Agape Has Only One Source: God

Friday in the Third Week of Lent: Hosea 14:2-10, Mark 12:28-34.

Today’s gospel reading should be very familiar to us. Not only is it one of Jesus’s most straightforward sayings, it’s the answer to what is the “greatest commandment,” which is shorthand for saying, “cut to the chase, what do I need to do to get into Heaven?” Everyone perks up their ears for this answer. It sounds simple; it’s a nice sound bite. But we really have to dig into this to understand what defines Christianity beyond simple morality or concern for the social good.

Although this episode occurs in all three of the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), here in Mark it is the most positive of all the run-ins with scribes in the gospels. A scribe, evidently impressed with his teachings rather than simply seeking to test him or trap him, asks Jesus what the greatest commandment is. Remember, there are 613 commandments in the Old Testament, and the scribes’ job was to know them intimately and come up with complex scenarios to test them as they teach their people. While we can rightly understand Jesus’s response as a joining of two commandments — loving God and loving neighbor — his response has three parts:

The Shema inscription on the Knesset Menorah (the Israeli national legislature building in Jerusalem), 1954, Benno Elkan | Wikimedia Commons.

1a. Hear, O Israel! The Lord our God is Lord alone! This is the opening verse of the Shema (she-MAH), a highly important prayer recited by Jews to open their morning and evening prayer. It is spoken by Moses in Deuteronomy 6:4. Praying the Shema is a religious commandment in itself (a mitzvah). This prayer distinguished our God as only one in the midst of a world dominated by polytheism. But it applies today; the gods vying for our attention may not be Baal, Ishtar, or Zeus, but they most certainly are self, as seen in pride, power, riches, and pleasure.

1b. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength. This is the continuation of the Deuteronomy passage (6:5), and while it flows directly from the first declaration, it is a different mandate. The only difference between Mark’s account of Jesus’s words is the addition of “with all your mind,” which may be an addition for his Greek-speaking, non-Jewish audience since Jews had a concept of the mind being intertwined in the heart, akin to the concept of intention (and was therefore implied in already in Deuteronomy). In either case, it is clear that we should love God with everything we have: intelligence, emotion, intention, courage, endurance, etc. It is from this whole-person love of God that we receive the gifts to accomplish the last part of the great commandment.

St. Magdalene in the Desert (1848-1852), Honore Daumier | Creative Commons, courtesy WikiArt.org.

2. You shall love your neighbor as yourself. The Word of God first uttered this commandment to Moses as recorded in the Book of Leviticus, chapter 19, verse 18. It comes after a series of verses that describe ways this love should be manifested, reading much like the second half of the Ten Commandments. And when we consider Jesus’s answer to the scribe, we do see a reflection of the Ten Commandments, the first half dealing with loving God and the second half dealing with love of neighbor. The “greatest” of the commandments is a consolidation of God’s law that does not omit a thing.

More than just a summary, however, this commandment demonstrates the great movement and flow of love between us and God. What is this love that has a life of its own, that gains energy as it gets passed along? Let’s examine the classical Greek categories of love. This is not eros, or erotic love, that is the irresistible desire between two people; although desire is a part of this love. This is not philia, or the fondness and brotherly love that binds us in friendship; although this type of love is a part of it. This is not storge, or instinctual love like that towards your family, although, again, instinctual love comes into play. This love is agape (ἀγάπη). It is considered the “highest” type of love, transcending the others. This word for love was seldom used by Greek writers prior to Christianity and meant a selfless love solely for the benefit of another. Agape was used by the New Testament writers and found its truest, purest definition in God. As we explored in If You Knew the Gift!, the love we call agape is at the heart of the Trinity. The river of life, the love that endlessly flows between the three Persons of the Trinity, is the “self-opening of our thrice-holy God.” Here we see that agape originates in God, before the world was created. 

It is only in this sense that we can begin to understand what is meant in the First Letter of John: “God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them” (Jn 4:16). Yes, St. John uses the word agape for love. And this famous passage provides a good lens for understanding the greatest commandment. If God is love, then by “loving God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength” is to give God (love) back to God. It is to be God, for God. We are asked to somehow give this selfless river of life back to God.

And we can see how the second part of the great commandment flows naturally from the first, for what characterizes God’s agape other than the care and cultivation of his Creation? God does this gratuitously and with unending forgiveness. When we allow the agape originating in God to suffuse us and pour from us back to Him, we are at the same time loving our neighbor since this is part of the nature of that agape to begin with. That’s why love of God always must come first. Loving our neighbor cannot be an aim in its own right, divorced from loving God first. It is our very acceptance, understanding, and reciprocation of God’s own agape that enables us to truly love our neighbor as Christ intends.

The Prophet Hosea (c.1510), Raphael | Wikimedia Commons. This was a preparatory study for a fresco in the Chigi Chapel in Santa Maria della Pace in Rome.

Here we see a great connection to Hosea, one of the earliest prophets, to whom God revealed the nature of his love. As Pope Benedict the XVI’s points out in his first encyclical, Deus Caritas Est (God is Love):

Hosea above all shows us that this agape dimension of God’s love for man goes far beyond the aspect of gratuity. Israel has committed “adultery” and has broken the covenant; God should judge and repudiate her. It is precisely at this point that God is revealed to be God and not man: “How can I give you up, O Ephraim! How can I hand you over, O Israel! … My heart recoils within me, my compassion grows warm and tender. I will not execute my fierce anger, I will not again destroy Ephraim; for I am God and not man, the Holy One in your midst” (Hos 11:8-9).

So when we hear in the final chapter of Hosea in today’s first reading, “Return, O Israel, to the LORD, your God,” it is God in his forgiveness and love who is imploring them to return. As we discovered in our reflection a few days ago, mercy is the master principle for our religion because it is the act of passing on the forgiveness God gives us. Through mercy, we take in God’s agape and reflect it, share it with others.

You might ask if God is really a necessary part of the loving others equation. Atheists who donate to food banks and agnostics who volunteer at homeless shelters are fine examples of philia, brotherly love, or even perhaps storge, instinctual love, but not agape. Because the atheist and the agnostic turn their back on God, they refuse to receive and then give the agape that originates in Him. No Christian can truly live the greatest commandment to love his or her neighbor without having that love originate in and be a reflection of God. Why does this matter? Because eternal salvation rests in us uniting ourselves with God, with that agape

It feels like our readings and reflections this Lent have been building to this point, which is roughly halfway to our Lord’s death and resurrection. We have been growing in our understanding of God’s nature: how he thirsts for us and we reciprocate in thirst for him (see If You Knew the Gift!), how he wants us to turn from our sin and follow him in spirit as well as adherence to the law (see Salvation is Based on our Core Person), how each of us is on a path of reditus back to the Lord and once we get there we can start to love selflessly like him (see Rejoice for the Pardon of the Prodigal), and how our granting of mercy to each other in the same manner he grants it to us is the master principle of our faith (see Mercy is the Master Principle). We are left with a question: how do we follow the greatest commandment? With what strength will we possibly be able to love God completely and treat others like we treat ourselves? We know that we constantly fall back into temptation and sin. It is our nature and the way of the world. How can we be re-sanctified and raised beyond this world in order to follow this greatest of commandments?

The answer for all of us Christians is, of course, the Sacred Heart of Jesus, which is the fount of our strength, purification, and salvation. It endlessly pours upon us divine grace and enables our true communion with God.

The Sacred Heart of Jesus – the Golden Arrow (2017), Ingrid Blixt | Artwork from ingridblixt.wordpress.com.

Pope Benedict XVI writes, “Anyone who wishes to give love must also receive love as a gift. Certainly, as the Lord tells us, one can become a source from which rivers of living water flow (cf. Jn 7:37-38). Yet to become such a source, one must constantly drink anew from the original source, which is Jesus Christ, from whose pierced heart flows the love of God (cf. Jn 19:34)” (Deus Caritas Est, 7). Yes, Christ is the ultimate example of agape for us. God not only gives His Son as a sacrifice for us in a stunning display of love, but he opens the door for us to become sources of life for the world. The Christ event opens a new reality specifically through the flesh and blood of Jesus, in which he enables us to mystically partake with every liturgy.

How exactly are the Church and the great Sacrament enabling us to live out the greatest commandment in an even more unanticipated and deep way? Pope Benedict XVI explains:

Communion draws me out of myself toward him, and thus also toward unity with all Christians. We become “one body,” completely joined in a single existence. Love of God and love of neighbor are now truly united: God incarnate draws us all to himself. we can thus understand how agape also became a term for Eucharist: there God’s own agape comes to us bodily, in order to continue his work in us and through us. Only by keeping in mind this Christological and sacramental basis can we correctly understand Jesus’ teaching on love (Deus Caritas Est, 14).

Over the second half of Lent we continue to contemplate God’s nature and works but we also pivot to begin contemplating the majesty and mystery of His Son. The internal logic of the readings and their relationship to the liturgical seasons becomes more apparent. Yet the fullness of God’s message was always there, at all times. It was Christ, the Word, who first gave this greatest of commandments to Moses as recorded in Deuteronomy and Leviticus. The one great difference, the great change, is the New Covenant given by Christ in the person of Jesus, where agape descended from Heaven and manifested in a bodily and spiritual sacrifice, made once and forever.

Let us embrace this second half of Lent and immerse ourselves, prepare ourselves for the gift of agape that we are asked to celebrate and carry with us throughout our lives.

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