Obedience and softness of heart


“Thus says the LORD:
This is what I commanded my people:
Listen to my voice;
then I will be your God and you shall be my people.
Walk in all the ways that I command you,
so that you may prosper.

But they obeyed not, nor did they pay heed.
They walked in the hardness of their evil hearts
and turned their backs, not their faces, to me.
From the day that your fathers left the land of Egypt even to this day,
I have sent you untiringly all my servants the prophets.
Yet they have not obeyed me nor paid heed;
they have stiffened their necks and done worse than their fathers.
When you speak all these words to them,
they will not listen to you either;
when you call to them, they will not answer you.
Say to them:
This is the nation that does not listen
to the voice of the LORD, its God,
or take correction.
Faithfulness has disappeared;
the word itself is banished from their speech.” (Jer 7:23-28)

In this first reading from Mass today, I’m struck by the interconnectedness of obedience to God and the state of our hearts. Jeremiah speaks harshly to those who won’t listen to God, and do not walk faithfully in God’s ways. The text provides some insight, though, into what it would mean to obey God.

Jeremiah emphasizes the virtue of listening. In prayer with God, we need to listen to God and not only to speak. Sitting in silence with God is a way to allow for God’s voice to arise and to address the deepest longings of our own hearts. Listening requires making room for another’s presence and another’s voice. Then we can respond.

Jeremiah notes the “hardness of heart” that characterizes disobedience. We need to be able to allow our hearts to be softened, and even to allow our hearts to be broken. For example, when we encounter the injustices of this world—war, racism, oppression, poverty, and the face of human suffering in all its forms—our temptation is to react protectively by hardening our hearts so that we don’t have to feel our natural responses. But hardness of heart and “stiffening our necks” doesn’t make us responsive to others, either. Only when we allow our hearts to stay soft and be willing to be heartbroken, do we stay open to love and to being responsive to injustice.

Listening to the Lord also means being personally willing to take correction, to see my own limit in a situation, although this also is painful. In matters of social justice, we can recognize how we participate in those structures of injustice, perhaps even inadvertently or unthinkingly, or how we fail to act actively against those structures when we have the opportunity to do so. In personal relationships, too, failing to act where we are called to be loving , forgiving, and generous is also failing to heed the word of God, who calls us to be harbingers of God’s peace and love in every circumstance.

Obedience to God is ultimately about surrender, and surrender to God is about a willingness to love fully and wholly, even into and all the way through brokenheartedness, just as Jesus in his ministry and Passion alike loved all the way.