The Called It The Shema

Text:   Mark 12:29-30

The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.""

When Jesus was asked which commandment of the law was the greatest of all, it was a question the scribes had debated for generations. There were 613 statutes that competed for preeminence. Repentance always ranked high, and of course there was the Sabbath. But the one Jesus named as the greatest was not even listed among the 613. It is found in Deuteronomy 6:4-9, 11:13-21, and Numbers 15:37-41 as a prayer. Devout Jews recite the Shema daily. He not only drew upon a commandment from Scripture – rather than one from a renowned rabbi – but the very one that lay at the heart of the Jewish faith. It was one Jesus himself had almost certainly quoted daily from childhood. They called it the Shema.

Our modern culture tends to focus on mental activity, “it’s the thought that counts,” we say. But biblical cultures were very action-oriented, and this is reflected even in the language. Many verbs that we consider mental activities (hearing, knowing, remembering, etc.) are broadened to include their physical outcomes as well. Understanding this is a great help when studying the Bible.

An excellent example of this is the word shema, (pronounced “shmah”), that has a primary meaning of “hear” or “listen.” In our culture listening is considered a mental activity, and hearing just means that our ears pick up the sounds. But in the Bible, the word shema is widely used to describe hearing and also its outcomes: understanding, taking heed, being obedient, doing what is asked. Any parent who has shouted at their children, “Were you listening?” when they ignored their request to clean up their rooms, understands that listening should result in action.

Almost every place we see the word “obey” in English in the Bible, it has been translated from the word shema. To “hear” is to “obey”! Try reading “obey” when you see the word “hear” or “listen” in the Scriptures, and note how the meaning is enriched.

Shema came to be profession of faith. In a pagan, polytheistic culture the Hebrews professed Yahweh, the God of Israel, to be not only the supreme God, but the only God. The New Jerusalem Bible renders it: “Listen, Israel: Yahweh our God is the one, the only Yahweh.” The other nations may have had so-called gods, but they were false. The God of Israel is the only God!

It is one of the Hebrew words that every Christian can easily learn – Shema! Like the observant Jew we are saying to ourselves, “Take heed! Listen and obey! Love God with all your life!” We can also make it an expression of our faith, and it is appropriate also to use it in praising God in our prayers as our Lord did. We use a few other Hebrew words in this way, such as Hallelujah, which means “praise Yahweh.” In our increasingly pluralistic, secularlistic society it behooves us not only to praise the God of heaven, but to honor him as the only God. We must declare to our world that its many gods are false gods that can neither hear nor act.

But Jesus used the Shema in a context quite different from its traditional use. He not only named it the greatest or first commandment, but named the second commandment as well. The first commandment was implied in the Shema: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.” The second commandment grew out of the first – it is “like” the first, Jesus said: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Neither was this on the list of the 613 considered by the rabbis!

It is impressive that Jesus gave such preeminence to these commandments. Not only did he say there was no commandment greater than these, but that “On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets” (Matthew 22:40). According to Mark, it was in this context – to a scribe who saw the significance of what Jesus was saying – that our Lord said, “You are not far from the kingdom of God” (Mark 12:34).

Knowing the greater meaning of shema helps us understand why Jesus says, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear!” He is calling us to put his words into action, not just listen. He wants us to be doers of the word, and not hearers only (James 1:22). Western thinking stresses the exercise of the intellect and tends to minimize the doing of the Word – some even viewing this as “dead works.” But Hebrew thinking emphasizes that we have not truly taken what we have heard into our hearts until it transforms our lives as well.

Is this the way we see it? Do we believe that people out there whose religion is to love God with all their heart and to love their neighbor as themselves are not far from the kingdom? Might they be even closer to the kingdom than ourselves?

Jesus is saying that love of God and love of humanity are the essence of revealed religion. All that the law says, and all that the prophets preached, are summed up in these two commandments. All ritual in temple or church yield in significance to love of God and man. To put it another way – and this may be what Jesus was saying – ritual, worship, and ceremony must be expressions of our love for God and others.