Updated: Nov 22, 2021
If you have attended a Shabot service in Hebrew, you would hear this prayer, known by its first word, "Shema." "Sh'ma Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Eḥad - "Hear, O Israel: the LORD is our God, the LORD is One." It is a practice to say this in the morning upon rising and evening the evening before sleep. It rolls off the tongue as automatically for Jews as "Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name," does for Christians. These are prayers that one never forgets. I have made pastoral visits where a person seemed to be unable to speak, unable to hear my words, or near death, and when I say, "Our Father" out loud, their lips begin to move in rhythm with mine. They may not recognize their children, but these words never pass from their consciousness. Such are the words of the Sh'ma.
Sh'ma may translate, "Hear O Israel" or "Listen up, people!" but it also conveys "Listen and do." Do what? The prayer comes from Deuteronomy 6, and it follows the ten commandments and a brief speech by Moses that this is the Greatest Commandment:
You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. 6 Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. 7 Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. 8 Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, 9 and write them on the doorposts of your house and your gates.
Put a reminder in your Google calendar, stick it on your refrigerator with a magnet, make it your screen saver. Hear O Israel, Listen and do, People! God is the source; God is oneness; you are called to love your divine creator and source with all your passion and prayer, intelligence, and energy. Love God with all your soul, the part of you that is more than blood and bone. Love God with all your might, all your energy, strength, and courage. Moses implies that faith is not just a good idea, a comforting ritual, or a cultural identity. Faith is a great passion. Moses understood what was at stake with his congregation of liberated slaves. They lived in the wilderness in between bondage and autonomy. Without their eyes on the prize, they could be back in Egypt. Without passion, without a connection to God, they would not find wholeness and freedom. As AA attests, you need a higher power to break the chains of the past. So, Moses is adamant in Deuteronomy about the need to stir yourself every day, to live in oneness with God.
It should not surprise us at all that Jesus would answer the scribe's question about the greatest commandment by reciting the Sh'ma. It is not a trick question. It's like asking a pastor how Jesus prayed. "Give us this day our daily bread, forgive us as we forgive others…." Jesus has just handled much more demanding questions, like should you pay taxes to Caesar, and if a woman had seven husbands, who would she be married to in heaven? I think this scribe may have been sympathetic to Jesus, and this softball question reveals Jesus is deeply grounded in the law of Moses.
We often go astray because we lose touch with the most fundamental truth. God is your source. God is one and the source of all oneness, the giver of wholeness. Before all the hard questions and living into the challenges of life, this is the Christian path. As the Westminster Catechism states, "The chief end of a human being is to love God and enjoy God forever." The 2nd-century theologian Irenaeus said, "The glory of God is a human being fully alive." Faith happens in more ways than being blinded like Paul on the road to Damascus, or the day you are baptized, or even feeling an experience of being spiritually born anew. It is a daily relationship, a oneness that is the fruit of mindful awareness, that we live and move and have our being in God.
The big question that may be forming in your mind, because it does in mine, is this: How do I love God? I'm still working on loving people. I can give a hug, I can say, "I love you," and Jeanne says, "I love you too." I can pray to God and say, "I love you," but I have no honest feedback on how that lands. It is hard for me to even speak of what kind of being God is, let alone express a love of the ineffable, beyond all-knowing, being who is called God.
Jesus helps us with part two of his answer. Loving God and loving humans is not only similar; it is all one thing. Love your neighbor as yourself. They are God's creation too. God is pleased when you love what God also loves. Any way you put more love out into the world, you are loving God. As Jesus said, whenever you give even a cup of cold water, you did it to me. Why? Because God is one, and we are one with God when we love one another.
Again, this is very basic. Jesus is quoting straight from Leviticus 19:18, which is a chapter of commentary on the 10 Commandments. Leviticus says to be holy, don't take vengeance on others, don't hold a grudge, don't profit by the blood of your neighbor, don't slander people, don't tweet about them, but love your neighbor as yourself. Why? Because you are one, and if you hurt your neighbor, you have damaged the fabric of life itself. Faith is more than having the proper ethics, finding the right ideology, voting in the right way, volunteering, though all these may be done with love. Love is having a great passion for the well-being of others, for all life, for all of creation, and acting upon it.
This love is more than warm feelings or being nice and friendly. The same Jesus who has just spared with the chief priests, Pharisees, Sadducees is saying love one another. In the context of Mark 12, he turned over the money changers tables the day before yesterday. And he sees no contradiction between this and the Great Commandment to love. You can love and resist. But don't hate, don't harbor a grudge, love all of God's people even, even the jerks, as you stand for justice. You can't change what you don't love.
We must always be mindful of this connection of loving God and neighbor because one does not exist without the other. Anyone who claims to love God while hating their neighbor is not a practicing Christian; they are a bigot. People often ask whether you can be good without God. I know many people who are not Christian who love others. Agnostics and atheists can be moral people and wish the best for others. Of course, I believe God created them and put the capacity for love in them, whether they realize it or accept it. To me, the real question isn't can you be good without God? My question is - Can you ever be without God? It is in God we live and move and have our being so that anyone can love.
Whenever you get lost in the labyrinth of complex moral issues, frustrations, deep questions, the Great Commandment is where you return to find yourself again. It grounds us again in the profound oneness of God's love permeating our being. And we need to do practice it daily, reminding ourselves as we rise and as we go to sleep.
One of the best books of Christian spirituality ever written was by a monk named Brother Lawrence. He was not a bishop or a theologian, or even a poet. He was the kitchen steward responsible for supplies and cleaning the kitchen. The title sums up his spirituality, "The Practice of the Presence of God." This practice does not take lots of extra time, or training, or special skills. It is simply being aware in all that we do, not only prayer and good deeds but also making dinner and doing dishes, teaching a child, comforting the sick, making peace, doing justice. Be mindful of the presence of God.
Stop for a moment and close your eyes and be mindful of God's presence. What does it feel like for God to be near you? Perhaps it is like the golden light shining through the window or feeling safe and held, feeling unafraid. Put your hand on your forehead for just a moment. Can you feel the warmth of your touch? As you feel the pressure of your hand and as it warms, also feel the touch of God as it warms you. Feel it in your head, feel it in your heart, feel it in your being, your soul. You are one with God, filled with the glory of God. And the glory of God is you living fully alive. "Sh'ma Yisrael. Listen up. You are one with God as you love with passion, intelligence, and energy. God, self, and others it's all connected when you love." Amen.