Friday of the Third Week of Lent

March 4, 2016 / By: Michael J. Hollerich

Hosea 14:2-10 and Mark 12:28-34

Today’s readings focus on idolatry. The book of Hosea reflects political conditions in the late eighth century BC, when the people of Israel were divided into two kingdoms, north and south. The northern kingdom, here called “Ephraim” (one of the sons of Joseph), was exposed to imperial threats from Assyria in particular. Hosea 14, the last chapter in the book, concludes a series of brutal warnings about what awaits the northern kingdom for its indulgence in idolatry.

The reading from Mark’s gospel is Jesus’ famous answer to the question about which commandment was the greatest. The dialogue is found in three slightly different forms in the synoptic gospels. Mark’s version has Jesus start with a quotation of Deuteronomy 6:4, “‘Hear O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’” And then he adds, though he had not been asked: “The second is this, `You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these." He was asked about one. But he responded with two. The second is also a quotation, an abbreviated one, from the book of Leviticus 19:18.

The pairing of the two emphasizes that love of God and love of neighbor are inseparable. A well-known passage in the First Letter of John, “Whoever says he loves God and hates his brother is a liar” (1 John 4:20), is a forceful reminder that the pairing is not always easy. For my reflection this morning, I would like to ask whether religious people may be especially tempted to suspend the link that ties them, and to do so precisely in the name of the first and greatest commandment. A common defense for doing so is that love of neighbor requires us to correct our neighbor’s failure to love God above all things, and that we owe it to our neighbor, out of care for his salvation, to give such needed correction (St. Augustine is eloquent on this very point).

I would like to suggest – and here I am borrowing from Karl Barth, who admittedly has yet to be declared a Father of the Church – that religion itself may become an idol when it undercuts that other commandment. “Love the sinner but hate the sin” is easy to say – and really difficult to pull off without sanctimony.

Michael J. Hollerich
Professor of Theology