09/19/21 “Words of Life”

Deuteronomy 6:1-9; Mark 12:28-34

I love maps. You might remember that, last fall, Marc and I drove to Gatlinburg, Tennessee, for our first vacation since the pandemic started. I asked Marc if we had road maps of Kentucky and Tennessee, and he was pretty sure he had them in his car. As we neared the Kentucky-Ohio border, I opened the glove compartment to get out the maps. But, the map cupboard was bare! Marc had forgotten that he had cleaned out all his old maps. I was glad I had Google maps on my phone then, not to follow our course with but to find a book store or a AAA office where I could get my maps!

Even now, with the convenience of Google maps and GPS systems, I like to have a paper map when I set out on a trip. I like following our route, looking for intriguing city names or back roads, identifying the river or park we’re driving past. But, most importantly, a road map can show you the big picture, from where you start out to the place where you want to end up, and it can show you which route is the best one among all the possibilities.

Deuteronomy is something like a road map. It shows the reader where the Jewish people’s journey started and where they were going, and it shows the way they went to get there, both geographically and spiritually.

If you read it Deuteronomy, you might experience what Yogi Berra called “déjà vu all over again.” You might ask yourself, “Haven’t I already read this somewhere else?” The answer is, “Probably yes!” Of the first five books of the Bible Deuteronomy draws together information that’s found in the other four, including the history of the Jewish people and the laws they are to live by. Although tradition attributes Deuteronomy to Moses, its contents were probably gathered together, edited, and written down during the exile. This book was considered so authoritative for the Jewish community, that it’s among the most commonly quoted books in the New Testament. Jesus quoted from Deuteronomy more often than any other book.

The first few chapters recount the history of Israel after the exodus and before they got to the promised land. It reviews their journeys, how Moses spoke God’s words to the people, how they got cold feet about actually entering the promised land, and the years of desert wandering that were the result of their fear. We see poor Moses, standing on the mountain looking into the land he’ll never enter himself. Then, Moses once again delivers the law that has been given to the Israelites by God, including a review of the Ten Commandments which we first find in the book of Exodus.

Later come more rules and regulations that were to shape the life of God’s people in the civic and family arenas. But here, poised between these sections, our verses spell out the whole point of these laws. They aren’t designed just to keep a numerous and fractious people in line. They’re not just about placating God, as the pagan peoples had to placate their capricious and uncaring gods. No, these laws have a much greater purpose.

These commandments are to be kept by God’s people “so that their days may be long.” They are to be diligently observed, so that things will go well with them and they would multiply in their new land of milk and honey. the words of these commandments lead to full and abundant life.

You could read this as a “quid pro quo” from God—”you behave and I’ll give you long life.” But that’s not God’s intention. God has given the people these laws out of love for them, knowing that satisfying lives are possible only in communities where order is rooted in justice. More than that, following these laws will help keep them closer to God. “Keep all God’s decrees and commandments and keep them diligently,” Moses says. “so that your days will be long, and things may go well with you, and so that you may multiply greatly.” These rules aren’t about satisfying a tyrant god. They’re all about God’s concern for the well-being of God’s people.

Moses calls his people to obedience by speaking the beautiful words that begin, “Hear, O Israel.” These words are so important that, even now, many Jewish people repeat them three times a day—morning, evening, and at bedtime. They even has a special name: the Shema, which is the Hebrew word for “hear” or “listen.” Shema means to listen differently than you might when a radio is playing background noise. Shema calls the listener to pay attention. Shema demands that the hearer give his or her consent to what is heard and to obey what is heard. In the Shema, we hear both the reason why we are to hear and obey, and the ways in which we can make sure that we do.

“Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone.” There are two ways to understand this sentence, and I wonder if the ambiguity wasn’t built in on purpose. In the ancient near east, there were many gods. It was believed that power was shared among these gods. Even if one god was considered the head-honcho god, there were underling gods who served the supreme god. Or, the primary god might manifest itself in different ways, like a trick-or-treater putting on different masks.

But to these ideas, our God says “no.” The God of Israel is a singular God. There are no others who share the Lordship of the one, true God, and God shows only one face to the world. The Oneness of God is sufficient; God’s people have no need of other gods.

We are so used to connecting love to our faith that we might blow right by the command to love in the Shema. The word is often found in other ancient texts, but it means something different when God speaks it. In the pagan world, love had more to do with obedience; loving was obeying, obeying was loving, especially when you were talking about rulers and subjects. Obedience does fit with the idea that God’s people were in a covenantal relationship with God. But “love” here takes on a new meaning—a bigger meaning. Now, love becomes much more than obeying. Now, love is described as a relationship that demands every part of us.

Our entire lives are to be devoted to God—lock, stock, and barrel. Or, as Deuteronomy puts it, we are to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.” We are to love God with every inch of ourselves. We think of the heart as the seat of our emotions, but in ancient times it was believed to be the place where reason resided. All of our thoughts—all of our will—are to be part of our love for God. Every decision we come to, every choice we make, every opinion we claim has to fit within our love for God.

Our soul, in the ancient way of thinking, is where all our feelings, our hopes and dreams spring from. If the heart is source of our reason, the soul is the source of all the things that make us who we are. To love God with both our heart and soul—all of our heart and soul—means loving God with our whole selves.

We add to loving God with all our heart and soul, loving God with all our “might.” This is also an interesting word in Hebrew. It has to do with strength, but the nature of that strength is a little hard to pin down. Again, this ambiguity can serve us well. “Might” can refer to physical strength. Adding physical strength to our love for God makes our love even more all-encompassing. We love God with our minds and spirits, and also with our bodies.

The word “might” can also refer to emotional strength—the fortitude we need to remain faithful, in good times and bad. But, “might” can also mean “money.” Think about what that meaning does for our understanding of love for God—that we are to love God with all the ways we use our money.

Our love for God is to include, not just our thinking, not just our feelings, but also the most practical aspect of our lives. “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your stuff,” the translators might have said. “Love God with all you own and use. Love God with all you buy and sell, rent and rent out, save and spend, make and give.” Love God with all heart, with all your soul, and with all the resources at your disposal. That’s something to think about, isn’t it?

We love God with all that we are because God loves all that we are. We love God with all that we have because God loved us with all God had, including God’s own Son. Loving God with our whole selves keeps us close to God. The law that God gave Moses, and all the rules that grew out of it are simply tools to help God’s people do that.

Perhaps that’s why Jesus quoted this very important and well-known passage in his conversation with the scribe who asked him, “Which commandment is the most important one?” Earlier, the other scribes had been testing Jesus, trying to get him to make a mistake or show himself to be a phony. But this scribe had been listening in, and he had observed that Jesus’ answers were good ones. So he approached Jesus with his question.

Discussion about which of the 613 commandments in the Torah was most important was common among Jews in Jesus’ time. But, Jesus doesn’t get embroiled in any nit-picking now. His questioner is sincere, and Jesus gives him an answer that gets at what the man really needs to know. “How can I best be faithful to God?”

“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,” Jesus answers, quoting the Shema. Jesus, who knows all people’s hearts, must have been able to hear the question beneath the question. How can we best be faithful to God? By doing what the Shema prescribes: making our love for God an all-encompassing love.  It’s this all-encompassing love for God that leads us to abundant life, satisfying life—life that is multiplied by grace and hope and joy.

But Jesus doesn’t stop there. He adds a quote from Leviticus, In Leviticus it reads, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord.” Being faithful to God means loving God with all that we are and have, but we can’t just feel it. We have to act on it. That means loving all of God’s children in all the ways we love ourselves—caring for their bodies and spirits, in ways both spiritual and physical.

In our Bible study last Thursday, it was pointed out that the words of the Ten Commandments begin with God and end with neighbor. The Leviticus verse starts with neighbor and ends with the Lord. Jesus makes it clear that love of God and love of neighbor can’t be separated. Jesus makes it clear that love of God and love of neighbor together form the greatest commandment.

Imagine the look on that scribe’s face as he listened to Jesus. It must have been quite an “aha” moment, when everything fell into place. The scribe acknowledges the rightness of what Jesus has said and, when he speaks, he shows that he really gets it. Yes, together commandments are the key to a relationship with God, the key to covenantal faithfulness. They are so fundamental, he realizes, that they are more important than all the rites and rituals that have been so much a part of his life. And while they may still serve their purpose, the are incidental to what true faithfulness both springs from and entails: an all-encompassing love of God and a love for neighbor that mirrors the love we have for ourselves.

And then Jesus says something that must have just sent chills up and down the scribe’s spine. “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” Think of it! To know that what you believe and understand really is what God wants—really is what will keep you close to God.

I wonder if Jesus smiled at the scribe as he spoke, knowing that his own words had a double meaning. The man’s understanding was such that he knew almost all he needed to be part of God’s kingdom. He was spiritually close. But he was also physically close to the One who had brought the kingdom near. In that moment, he was standing in the presence of the kingdom. Until he understood that Jesus was the one bringing that kingdom near, he wouldn’t quite be there yet. But he wasn’t far off.

The question for us is, “How far are we from the kingdom of God?” Do we truly live out the words of the Shema and the words of Leviticus that Jesus combined into a single commandment for God’s people? Imagine a world where we each lived out the commandment to love God fully and love neighbors as we love ourselves. Imagine if everyone did that. Imagine a world where no child lives in a car because their parents can’t afford a place to live? Imagine the Food Pantry closed because there was no need? Imagine immigrants who are welcomed as brothers and sisters, or not needing a welcome at all because they can find safety and opportunity in their own countries. The list of possibilities is long, and the vision is enormous. When it happens, we’ll know that the kingdom has come in all its fullness.

But you may be thinking, “Yeah, right. Like that’s ever gonna happen, at least in my lifetime.” We may not see the completion of the kingdom, but every time we offer entire ourselves to God and take steps to truly love our neighbors—all our neighbors—as ourselves, the kingdom comes closer to its completion. Just because we can’t envision it doesn’t mean that it can’t happen or that we shouldn’t work toward it. As Scripture reminds us, “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”

The words of the Shema and Jesus’ words to the scribe have one purpose: to give us a map that leads us to the kingdom of God. They aren’t rules to place limits on our lives. They are rules that lead us to life. They are words that help us live fully into the kingdom of God. When we live out of our love for God, we grow closer to God and to our neighbors. When we love our neighbors as ourselves, we grow closer to our neighbors and to God. This is the ground from which satisfying lives grow.

“Hear, O Israel.” Hear, O people of God. Hear, pay attention, consent to and obey these words, for they lead to abundant life—life that’s not far from the kingdom of God. Amen.

~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young