Hear, O Israel! A Call Ever Ancient and Ever New
The ancient world was home to many peoples and traditions. Like peoples today, questions arose in these cultures about how things came to be the way they are. Why does the sun shine only during the day? Why do the seasons change? Why do people do bad things sometimes? Why do they ever do good things? What will happen if nothing changes?
Cultures throughout the world and throughout history have struggled with these types of questions and have developed their own explanations of how things came to be and what is possible. In the ancient world, most peoples explained the physical world they saw around them and the events in their world with stories of gods – supernatural, immortal beings who were responsible for the creation of the world and the major events that affected the lives of humans. Is there a drought? It’s because the god of rain has been offended. Is there too much rain? Might be the same reason. Are we hoping for a good harvest? Then pray to the god of the harvest and offer a sacrifice of something that god likes.
There were many cultures and all had their own gods, with their own names. Yet as people from these cultures met, traded goods, and sometimes fought with each other, they noticed that many of their gods were the same as in the other culture. They realized some of these might actually be the same god, but with different names. It didn’t bother them. Sometimes they welcomed a new deity into their own religious beliefs, especially if that new one offered something new of value to them. Only when one people was conquered by another and the new one demanded that everyone worship the conquering people’s deities did issues arise. Generally, there was simply a sense that gods were active in particular areas and not in others. This was why Abram was surprised to find God present in all the lands he visited during his lifetime. Abram and his family lived in many different lands, yet God was present in all of them.
The Israelites differed from the people of surrounding countries and even of the land of Canaan in which they lived. They believed in a single deity. This deity was not like humans, with wives and children and battles with rival deities. Theirs was one God. Period. End of conversation.
The first reading for the Thirty-first Sunday in Ordinary Time reminds us of this unique perspective of the Hebrew people and its formulation. Moses has brought the tablets of the Law down from Mt. Sinai to the people. God has offered a contract, an agreement, a holy covenant to them. God will be their God and they will be His people. He is Lord (ruler) of all. He can command and they will obey. In return, He will protect them and give them rich harvests and security in the lands they inhabit. (Dt 6:2-6)
Moses speaks powerful words, words that have echoed through the centuries and are recited as part of both morning and evening prayer by faithful Jews. They are even worn in special garments as a reminder. “Hear, O Israel! The LORD is our God, the LORD alone!” This proclamation is known as the Shema. It is known and recited by Jews around the world and throughout history. What follows this first bold statement is a summation of the covenant responsibilities of the people: Love the Lord with all your heart, soul, and strength. This is the first and fundamental requirement of the Law and the Covenant.
The Psalmist sings with love and joy of this relationship with the LORD (Ps 18:2-4, 47, 51). “I love you, Lord, my strength.” He speaks of the LORD as a rock, a fortress, a shield, a stronghold. He praises the LORD for being a savior and bringing victory to the anointed king of the nation.
As a good Jew, Jesus also knew and recited the Shema.
After he entered the city of Jerusalem, he began going to the temple daily and teaching there. The priests, scribes, and elders of the temple noticed his activities and began to speak with him. His reputation had preceded him and many were likely concerned that he would awaken the hostile interest of the Romans, bringing danger to all. Members of various schools of thought among the Jewish leaders and scholars began to question him in the temple. Jesus answered many questions. Sometimes he asked another question instead of answering them directly, because he knew they were trying to trap him using his own words. Sometimes he told a story as answer to the question.
One day, a scribe heard Jesus talking with a group of Sadducees. He was impressed by Jesus’ answer to their questions and his manner of interacting with them. The scribe, a man who had specialized in study of the Law, asked Jesus a simple question (Mk 12:28b-34). “Which is the first of all the commandments?” Jesus responded by reciting the Shema. “Hear, O Israel! The Lord our God is Lord alone!” Jesus recited the entire verse. Then he added a second commandment, taken from the book of Leviticus 19:18, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
The scribe complimented Jesus on his response. “Excellent, Teacher! You are right…” He noted that loving one’s neighbor was much more important in pleasing God than offering many sacrifices. Jesus saw that this scribe was a man of great insight, not focused on the letter of the law so much as on the implications of what it meant. Jesus complimented him in return, “You are not far from the reign of God.” These words echo the belief that reciting the Shema and making its words the fundamental basis of one’s life is really receiving the kingdom of Heaven (of God).
Jesus spoke as one with authority. The author of Hebrews (Heb 7:23-28) describes him as the one whose priesthood is not based on being a descendant of Jacob’s son Levi but rather on an eternal priesthood stemming from the earlier promise God made to Melchizedek, a promise of eternal priesthood. This new high priest, Jesus, is not a descendant of Levi, but as high priest he brings the ancient Levitical priesthood to a close, offering himself to bring reconciliation between God and humanity. He is the son who has been made perfect forever.
You and I are not expected to be perfect. We will never be perfect. However, we too are called to remember the two great commandments. “Hear, O Israel…” We are children of Abraham through our adoption as sisters and brothers of Jesus. God is One. There is no other. We are to love God with all our being and our neighbors near and far as ourselves. These commands are to be written in our hearts and minds and entire being.
How am I doing with that? Am I expecting God to act like I would act when dealing with the challenges and frustrations I face in daily living? Or am I taking time to remember instead that I am to try to love as God loves in response to those challenges? Do I take time to pray each morning? Do I remember to chat with God during the day? Do I say thank you at the end of the day?
Hear, O Israel … and Kathy too!