Carroll Stuhlmueller, the Scripture scholar, once mentioned in class that prophets rarely say anything new.

Their oracles revolve around ideas, beliefs and divine commands that have been present in a specific religion for centuries. The prophet simply rearranges the "spiritual geography."

He or she pulls a concept from the perimeter of that religion and places it at its heart, while, at the same time, relegating what was front and center to its outskirts.

Council reforms

That's precisely what happened during the Second Vatican Council. The bishops took beliefs and practices we hadn't focused on for a long time and put them directly in front of our eyes.

That enabled those who didn't welcome or refused to accept the Council's reforms to get themselves off the theological hook by arguing that the Church wasn't giving us anything new. It had always taught what the bishops were decreeing.

The critics forgot to mention that such beliefs and practices had fallen at the bottom of our "what-to-teach list." The reforming bishops had turned the list upside down.

That's also what Jesus, as a prophet, tried to accomplish during His earthly ministry. Listen carefully to how He compliments the scribe for His insightful answer in Sunday's Gospel (Mark 12:28-34). "You are not far," He says, "from the reign of God."

Regular readers of this column will immediately understand that Jesus isn't stating that the scribe is close to getting into heaven. The technical term "reign of God" refers to the ability to experience God's working in our life here and now, long before we begin our eternal experience of God in heaven.

That's why it's important to remember the scribe's original question: "Which is the first of all the commandments?" In other words, he's asking Jesus, "What, in your practice of Judaism, have you positioned directly in front of your eyes?"

Jesus begins by repeating the core of Sunday's first reading (Deuteronomy 6:2-6), then quickly adds what He regards as Leviticus' most important command: "This is the first: 'Hear O Israel! Yahweh our God is Lord alone! Therefore you shall love Yahweh, your God, with all your heart,...soul,...mind, and...strength.' This is the second, 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.' There is no other commandment greater than these."

According to Jesus, only those who pull these commands from the perimeter of their faith and position them at its center will be able to achieve what He achieved: experiencing God's working in His daily life.

The author of the second reading (Hebrews 7:23-28) dwells on the terrific effect Jesus has in the lives of Christians as our one priest, intercessor and savior. The writer eventually reminds his readers that what others did in a partial, imperfect way before Jesus, He "made perfect forever."

Imitation first

It's easy to understand why anyone so deeply changed by Jesus would eventually develop a faith in Him. Yet, from the picture Mark paints of Jesus in the Gospel, it makes sense why another scholar constantly reminds us that Jesus' earliest followers imitated Him long before they worshipped Him.

Instead of acquiring faith in Jesus, they tried to instill in themselves the faith of Jesus. Every day, they worked at making Jesus' priorities their priorities. The religious "stuff" that cluttered their vision before they met and followed Him probably would have gotten them into heaven, but it never excited their faith and fulfilled their lives like the ideas Jesus positioned in the center of their faith and lives.

Only these newly centered ideas and practices helped them discover the God who is at the center of their faith and lives.

(11/2/06)