Mk 12:28-34; Deut6: 4-9
by Catherine Lee
November 4, 2012
“This utterance of Israel is not a dictator. It will not impose its will. It can only issue its summons and its invitation and await a decision that is always to be made yet again.”
~ Walter Brueggemann, Theology of the Old Testament, 725
Last week I went and voted early at UNC. The polling station is above the cafeteria near South campus, where lots of first and second year students live. It’s a place swarming with 18 year old energy. A student gym is nearby, there’s a Starbucks on the ground floor. Across the courtyard is the back of Kenan Stadium, where the football team will play the next day. The young republicans and the young democrats have set up tables and are calling out to passersby, handing out pizza and candy, stickers, sample voting ballots, and lots of enthusiasm. I have Ian with me, and he is having a pretty good time. When you are four, you fit right into any setting filled with energy and enthusiasm. And when people older than you, but younger than your parents, are paying you lots of attention, smiling, high fiving, and offering you pizza and stickers, life is good.
As we walk back across campus we see one of the candidates’ buses roll by (I won’t say which one). It is slickly painted over with campaign slogans and graphics. We wave to the driver as she passes, because Ian likes buses, and there’s nothing better than an unusual looking bus. When you are four, you notice things. A few minutes later the bus comes up again on our side of the street and rolls to a stop next to us on the sidewalk. The driver puts down the window and waves, a door opens on the side, steps unfold from under the bus. Ian is enthralled. This might as well be the Starship Enterprise pulling up to your front door. A young campaigner pops out, greets us, and cooing over Ian leans down and hands him a button and a T-shirt. We wave goodbye as she climbs back in, steps tucking back up under the closing door, and off they go to collect more voters and spread more ardor.
As we make our way home, Ian clutches his T-shirt and asks me questions about the clasp mechanism on his button. I feel pulled in multiple directions. I may not be four, but I have to admit I am not unaffected by energy and enthusiasm. I may not be 18, but there is a part of me that still responds pretty “instinctually” to free pizza and T-shirts. But I also feel deeply conflicted about this election and our ways of engagement in national politics. I feel uncertain about the use of my child’s body as a walking billboard. I deeply long to be filled with hope and excitement and passion, but I’m not sure I can quite get there. I am drawn toward saturation, but I also resist it.
I thought about all of this as I read Deuteronomy this week. “Hear, O Israel, the LORD our God, the LORD is one. You will love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates” (6:4-9).
We do the sorts of things Deuteronomy lists here all the time: talk, bind symbols to our bodies, mark our homes. Just look around. In this political season it is easy to see: we wear T-shirts and buttons on our bodies and place signs in our yards to declare our political “affiliations.” But it’s not only in the arena of politics. In towns like Chapel Hill and Durham we define ourselves by the shade of blue we choose. Sports culture expresses its allegiance through facepaint and baseball caps, flags on porches and car windows. Our clothing tells people at a glance what is important to us through brand and style and logo. If you ask me about my Thrasher Magazine T-shirt, I will probably smile and tell you a story. Advertisers, of course, are oblivious to none of this, and we play along, often with bravado.
I’m not necessarily trying to criticize our tendency to mark ourselves according to our allegiances. (For one thing, it is too easy a rant…) I wonder if it is in some sense part of who we are, how we have our being in the world, even how we are created to be? In any case, it is clear we not only have our allegiances, but have a need to express them to one another.
And this sort of declaration of allegiance is the heart of Deuteronomy.
“Hear, O Israel, the LORD our God, the LORD is one. And you will love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.” This commandment from God to Israel was in practice, and still is, the central confession of Jewish faith. The verses are called the Shema. The Shema is a prayer recited in corporate worship, and it is a prayer recited privately twice a day, morning and night.
I imagine it like our Lord’s prayer, the way, for many of us, our attention is cued when we hear, “Our Father, who art in heaven,” and our minds and lips involuntarily move to speak the rest. I imagine it even more like Muslims at their call to prayer, the sound of a minaret, the rhythmic motion of bodies bowed. Or the reflexive way that Catholics cross themselves, a reactionary impulse of the body to the words “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” Or the practiced, smooth roll of my friend, Adriana’s bent, wrinkled, work worn fingers as they slide over her rosary beads. A genuflection of the spirit, acquired by the saturation of prayer.
The Shema is the repetition of words of deep memory. But it is also more than that. It is a call, a convening of an assembly that is always being formed, re-formed, re-identified, and reconstituted as God’s people. The Shema summons Israel, commands and assures it of God’s authority, God’s centrality to its day-to-day life. The Shema commands Israel to take up “a will, purpose, and identity other than any it might have taken for itself. The imperative brings Israel into a defining relationship, whereby this people now lives completely in the sphere of [God]’s will and purpose.”
The Shema is a revolutionary prayer. It is not a quiet exercise of escapism. It is not speculation on metaphysics or the oneness or unity of God. Legend has it that Akiba, a Jewish rabbi in the 2nd century, was reciting the Shema as the Romans tortured him to death. The Shema is the rallying cry of a people different from, often oppressed by, the powers and principalities of a world with other allegiances. It defines and redefines Israel every time it is spoken. It is a declaration of allegiance to the reign of God, the one to whom Israel offers all of itself.
So what does it mean when Jesus takes these words to his lips?
One of the scribes came and heard them debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked him, “Of all the commandments, which is the ‘first,’ the most important?” “The ‘first,’ most important one is this: ‘Hear O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one. And you will 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 the second is this: ‘You will love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.” And the scribe replied, “Well said, teacher. You are right in saying that God is one and there is no other but God. To love God with all your heart and with all your understanding and with all your strength, and to love your neighbour as yourself is more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.” When Jesus saw that he had answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” And from then on no one dared ask him any more questions.
The scribe’s question to Jesus, “which [commandment] is the most important?” was a common enough question for teachers to ask of each other in Jesus’ time. And Jesus gives, really, a common enough answer.
“The ‘first,’ most important one…is this: ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one. And you will 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 the second is this: ‘You will love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.”
Jesus’ answer is the Shema, with a very Jewish addition about loving your neighbor. His answer comes straight from the heart of Jewish orthodoxy. When Jesus responds to the scribe, he speaks words burned into the consciousness of Israel.
Jesus does change things a little. He adds the phrase, “love the Lord your God with all your mind” and he makes loving your neighbor, in effect, explicitly part of the core of the Law. He expands the Shema, stretches it. He’s even a little cheeky about it. (He starts by saying, “the most important one,” then unapologetically offers two commandments and ends with the comment “there is no greater commandment than these.”) He takes the center of Israel’s prayer life and plays around, adds to it.
But his addition here about loving your neighbor isn’t novel. The Old Testament is full of commands about how to treat your neighbor, dozens of references, most of them concerning ethical treatment and right action. That’s a longwinded way of saying, the Old Testament tells people very clearly, “love your neighbor as yourself.” It’s a phrase we Christians have taken up. We repeat to each other as our summary of how to be in the world. But it isn’t really ours. Its origin is an obscure quote buried, word for word, in the middle of Leviticus of all places (Lev 19:18). If the phrase is a little obscure, it wasn’t unknown. Jesus wasn’t even the first to pair it with the Shema; other rabbis and teachers had paired the two commandments to love God and neighbor together before Jesus did. Maybe the scribe in our story had paired them together before? Maybe that’s why it rolls off his tongue so easily when he repeats it back to Jesus? In any case, Jesus isn’t saying anything new here.
Which must account for the rather blasé, general lack of enthusiasm I found as I flipped through commentaries on this passage. Scholars say things like, “Jesus’ answer here is thoroughly non-controversial,” “thoroughly Jewish,” even “unremarkable.” We might expect something a little different, a little racier. This is Jesus, after all. Jesus, the one who threw the tables over in the Temple courts, the one who challenges the religious authorities in their own synagogues, the one who strikes fear in the hearts of priests and scribes to the point that they are plotting murder: here he is, offering a summary of the Law that places him squarely at the center of Jewish piety and prayer.
And there’s something else. There’s a case to be made that this story marks the climax of Jesus’ teaching. After this chapter, there are no more questions or confrontations, no more parables, no more healings or exorcisms. This is it. The next chapter is going to take a turn. Jesus is going to challenge the entire religious establishment once and for all, prophesying the destruction of the Temple, and shortly thereafter he is going to be killed.
In this climactic moment of Jesus’ teaching, of his confrontations with Jewish religious leaders on interpretations of God’s Law, of his proclamation of the kingdom of God, Jesus says, “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one…”
What effect did it have on those who were listening? Was there a regular, particular tone that priests and rabbis used in public settings? They say you can easily identify actors who aren’t actually Catholic when they cross themselves on film: the motion, the pace is always off. Did the Shema have its own particular, instantly recognizable cadence? Did Jesus use it here? Did it catch his audience’s attention, reach some deep place in their spirits tapped by years of repetition, of speech, of hearing? If so, that strikes me as anything but “unremarkable.” Jesus, the Word made flesh, speaking the words of the heart of Israel.
The Shema, remember, is a summons. It is a call to “hear.” And those who listen, those who answer that summons, they become, are, and remain the people of God—by hearing. And by hearing anew, hearing again, hearing afresh. Jesus sums up God’s Law with the call to love the one God totally, completely, exhaustively, and to love God’s child, the neighbor. With the call to be a people defined by that love.
And then Jesus slips in one more line. When the scribe agrees with Jesus’ answer, repeats it, and adds his reflection, Jesus responds, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” And after that, “from then on” Mark says with a sense of finality, “no one dared to ask him any more questions” (34).
It sounds a bit like Jesus’ response, “You are not far from the kingdom of God,” is a commendation to the scribe, a pat on the back. I’m not entirely sure. There’s a long list of reasons to view the scribe with a fair amount of ambiguity, but I’m not going to go into that here. Let me just say that this story sits in a larger narrative, and I don’t think the main point is to evaluate the holiness of a scribe. I don’t think that’s what we should do with the line about the kingdom of God—make it all about the one guy.
What interests me is that Jesus equates his summary of the Law and his summons of God’s people—and the scribe’s repetition and reflection on it—with nothing less than the kingdom of God. He makes a connection between the prayer and the kingdom.
Jesus redefines Israel, redefines the people of God by calling to them, “Hear, O Israel…” That’s what the Shema does: it redefines every time it is spoken. But then Jesus makes it clear that his redefinition is on his terms, those of the Son of Man, those of the kingdom of God. Jesus issues a declaration of allegiance to God and then defines that as his in-breaking kingdom. And this, this silences his opponents for good.
We, the church, call ourselves the people of God. We try to be, we hope to be. I pray that we will have the courage and the faith to say to ourselves and to each other:
“Hear, O people of God. The Lord our God, the Lord is one. And you will 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 you will love your neighbor as yourself.”
We need to say it, and keep saying it, over and over again. Because what we need is to hear that summons. To receive it. So that we remember. So that we do not forget. So that the love of God can fill us and flow out from us and fill us again.
For we are a people who require saturation. We will by instinct hang things on our bodies and decorate our homes in ways that declare our allegiances, large and small. We respond to repetition and energy and enthusiasm.
So we will keep speaking and calling each other to hear. We will keep reminding each other of the radical nature of our prayers. We will keep reconstituting ourselves as the people of God, keep calling each other back to the vocation of our humanity, our true humanity found and formed and exemplified in Christ.
Hear, O church: the Lord our God, the Lord is one. And you will 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 you will love your neighbor as yourself.
Lord, have mercy. Amen.
 Walter Brueggemann, Deuteronomy, 83.
 N.T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God, 199, 248.
 N.T. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God, 305; Craig A. Evans, Mark 8:27-16:20, Word Biblical Commentary, Vol. 34, 264.
 Evans, 265.
 Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, I. 2.381.