Mar 25, 2022: Friday of the Third Week of Lent

1st Reading – Hosea 14:2-10

Thus says the LORD:
Return, O Israel, to the LORD, your God;
you have collapsed through your guilt.
Take with you words,
and return to the LORD;
Say to him, “Forgive all iniquity,
and receive what is good, that we may render
as offerings the bullocks from our stalls.
Assyria will not save us,
nor shall we have horses to mount;
We shall say no more, ‘Our god,’
to the work of our hands;
for in you the orphan finds compassion.”

I will heal their defection, says the LORD,
I will love them freely;
for my wrath is turned away from them.
I will be like the dew for Israel:
he shall blossom like the lily;
He shall strike root like the Lebanon cedar,
and put forth his shoots.
His splendor shall be like the olive tree
and his fragrance like the Lebanon cedar.
Again they shall dwell in his shade
and raise grain;
They shall blossom like the vine,
and his fame shall be like the wine of Lebanon.

Ephraim! What more has he to do with idols?
I have humbled him, but I will prosper him.
“I am like a verdant cypress tree”– 
Because of me you bear fruit!

Let him who is wise understand these things;
let him who is prudent know them.
Straight are the paths of the LORD,
in them the just walk,
but sinners stumble in them.

Hosea began his prophetic career in the last years of Jeroboam II (786-746 BC). He lived at a time of great crisis for the northern kingdom of Israel, which was brought to an end by the mighty Assyrian empire in 732 BC.

Today’s reading is from the last oracle in the Book of Hosea. It follows the pattern of the entire book: the denunciation of Israel’s infidelity is followed by a blessing from the Lord.

Thus says the LORD: Return, O Israel, to the LORD, your God;

Through Hosea, God calls Israel to conversion. He wants them to turn away from self-love, self-trust, and self-assertion and toward obedient trust in him.

you have collapsed through your guilt.

Israel’s infidelity took the form of idolatry and ruthless oppression of the poor.

Take with you words, and return to the LORD;

Hosea entreats Israel to be converted so that God may heal her unfaithfulness.

say to him, “Forgive all iniquity, and receive what is good, that we may render as offerings the bullocks from our stalls.

Hosea gives the people specific instructions for how to repent, beginning with heartfelt prayer. But remember, it is God who is telling Hosea what to say; essentially, God is putting words in the people’s mouths and telling them exactly how to reform their lives.

Assyria will not save us, nor shall we have horses to mount; we shall say no more, ‘Our god,’ to the work of our hands; for in you the orphan finds compassion.”

Instead of trusting in God, Israel had put its confidence in foreign alliances with Assyria (Hosea 8:9 and 12:2), its own power (“horses to mount”, Hosea 10:13), and idolatry (Hosea 8:4–6; 13:2).

Hosea exhorts Israel to turn away from these sinful practices and trust in the Lord alone.

I will heal their defection, says the LORD, I will love them freely; for my wrath is turned away from them.

When the people repent, God not only ceases to be angry with them but offers them reconciliation and designs their good.

I will be like the dew for Israel: he shall blossom like the lily; he shall strike root like the Lebanon cedar, and put forth his shoots. His splendor shall be like the olive tree and his fragrance like the Lebanon cedar. Again they shall dwell in his shade and raise grain; they shall blossom like the vine, and his fame shall be like the wine of Lebanon.

To Israelites indeed God himself will be as the dew. He will refresh them with his comforts so that their souls shall be as a watered garden (Isaiah 58:11).

All sorts of attractive imagery are used to indicate how Israel will flourish in the love of God: the dew; the fragrance of Lebanon; the grain and the vine, which stand for the good things the Lord (and not the Baals) bestows on the people.

Ephraim! What more has he to do with idols? I have humbled him, but I will prosper him.

By referencing Ephraim, this statement is addressed to the entire northern kingdom.

In 930 BC the tribe of Ephraim led the 10 northern tribes in a successful revolt against the south and established the Kingdom of Israel, with Jeroboam I, an Ephraimite, as king. From about 745 BC, the northern kingdom was often referred to as the Kingdom of Ephraim, a reflection of the tribe’s importance.

In repentance and reformation, the people of the kingdom each ask, what have I to do any more with idols?

“I am like a verdant cypress tree” – because of me you bear fruit!

Israel was previously compared to a tree, now God compares himself to one.

The evergreen cypress tree was a symbol of lasting life, stable and enduring.

Let him who is wise understand these things; let him who is prudent know them. 

Some translations have “Who is wise enough to understand these things?
Who is intelligent enough to know them?” This is a challenge to the reader in the style of wisdom literature.

Straight are the paths of the LORD, in them the just walk, but sinners stumble in them.

It is our wisdom and duty to know and understand the paths of the Lord. The just will conform to the will of God, and so be comforted. Transgressors, however, will fall not only in their own wrong ways but even in the right ways of the Lord.

Psalm 81: 6c-11b, 14, 17

R. I am the Lord your God: hear my voice.

Psalm 81 shows that God continues to hope that his people will listen to him.

It consists of an oracle in which the Lord reminds them that he was their deliverer from slavery in Egypt and exhorts them to hearken to what he has to say so that he may save them.

An unfamiliar speech I hear:

God’s voice is authoritative and unlike merely human words (cf. Nm 24:4, 16).

“I relieved his shoulder of the burden; his sands were freed from the basket. In distress you called, and I rescued you.”

God reminds the Israelites of how he liberated them from slavery in Egypt.

Part of the oppressive labor the Israelites were forced to perform was making bricks. They carried the clay to make those bricks in baskets (Exodus 1:14).

“Unseen, I answered you in thunder; I tested you at the waters of Meribah. Hear, my people, and I will admonish you; O Israel, will you not hear me?”

In spite of having been delivered from slavery, and even though God manifested himself to them on Sinai (Exodus 19:16-19), the people proved unfaithful as early as the incident at Meribah, where they rebelled (Numbers 20:2-13).

“There shall be no strange god among you nor shall you worship any alien god. I, the LORD, am your God who led you forth from the land of Egypt.”

After reminding them of their exodus from Egypt, Israel is challenged to obey the first of the Ten Commandments: fidelity to God.

“If only my people would hear me, and Israel walk in my ways, I would feed them with the best of wheat, and with honey from the rock I would fill them.”

God keeps hoping that his people will turn back to him and obey him so that he can overwhelm them with generous gifts.

Gospel – Mark 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.

All three synoptic gospels place this episode after Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem (Palm Sunday) and before his passion begins (Holy Thursday).

One of the scribes came to Jesus and asked him, “Which is the first of all the commandments?”

By this time, the Torah had been interpreted into 613 distinct commandments of official biblical law. Although all of them were considered binding, some were considered more important than others. Presumably the scribe, whose very profession included the interpretation of the law, would have understood the relative prioritization of the commandments better than Jesus, who was not a scribe.

In the verses just prior to this reading (18-27), Jesus answers the question “In the resurrection, whose wife will a woman who has had seven husbands be?” This scribe was impressed with his answer; it prompts him to pose this very significant question to Jesus.

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.’

Jesus cites the Shema, quoting from Deuteronomy 6:4-5 — a surprising answer because it is not one of the 613 commandments.

Note that Jesus adds “with all your mind,” to the quote from Deuteronomy, presumably to emphasize the complete engagement of the person. The love of God must occupy one’s entire being.

When we make the sign of the cross, we are tracing the Shema upon ourselves, touching our forehead (mind), chest (heart), and shoulders (strength), and pledging them to God’s service.

The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”

Jesus is asked to identify one commandment, and he offers two. The second is a quote from Leviticus 19:18, which is also not among the 613 commandments.

By bringing these admonitions together in this way, he shows that they are interrelated, their common theme being love.

“This is the summit of virtue, the foundation of all God’s commandments: to the love of God is joined also love of neighbor. One who loves God does not neglect his brother, nor esteem money more than a limb of his own, but shows him great generosity, mindful of him who has said, ‘Whoever did it to the least of my brothers did it to me.’ He is aware that the Lord of all considers as done to Himself what is done in generosity to the poor in giving relief. He does not take into consideration the lowly appearance of the poor, but the greatness of the One who has promised to accept as done to Himself what is given to the poor” [Saint John Chrysostom (388 AD), Homilies On Genesis, 55,12].

The scribe said to him, “Well said, teacher. You are right in saying, ‘He is One and there is no other than he.’

The scribe recognizes Jesus’ response as both accurate and profound. He calls him “teacher,” which is a significant sign of respect coming from an official interpreter of the law.

Jesus was a threat to the influence of the scribes, which is why most New Testament references show them as hostile. This story is unique in that it portrays a friendly, non-controversial discussion between Jesus and a scribe.

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.”

The scribe demonstrates his skills of interpretation by merging the two pronouncements of Jesus and further developing them by echoing Hosea 6:6 and 1 Samuel 15:22.

“My brothers, shun not only the holding, but even the hearing, of the judgment that bans mercy. For mercy is better than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices” [Pope Saint Callistus I (circa 217 AD), Second Epistle to All the Bishops of Gaul, 6].

And when Jesus saw that he answered with understanding, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.”

The scribe “gets it” — he sees through the complexity of the law. He understands that true love, of God and of others, far surpasses any kind of cultic obligation.

Like the rich man in Mark Chapter 10, the scribe is on the threshold of the reign of God; however, unlike the rich man, Jesus doesn’t say “there is one more thing” (Mark 10:21). The scribe has no impediments.

And no one dared to ask him any more questions.

This answer covered all other questions. What else was there to ask? What other answer could be given?

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