The Christian Shema
By Dr. Philip W. McLarty
The story is told of a little boy whose father taught mechanical engineering at a prestigious university. One day he came in the back door and asked his mother, “What time is it?” She wasn’t wearing a watch; plus, she was busy, so she said, “Your father’s in the living room, go ask him.” The little boy shrugged his shoulders and said, “Never mind. I don’t want to know how to make a watch; I just want to know what time it is!”
When it comes to religion and our understanding of the Christian faith, I suspect there are times when we all feel like this little boy. For example, there are sixty-six books of the Bible. Many of them are long and complex. For each book of the Bible there are commentaries explaining every nuance of every verse.
If that weren’t enough, there are books on just about every conceivable topic of the Bible. There are books on church doctrine, Christian ethics and the history of Christianity. There are books on worship, mission, education, stewardship and prayer. Christian writers are all too happy to tell you how to improve your prayer life, your sex life, your golf score and your investment portfolio.
O.K., I’m exaggerating. The point is you could read all day, every day, for the rest of your life and still not make a dent in the mountain of information available on understanding the Christian faith and what it means to walk in the footsteps of Jesus.
A church member dropped by my study one day and said he’d signed up for a religion class at the local community college. He said he was hoping to borrow some of the books on his syllabus. With that, he handed me a four-page bibliography. I kid you not – four pages! Not only did I not have many of the books he was looking for, I’d never heard of most of them!
There’s a mountain of literature out there and the problem is, if we’re not careful, like the little boy wanting to know what time it is, we’ll find ourselves so overwhelmed with the enormity of it all we’ll shrug our shoulders and say, “Never mind.”
And that’s the point of the sermon this morning: Without oversimplifying the faith, we need to keep it simple. Like a clear and concise mission statement, we need something tangible and concrete upon which to build our faith. It needs to have enough substance to give us purpose and direction, yet not be so weighty as to drag us down. It needs to be brief enough to memorize and simple enough for a child to understand. And the Good News is this: Hidden in the maze of all the literature before us, there is such a nugget of truth, and it’s called, The Great Commandment. Say it with me, if you like:
“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind…You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Matthew 22:37-40)
My hope is, before you leave the service today, you’ll come to love this passage and be able to say it by memory, so that it will become the rock upon which to ground your faith.
Let’s begin by going back to the roots of the Great Commandment in the Old Testament. There are actually two references. The first is the Book of Deuteronomy. According to scripture, Moses got all of the people of Israel to gather at the base of Mount Sinai and gave them the Ten Commandments. And then he said,
“Now this is the commandment… which Yahweh your God commanded to teach you… that you might fear Yahweh your God…Hear, Israel: Yahweh is our God; Yahweh is one: and you shall love Yahweh your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. These words, which I command you this day, shall be on your heart; and you shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise up. You shall bind them for a sign on your hand, and they shall be for symbols between your eyes. You shall write them on the door posts of your house, and on your gates.” (Deuteronomy 6:1-2; 4-9)
Jews refer to this parting word of Moses as The Shema – or Shema Israel – because those are the first two words of the commandment: “Hear, Israel…”
It was – and is to this day – the most important prayer of the Jewish faith. It’s the centerpiece of every Jewish service. It’s taught to every Jewish child and recited twice a day by every devout man or woman.
It serves as a ready defense in times of crisis. For example, it’s said that, during the Holocaust, as Jews were rounded up like cattle and driven into the gas chambers to be slaughtered, the dying words on the lips of many were the words of The Shema:
“Hear, Israel: Yahweh is our God; Yahweh is one: and you shall love Yahweh your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.”
In the gospel lesson for today, Jesus himself used the Shema to deflect the attack of the Jewish leaders. And make no mistake about it – it was an attack. In the passage this morning, the lawyer wasn’t asking for wise counsel, he was looking for a way to entrap Jesus and convict him with his own words. He said, “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the law?”
It was a land mine, waiting to explode.
Here’s the hidden agenda: The Jewish law contained six-hundred and thirteen commandments. Two-hundred and forty-eight were positive commandments: “You shall…” Three-hundred and sixty-five were negative commandments: “You shall not…”
Some like to say that the negative commandments correspond to the days of the year and the positive commandments, the parts of the human body. But that’s just to help you remember. For one thing, Jews follow a lunar calendar, not the Gregorian calendar we use. And who can say, really, how many body parts there are? For example, we know that there are two-hundred and six bones in the body. Does that mean there are only forty-two other parts? And how are they counted? Do toes count as one body part or ten? You see the problem.
The point is, however you want to remember it, there are six-hundred and thirteen commandments in the Torah, the majority of which are no-noes. And, at least in Jesus’ day, all were considered to be equally binding. The lawyer was trying to get Jesus to single out one over all the others and, by so doing, commit an act of heresy.
But Jesus was nobody’s fool. He obviously knew that it’s impossible to live by the letter of six-hundred and thirteen commandments. As importantly, he knew that it’s not the letter of the law that matters so much as the spirit of the law, and the spirit of the law is this: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your mind. If you do this, your actions are certain to glorify God.
I had a woman in my church in Odessa who did more good for more people, day by day, than all the rest of us combined. She’d take soup to someone who was ill, or flowers to someone in the hospital, or visit someone in the nursing home. You could find her footprints all over town. But she’d never have you know it. She gave of herself anonymously and she did so, not because she was obligated in any way, but because she loved God and was grateful for all the ways God had blessed her life. “I have so much to be thankful for,” she’d say, “It’s the least I can do.”
Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul and mind and your actions are certain to glorify God. That’s the essence of the Shema.
But Jesus didn’t stop there. He went on to combine the Shema with another commandment, this one from the Book of Leviticus. He said, “…but you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
The context of this commandment has to do with living in community with others. In the Old Testament, it included such things as rules pertaining to the harvest – not to reap the field to the border or gather the gleanings or strip the vineyards bare, but to leave a little behind for the poor and the sojourner. (Leviticus 19:9-10) It required employers to pay their laborers at the end of the day and not keep their wages overnight. (Leviticus 19:13) It demanded justice and precluded partiality for any reason. (Leviticus 19:15) Then it went on to say,
“You shall not take vengeance, nor bear any grudge against the children of your people; but you shall love your neighbor as yourself. I am Yahweh.” (Leviticus 19:18)
Then, as now, it’s tempting to substitute religious piety for social responsibility, to ignore the beggar on the way to church. In fact, the two go hand in hand: To love God is to love others, and to love others is to love God. Nowhere is this stated more clearly than in the First Letter of John where it says,
“If a man says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who doesn’t love his brother whom he has seen, how can he love God whom he has not seen? This commandment we have from him, that he who loves God should also love his brother.” (1 John 4:20-21)
This two-fold nature of loving God and loving the neighbor is embedded in the Ten Commandments. The first four have to do with our relationship to God: Don’t worship any other God than Yahweh; don’t make any idols; don’t take the Lord’s name in vain; keep the Sabbath holy. The other six have to do with our relationship with each other: Honor your father and your mother; don’t kill; don’t commit adultery; don’t steal; don’t lie; and don’t covet what other people have.
In giving Moses the Law, God made it clear: A life of faith consists of devotion to God and service to others, not one or the other. In combining the Shema with the laws of Leviticus, Jesus restored the balance of faith the Pharisees had lost, and, in so doing, he created a new Shema – a “Christian Shema,” if you will:
“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
Like the Shema of the Jewish Faith, the Great Commandment cuts through the verbiage and gives us something brief enough to memorize, simple enough to understand, concrete enough to put into practice, yet profound enough to serve as the basis of deeper faith and understanding. I don’t know of a better summary of the Christian Faith or a more substantial creed by which to live and, in fact, Jesus said,
“The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments.”
I’m sure you’ve heard this before, but there’s actually a symbol of the Great Commandment we see around us every day. Do you know what I’m talking about?
It’s the Cross. The vertical beam points us to God and reminds us that, first and foremost, we’re to love God with every fiber of our being. The horizontal beam reminds us that we live in community with each other and that the truest test of faith is our sympathy and service to others in the name of Jesus Christ.
So, what does this have to do with us today? I’d like to think that, in some small way, the tithes and pledges we are about to dedicate to God reflect the spirit of the Great Commandment, that the money we give to the church is a symbol of our devotion to God.
For one thing, it makes possible a beautiful and attractive place to worship. We all know that the church is not the building, yet it is a visible reminder of the presence of God. People pass this church every day and, when they see the tower and the cross and the stained-glass windows, they feel the strength of God’s power and know that God is in the midst of our community.
We also know that the church is not confined to these four cozy walls, that the Church of Jesus Christ is a church in mission – feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, welcoming the stranger, befriending the outcast. The money we give to the church makes possible our outreach and mission. It supports efforts like Hope in Action and the Christian Charitable Medical Clinic; it helps pay for gasoline and utility bills; it contributes to programs like the Frances Landers Homes in Haiti and summer camps for children and youth in our Presbytery.
So, we give our tithes and offerings in devotion to God and in service to others, and that’s the spirit of the Great Commandment, the Christian Shema. Commit it to memory. Say it often. Put it into practice.
“‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the first and great commandment. A second likewise is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments.”
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
Copyright 2008 Philip W. McLarty. Used by permission.
Scripture quotations are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible.