Internal Transformation

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

Today we hear Jesus affirm the greatest commandment to love God first and then your neighbor. The short exchange with the scribe after His answer seems at first glance either to be unnecessary or to elevate the scribe as judge of Christ’s answer. But this exchange is very valuable because God had been trying to teach the Jews for centuries, if not millennia, that a transformation of heart is more important than the rituals of sacrifice. The first reading underlines the type of transformation God promises as you come to Him — one that involves every aspect of yourself.

One question has bothered me: does it seem egotistical of the scribe to test Jesus about the commandments? Jesus doesn’t seem too put out by this, and we have to remember that this was part and parcel of the scribes’ work. 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. If a prophet and healer appears, it would be natural for a scribe to converse with him specifically about the commandments.

The Torah Scribe (1914), Ephraim Moses Lilien | Wikimedia Commons.

We all know Jesus’s answer, wherein He fuses two commandments into one great commandment of love: “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.” Actually, there are three parts to this (the opening of the Shema plus the two commandments); see the post Agape has Only One Source: God for a longer reflection on this. In short, Jesus is showing that the complete love of God has a transformative effect on us so that we are infused with His Love in return, which naturally must be shared with those around us on earth in acts of kindness and charity. Love of God, in other words, has consequences; great consequences.

The Word of God shared this same truth of internal transformation with the prophet Hosea over 700 years earlier, as we hear in today’s first reading. The first part of the commandment occurs as the Israelites are urged to return to the Lord fully. This complete love of God has a few markers in Hosea’s short passage: 1. Contrition for past sins: “Forgive all iniquity,” 2. Acknowledgment that He alone is God and Savior: “Assyria will not save us … We shall say no more, ‘Our god,’ to the work of our hands,” 3. Complete giving of themselves and their fate to Him and His grace: “in you the orphan finds compassion.”

Then, the fun part: “I will heal their defection, says the LORD, I will love them freely.” Our God is a God of forgiveness and love. All it takes is our commitment to Him. And what do we get in return? Hosea does a poet’s job of describing the transformation of a person when God’s love is given freely. Hosea involves the senses: 

  • Touch: “I will be like the dew for Israel: he shall blossom like the lily”
  • Sight: “His splendor shall be like the olive tree … They shall blossom like the vine”
  • Smell: “and his fragrance like the Lebanon cedar”
  • Taste: “his fame shall be like the wine of Lebanon”

This has always been God’s promise for those who uphold His Covenant. He reminds them what upholding the covenant means: “Straight are the paths of the LORD, in them the just walk, but sinners stumble in them.” In other words, this transformation demands your continued fidelity to God and the moral precepts He has given you.

Pilgrimage to the Cedars of Lebanon (1907), Tivadar Csontváry Kosztka | Wikimedia Commons.

So, what about the “love your neighbor” part? Was that given by the Word of God to the prophets as well? It was, and we see it in the images they give us about the yield of the harvest. In today’s reading, we hear Hosea say, “Again they shall dwell in his shade and raise grain … ‘I am like a verdant cypress tree’ – Because of me you bear fruit!” God’s protection gives them the ability to “raise grain” and “bear fruit” — signs of a flourishing human community, one that cares for itself and prospers. The idyllic nature of these words describes a society where people care for each other and prosper under God’s guidance. Note how their ability to love each other is just as tied to loving/being loved by God as it is when Jesus ties these two in the greatest commandment. Not only does loving God come first, it also enables us to love our neighbor in the way he or she deserves.

To return to the gospel pericope, the scribe hears Jesus’s answer and agrees, adding that this commandment “is worth more than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.” This little addendum demonstrates to Jesus that this scribe has set aside the fetishization of the 613 prescriptions, an overly ritualistic understanding of a relationship with God, in favor of a simple call to true internal transformation. This is why Jesus responds, “You are not far from the Kingdom of God.” The Kingdom is this state of loving God, being transformed by God and spreading His love throughout the world. 

The challenge is to stay on the Lord’s straight path, and that’s why Christ has been given to us as the Way. We are joined to Christ on this Way by being baptized into His mystical Body, the Church. We must continually pray to Christ to intercede for us to the Father — to grant us His grace in helping us stay on the straight path. We must continually feed ourselves on His Word and His sacramental Body. All of this describes the liturgy that has been given to us through His Resurrection, a new Way of obtaining the Kingdom of God with all our heart, our soul, our mind, and our strength.

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