope in, the Church’s teaching about purgatory

Throughout Christian history and especially in the last 500 years since the Protestant Reformation, I believe many Christians have studied themselves into this scribal state – gaining a  great understanding of  God’s law and Word, the Scriptures – but who, for some reason, is still not yet in  (and working towards)  God’s Kingdom.

Why is the classic scribe, still “in route to” and “not yet in” God’s Kingdom?

Well, what some of these scribes fail to understand about God’s Word – is that an academic, intellectual or simple believing sense of the Scriptures – should be just our first step and response to that dynamic and living Word that is the Scriptures.

That first step – accepting, acknowledging and learning more about what is contained and taught in the Scriptures – must be followed by a second and more important step: becoming a doer of God’s Word.

There is a huge difference between being a doer of God’s Word and an understander God’s Word.  The evil one Satan, definitely understands – in the common understanding of what understanding means – more about   scripture than most who have ever lived one may argue, but is he saved?

Let’s be clear: only Jesus as the Living Word made flesh could understand the Scriptures fully, as it is a dynamic and living book that cannot be fully grasped by any living soul.  By grace and faith, we are able to grow and to understand more of what is in the Scriptures, however no one apart from Jesus can or ever will master understanding the Scriptures.

However one can, even without knowing all the mysteries of God, by grace and faith become a faithful, consistent and holy doer of God’s Word.  The history and testimony from the lives of the saints reveals that living out the Ten Commandments and Jesus’ Laws of Love in our human relationships is very possible by grace and faith!!!

Their lives also reveal that it is the obedience to and living out of God’s law that actually leads to a true and Spirit filled understanding of the Scriptures, even though many today think, desire and believe that this gift is given freely and frequently to all – with or without holy living. I’ll stick with what the saints have witnessed to myself.

In the New Testament’s Book of James, we are taught that “faith without works is dead.”  And while yes, studying the scriptures is a necessary prayerful work that illuminates the mind, heart and will, only in conjunction with the humble, contrite and prayerful struggle to obey and live out God’s laws daily that the deepest Scriptural knowledge, truths and ultimately relationship with God is given.

Only by prayerfully accepting each day the graced struggle to become a Simon of Cyrene – to willfully and intentionally bear the Cross as given to us – will God infuse the depth and breadth of wisdom that the immature scribe in us all is truly seeking…

Common sense from our natural lives will pound home this point more clearly.  In the same way the doctors become great doctors by doing medicine and great artist become so because of their great depth, commitment and willingness to enter into and to develop the core of their work, so is it also with God’s people – we come to know, love and understand the depths of the scriptures primarily by living it, not solely  by studying about it.

In fact, it is probably best to only know and memorize the Ten Commandment and Jesus’ Laws of Love – if we had only to two things  in the whole Bible to both  memorize  and live out. The OT Law tells us what love actually consists of and how to do it whereas the NT Laws of Love tells us who to love and the depth, breadth and manner that we are called to love them in – in the Loving Spirit and Truth of the OT Law!!!

Simply put, who comes to understand the depths of love – any love – by studying and reading about it alone?  One must take and make a leap of faith to live that love in order to truly know it…

What did that scribe in the Gospel and many contemporary super-scriptured-up-Christians need, in order to actually enter God’s Kingdom? Simply to do more living of the Gospel, than studying of the Gospels…

When the scribe asked Jesus, which commandment was the greatest, I doubt if he expected to hear Jesus’ response linking TWO COMMANDMENTS  together into one great commandment. In doing so, Jesus clarified and simplified the scriptural criteria for what constitutes true knowledge and understanding of God’s Law.

Jesus taught that true knowledge and understanding of God’s Law is revealed in how we live and by our lives, not simply or only by what we claim to intellectually understand and give our accent to.

In contrast to our contemporary intellectualized and psychological understanding of what ‘understanding actually is,’ God’s Word presents and teaches that having Scriptural understanding requires more…

As reflected by the saints, it  requires one to be spiritually integrated and mature, having a  head (understanding/believing) plus heart (feeling and desire ) plus free will (action) that seeks to live daily by faith and in response to God through and in our relationships and communities…

I suspect, that if you are like myself and that scribe in the Gospel, you definitely still have a loooooong way to go before we catch up with the saints in living out God’s Word…

My prayer for us, is that as our inner scribe’s love of learning continues to grow, that God may grant us the grace to begin shifting our focus more on living out that simple ten cents of basic and core scriptural knowledge – the Ten Commandments – rather that seeking to understand (in the contemporary manner) Paul’s theology or some other deep scriptural and theological points…

My prayer is that, like the saints, we may move from primarily seeking to understand the Word in the contemporary and scribal sense, to living it with our lives – by strugglin’ to love, serve and to live justly in the various communities that we minister to daily.

My prayer is that by grace, we may accept the Holy Spirit’s invitation to let go of our youthful, milk based scribal understandings and to willfully accept each day – the mature struggle and food of the Cross – that God serves us daily in the everyday challenge to live the Ten Commandments and to Love our enemies.

May the Holy Spirit lead us in this endeavor, as we move and grow from being scripture and theology spittin’ scribes to simple, holy saints living out the Ten Commandments and Jesus’ Laws of Love.

Author: P. J. West, Jr.

Paul J. West Jr. is a cradle Catholic and native Chicagoan who has ministered in Catholic Schools, parishes and hospitals for over two decades. His current ministries are focused on both hospital chaplaincy and writing. Prior to this, he ministered as an educator for almost twenty five years teaching religion, scripture, philosophy and ethics at four Chicago area high schools and adults at the Chicago Catholic Scripture School. His parish ministry has included preaching, teaching, writing and serving as a Eucharistic minister. Mr. West, who is native south sider, has been married for almost 30 years to Dr. Joy West. They have raised four beautiful daughters who are all hardcore Bears and White Sox fans!!!!

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